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Peruvian Coffee: One Of The Coffee World’s Best-Kept Secrets
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“Peruvian coffee? I didn’t even know there was such a thing!”
You’re not alone.
Sure, you’ve probably heard of Colombian coffee, whether it’s because you’ve sampled its sweet, mellow acidity – or because you’ve seen ads featuring Juan Valdez, a mythical Colombian farmer who’s been pushing the country’s coffee in the United States for years.
You may be familiar with Brazilian coffee, and its smooth, often-bittersweet flavor which tastes of chocolate and roasted nuts.
Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras. All of those Central American nations produce coffee that is somewhat popular in America. But Peru?
Absolutely. Peruvian coffee may not be familiar to most American coffee lovers, but it should be. The best coffee from Peru can stand up to competition from any of its Latin or South American neighbors.
It’s time to learn more about this delicious brew.
The Long History of Peruvian Coffee
It makes sense that Peruvian farmers would be able to successfully grow coffee plants. After all, it’s located directly south of Colombia, one of the world’s most revered coffee-growing nations.
Surprisingly, the coffee plant arrived in Peru long before it was introduced to Colombia. And Peruvian farmers were producing the crop throughout the 1700s; commercial coffee production didn’t begin in Colombia until 1809. Almost all of Peru’s production, though, was for domestic consumption.
The situation changed for an odd reason: coffee rust. (That’s somewhat ironic, as you’ll learn shortly.) Coffee rust is an incurable fungus that can ravage harvests, and in the late 1800s, it destroyed the then-dominant coffee plantations in Sri Lanka and Java. Coffee buyers in Europe frantically searched for new sources, and Peru was a likely candidate.
Peru’s coffee industry was growing anyway. European investment in the nation’s coffee farming industry gave it a huge boost, with England owning most of the plantations. In the years before World War I, coffee made up 60% of Peru’s total exports and it became the engine that drove the country’s economy.
Because of the two World Wars, however, England pulled out of Peru. That meant local farmers took over the land and were able to profit from it; unfortunately it also meant they no longer had solid connections to foreign markets for coffee. As a result, the growth of Peru’s coffee industry slowed considerably. Other issues also made it tough for the nation to become one of the world’s leaders, including a lack of modern infrastructure, a crash in market prices, and on-and-off guerilla warfare.
By the early 2000s, Peru’s coffee industry was on the move again – until its crops were hit by coffee rust in 2013, the same fungus that had jump-started their initial move into the market more than 100 years earlier. Production and exports sank, and it took a few years for the industry to recover.
There was one “bright side.” The dominant coffee grown in Peru for many years was the Typica varietal, which is one of the original and most important of the Arabica coffee plants – and one particularly susceptible to coffee rust. It’s still cultivated in Peru now, but farms have largely shifted to hardier varieties of Typica, along with other types of Arabica plants like Catimor. That means the nation is less in danger of coffee rust outbreaks going forward.
Today, Peru ranks 11th on the list of coffee exporting nations, but it’s the second-largest coffee producer among all countries in South America (behind Colombia). It’s the world’s fifth-largest exporter of Arabica coffee, and coffee beans are the nation’s second largest agricultural export.
That makes it sound like Peruvian coffee is all the same, but it’s not. Read on.
Today’s Peruvian Coffee
Peru’s coffee growers still have to deal with several major obstacles to their success.
- Infrastructure in the country is much less robust than in most Latin American coffee-producing nations; roads are a particular problem, making the transportation of crops difficult.
- Peru’s climate can be unpredictable; unexpected heavy rains can trigger coffee plants’ flowering stages and short-circuit the normal growth cycle, and cause coffee cherries (the fruit that contains beans) to fall to the ground and become ruined.
- Regional cooperatives like Cenfrocafe exist in some areas, but the majority of coffee farms in Peru are independent and small (less than three hectares in size). The lack of a large-scale, organized coffee industry lessens farmers’ ability to effectively negotiate with buyers.
Despite those challenges, however, Peru’s coffee producers persevere and supply the world with high-quality specialty coffees.
It’s easy to think of Peru as a relatively-small country on South America’s Pacific coast. In reality, it’s not small at all. It’s actually larger than France, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom – and it’s twice as big as Texas.
That, plus the fact that the nation’s topography varies widely, makes it easier to understand how there can be ten separate coffee-growing regions in Peru. Some coffee farmers grow their plants in high altitudes, while others are in lower elevations close to sea level. Some deal with jungle conditions, others are in mountainous areas. And the characteristics of the beans grown in each region can be quite different.
The northern section of Peru is located near its borders with Ecuador and Colombia. There’s a geographic mix of coastal land, mountains and tropical jungle, so the coffee farms up north vary widely in the types of plants they can grow and the coffee beans they produce.
The sweet coffees that some aficionados associate with Peru come primarily from the Cajamarca region, where provinces like San Ignacio and Jaén produce most of the region’s beans. Seven provinces in the Amazon jungle region known as Amazonas (and to its north) produce coffee, with some of the farms located on the slopes of the Andes mountains. And the coastal coffee zone of Puira also exports coffee, albeit in smaller amounts.
The central part of the country lies between Brazil and the Pacific Ocean, and is home to the capital of Lima. It’s also home to three of Peru’s coffee-growing regions.
The best coffee from central Peru comes from the large Junin growing region. Chanchamayo coffee is well-known among coffee nerds for its acidic and delicious flavors; Satipo coffee also comes from this area.
Huánuco is on the edge of the Andes, and the region produces both standard Arabica beans and terrific specialty coffee. The nearby Pasco region produces much less coffee because of its difficult jungle climate, but the beans from the area are still high-quality.
There’s much more in the south of Peru than Machu Picchu. Located between the ocean and the nations of Bolivia and Chile, southern Peru boasts three regions producing coffee for export, from the outstanding beans produced in southern-most Puno and southeastern Cuzco, to the newer, higher-elevation farms in the Ayacucho region.
None of these areas produce a high volume of coffee beans, but their quality is high, and the soil quality in the south is conducive to organic coffee growing.
If you’re lucky enough to find a source offering a variety of Peruvian coffee beans, which one should you choose? Let’s get into the details.
The Many Flavors of Peruvian Coffee
If you had to come up with an overall summary of what Peruvian coffee is like, you’d start with light body and mild-to-medium acidity. It’s pleasant to drink, and even though that might sound somewhat like the definition of ordinary, decent coffee, there’s much more to it than that.
Peru coffee is usually produced in small batches, and a surprising amount is certified organic. You’ll also find that a large number of Peruvian coffee producers are fair trade certified; there’s been a concerted effort to ensure ethical treatment of farmers and workers, so fair trade coffee from Peru has become almost the rule rather than the exception.
The different flavor profiles characteristic of each varietal and region are what make coffee from Peru an enjoyable tasting adventure; one cup can be fruity and quite light, the next can have distinct notes of caramel and chocolate with more balance.
Here’s a brief tour of the highlights.
- Northern Peru: Coffee from Piura is typically balanced, tasting of nuts, chocolate and caramel; the Amazon region produces similar coffees but with more of a caramel-and-dry fruit flavor. Cajamarca coffee is sweeter, brighter, and known for its fruity taste.
- Central Peru: The most-noteworthy beans come from the Chanchamayo Valley in the Junin region. They’re characterized by moderate body and bright acidity, and a delightful flavor profile that includes citrus, chocolate, caramel and nuts. Nearby Satipo also produces high-quality coffee, with strong acidity, a creamy body, and wonderful flavors of yellow and black fruits.
- Southern Peru: Beans produced in Cuzco can be hard to find, but they’re smooth, creamy and contain notes of virtually every fruit you can imagine. Puno’s complex specialty coffees have a different flavor profile but are also extremely well-balanced, floral and fruity, with tropical flavors predominant along with caramel notes.
Want some ideas on the best Peruvian coffee to sample? We happen to have some right here.
The Best Peruvian Coffees Sold in America
Our rankings list the top five brands of Peruvian whole bean coffee, but most companies also offer it as ground coffee for those who prefer convenience over the freshest taste. All beans are Arabica.
1. Volcanica Coffee Company Tres Cumbres
These single-origin, medium roast beans come from the Chanchamayo region of Peru, which we’ve highlighted several times. There’s a mild acidity to Tres Cumbres, which is mellow and full-bodied with a complex flavor profile; you’ll notice floral and smoky notes along with sweetness. The beans are only roasted after you order them, and they’re available on Amazon.
2. Fresh Roasted Coffee Organic Peruvian
These beans are sourced from the Northern Peru region of Cajamarca; they’re organic and certified fair trade beans that are medium roasted. This single-origin coffee has the region’s trademark sweet and bright flavor profile, but with a bold body. You’ll taste citrus along with cinnamon and nutmeg, with orange notes remaining in the aftertaste.
3. Cubico Coffee Cenfrocafe Peru Coffee
We mentioned Cenfrocafe earlier; it’s one of the nation’s growing coffee collectives, based in the nation’s Northern Highlands. These single-origin beans are medium roasted and produce an amazing cup of coffee: strong citrus acidity, nutty sweetness, a smooth medium body, and herbal and caramel notes to complement the experience. This is a complex coffee that demonstrates what Peruvian beans can deliver.
4. Café Altuva Organic Peruvian Dark Roast
Another coffee from Cajamarca, this dark roast is low in acidity, slightly sweet, and its flavor profile featuring cocoa and nuts melds perfectly with the long roasting time. No worries; it’s not bitter, either. This choice is organic, fair trade, and worth finding if you’re a fan of dark roasts.
5. First Colony Peruvian Andes Gold
This one’s a medium roast sourced from the Andes Mountain area in northern Peru. That gives it a different flavor than most beans from the north: sweet and smooth but smoky, with caramel and nutty notes along with a woodsy aroma. The flavorful, slightly oily body of Andes Gold makes it ideal for espresso or French press brewing; it’s organic too.
Crafted Coffee Roasters Peru Single Origin: Best light roast Peruvian coffee
Java Planet Single-Origin Medium Dark Roast: Best medium-dark roast Peruvian coffee
Java Planet Decaffeinated Peru Coffee: Best Peruvian decaf
Cooper’s Cask Peruvian: Roasted specifically for cold brew coffee
Capis Coffee: This is actually poop coffee (or dung coffee), and yes, it’s what you think. If you can find it, this is viewed as one of the world’s finest. Peruvian animals called coatis (members of the raccoon family) eat coffee beans from the Junin region, the beans ferment in the animals’ stomachs, and are then collected once they’re pooped out. Don’t sneer; this coffee can go for as much as $50 per cup in America.