Colombia and Brazil are two of the largest coffee-producing countries in the world. While I live in Brazil, I recently spent 1.5 months in Colombia exploring the coffee culture in cities and visiting farms in the north and center of the country, where I roasted and cupped lots of different coffee samples.
Even though they share a border, Colombia and Brazil have many differences when it comes to coffee. While I was only there a short time, I got to witness many of these differences firsthand, and I hope to provide a brief summary of my findings in this article.
Size & Production
There are several ways to measure these variables, so I will split them into subcategories.
Overall Production of Coffee
In 2018, Colombia produced 13.9 million bags of coffee on average per year. For these purposes, a “bag” of coffee holds 60 kg of green beans. They were third only to Brazil and Vietnam. Brazil, the largest producer of coffee in the world, produced 62.9 million bags of coffee in the same year. Vietnam also produced 31.2 million bags, but 97% of this is Robusta, so we will be excluding Vietnam for this comparison.
As far as country-wide production of coffee is concerned, Brazil and Colombia are the first and second-largest producing countries in the world, respectively.
For the same crop year, Colombia exported 13.7 million bags and Brazil exported 41.4 million. As you can see, most of the higher-quality coffee gets shipped to countries like the United States, Germany, France, Japan, and Italy. With these rough calculations, less than 2% of coffee grown in Colombia remains in the country, while less than 35% of Brazilian coffee stays in Brazil.
Excluding Vietnam again, Brazil and Colombia are the largest exporters of coffee in the world.
A third way to measure the production of coffee is by the amount of land being used to cultivate coffee plants.
Brazil is a much larger country when it comes to landmass. At 8.5 million square kilometers (3.29 million square miles), Brazil dominates Colombia’s mere 1.1 million square kilometers (440,000 square miles). However, that means very little for determining how much land is suitable for growing coffee.
Brazil sits at around 2.184 million hectares of coffee-growing land (or 21,840 square kilometers). Colombia has around 875,000 hectares planted with coffee (or 8,750 square kilometers).
Types of Coffee Grown
Overall, Colombia has a better terroir for growing specialty coffee. 100% of the production is with Arabica beans. More volcanic soil and higher altitudes than Brazil make this possible. Brazil produces about 70-80% Arabica coffee and 20-30% of the less desirable (for the specialty market, that is) Robusta species.
Colombia and Brazil also have many different varieties of Arabica coffee. In Colombia, the commonly grown ones consist of Typica, Caturra, Bourbon, Gesha, Colombia, and Castillo. Most coffee I tried in lower-end specialty coffee shops offered a lot of Colombia and Castillo because they are easier to grow. As hybrids, they were created by crossing two other varieties to have a better ability to fight off disease. They are safer varieties to plant, so Colombia is full of these two varieties!
Brazil also has the Bourbon variety, with Red and Yellow Bourbon being very popular among Brazilian farmers. Catuaí, Catucaí, and Mundo Novo are also quite common.
Funnily enough, Colombia grows a variety called Orange Colombia but markets it as “Pink Bourbon” because it has a better sound. Bourbon is also a pure variety and not a hybrid like the Colombia variety. In my time wandering through many specialty coffee shops in Medellín and Bogotá, I noticed several of them advertising this luxurious “Pink Bourbon” at a higher price.
While I hate to do this, I’m going to speak about the general country flavor profiles for both Brazil and Colombia. I hesitate to do this because the final characteristics in your cup of coffee depend so much on the variety, where and how it was grown, when it was picked, how it was processed, washed, and dried, how it was roasted, and how it was brewed…
That being said, Colombian coffees are generally known for being on the acidic side, while Brazilian coffees are generally known for being sweeter (like having notes of chocolate).
In my opinion, part of the reason for this has to do with the processing. From my time visiting farmers cultivating specialty-grade coffee in both Brazil and Colombia, the washed process seems much more common in Colombia. The Brazilian farmers I met used more natural-processed coffees. With washed coffees, the cherries are depulped and the seeds are put in fermentation tanks of water before having all the mucilage washed off prior to drying. With natural coffees, the cherries are left on the seeds to dry. No washing is performed.
As a general rule, washed coffees tend to be more acidic, while naturals lean towards a sweeter profile. This makes sense in regard to the countries’ blanket flavor profiles that I mentioned earlier. That being said, I’ve cupped a lot of natural-processed coffee in Colombia and washed coffee in Brazil.
Tourism & Reputation
One of the major reasons I chose Colombia to visit was due to its recognition as a “coffee country” and accessible coffee tourism. While Brazil produces and exports much more coffee than Colombia, there is hardly any coffee tourism. Most of the people coming to Brazil for specialty coffee already work in the industry. They are there with a purpose to source green coffee or something similar.
On the other hand, Colombia has this booming market of coffee tourism. There are tons of foreigners with no knowledge of how coffee is grown, going to Colombia and learning about the process at farms and falling in love with the complex journey that the bean undergoes to get to your cup.
From my time here, I noticed that all major cities offer several coffee farm tours. Many tourists I met who had no prior interest in coffee decided to fly to the “Coffee Region” called Eje Cafetero, in Colombia just because they heard how beautiful the landscape and great the coffee were. Even with highways being so jammed with traffic that it takes 4+ hours to go 50 kilometers, Colombia is far more accessible as a country for tourists than Brazil in regards to coffee and tourism in general. English is much more commonly spoken as well, especially on tours.
There are even Airbnbs and eco-huts where you can book a stay on a coffee farm, like those at La Palma y El Tucan.
So why doesn’t Brazil have this same level of coffee tourism? The quality of the coffee is there. What’s holding the country back?
In the next five years, I hope to see this industry evolve in Brazil and bring in more tourism and money for the people of Brazil as it has done for Colombia. I’ve been to several small coffee farms in Brazil that are just as beautiful as those in Colombia. I have visited extremely high-tech labs where hundreds of coffees are cupped each day. Brazil has the potential and the amazing coffee. Let’s show it off to the world!
This brings me to my last point… a reason that I am happy I live in Brazil over Colombia. During my time in the bigger cities of Colombia, I noticed a lot of (what I view as) unhealthy competition among specialty coffee shops. When I went to visit one and asked about other shops in the area, who I should visit next, etc., more often than not I was greeted with something along the lines of, “Ah, don’t go there. Their coffee isn’t any good.”
I have rarely – if ever – experienced this in Brazil. The community at large seems more supportive of one another, telling customers to go visit “competitors” and try a specific coffee… Things like this. When I was in Bogotá, I sat down with a couple of people in the industry, and they told me how Colombian farmers are still super competitive, to the point where it hurts the industry as a whole.
During my visits to farms in the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santos, farmers almost always recommended I go visit their neighbors and try the coffee as well.
Being more or less competitive in this sense isn’t better or worse… simply different. That being said, I prefer the atmosphere in Brazil; this has me believe even more in the potential of a growing coffee tourism that could surpass that of Colombia. This was very apparent during the International Coffee Week in Belo Horizonte, Brazil…. but for an international event, there were not many foreigners!
Let’s change that! I think Brazil has a lot to learn from Colombia and how it works in this industry. I hope that by analyzing the similarities and differences between the two, Brazil can find a way to exponentially grow its coffee tourism.
Overall, this trip to Colombia was very informative and enjoyable. I learned quite a bit more about coffee as a global industry.
A big ‘thank you’ to everyone who took the time to meet with me and show me around!
Want to stay updated? Enter your email below to follow along on my journey through life. I will send occasional updates about new articles and other content.