When I first heard the name “Parana’s Pioneer North” (Norte Pioneiro do Paraná), I thought, why exactly can a state call it self a pioneer, especially compared to the rest of economic powerhouse Brazil? By the end of five action-packed days there, I had a much better idea.
Parana state has 2.5% of Brazil's land, but produces 25% of the country's agricultural products, including 2 million bags of coffee.
I was in Brazil to visit suppliers in the state of Paraná, in the south of Brazil. My coworkers Oscar Gonzales and Olga Cuellar joined me as we toured around the region. Paraná is famous for being the southernmost coffee growing region in the world. It’s also what I’ve been calling “Brazil’s breadbasket”. The region has 2.5% of the country’s land, yet they produce 25% of the country’s agricultural products. They grow wheat, corn, soy, tomatoes, sugar cane, and coffee.
During our coffee farm visits, we learned about the unique location of Paraná. Around the world, the majority of coffee is found between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, and specialty coffee comes from altitudes above 800-1000 meters. However, Paraná lies south of the Tropics, and no farm there is above 950 meters. And yet, as we cupped our way across the region, we found clean, sweet coffees with bright acidity that easily qualify as specialty. The high altitude requirement is a myth in Paraná. Here’s the reason why: we normally search out high altitude is because it slows down the bean maturation, allowing complex flavor compounds to develop slowly. But since Paraná is south of the Tropic of Capricorn, it experiences much cooler weather, but still has lots of sunshine year round, so coffee beans mature slowly. They develop even more slowly than in most coffee regions, taking up to 300 days for full bean maturation.
This colder climate is precisely the reason that Paraná is unknown in specialty coffee. In 1975, a brutal frost killed nearly all of the coffee plants in the state. Paraná went from being the highest volume producing state in Brazil to the lowest, dropping from 22 million bags to the 2 million they currently produce. Parana was practically written off as a coffee origin.
Coffee farmers in the region apply compost on their plants to provide nutrients and protect them from frost.
Some coffee farmers stuck around though. Instead of switching to growing environmentally-harsh sugar cane crops, they kept farming coffee, taking measures to protect against future frosts. Farmers now train their coffee plants’ roots to grow deep into the soil where the layers of earth offer protection from the cold. Producers here are also realizing more and more that they have high quality coffee. We met a few cuppers who were eager to prove to us that they have great coffee, and equally eager to learn more about what the specialty market is seeking in a Brazilian coffee.
As I drove out of the coffee farms, headed back to the airport in Londrina, I realized that Paraná’s Pioneer North really is pioneering the state of Paraná back into the competitive coffee market. We’ll definitely keep our eye on this region and look forward to starting relationships with the enterprising producers we met there.