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Here's What Brazil's Drought Means for Coffee Lovers Around the World

Brazil produces 30 percent of the world's coffee, but climate change is likely to lower yields — and quality — over the long term.
Foto di Christof Stache/AP

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Though it has been a difficult couple of years for Brazil's coffee crop, it looks like things are beginning to look up – at least temporarily. Following a ravaging drought, coffee experts predict that this year's crop will be bountiful and beautiful. For consumers, it's a win-win situation: better-tasting coffee at low prices.


Jason Sarley, a sensory analyst for Coffee Review, a California-based online publication and consulting group for the specialty coffee community, said that the temporary relief for Brazil's struggling crop is largely thanks to El Niño conditions, which brought much needed rain to the region.

Though this is great news for coffee enthusiasts, Sarley is quick to emphasize the ephemeral nature of Brazil's bountiful harvest.

"They're expected to have an unusually large production," he said. "But generally the drought has decreased production and quality and it's expected to be worse as time goes on because of the effects of climate change."

'The best coffees are bouquets … [t]hey're a mind-altering, joyful experience.'

Though basic price dynamics — the cost to consumers drops as supply increases — works for coffee on a large scale, niche markets will remain relatively untouched by high yields in Brazil.

"What's happening in Brazil is unrelated to the rest of the ultra-premium specialty market," said Sarley. "The extremely high-end coffees will probably stay about the same price."

In order to understand mass production versus specialty markets, it helps to start with a few coffee basics: namely, the distinction between the two most well known varietals, Arabica and Robusta.

"Coffee emerged way back at its origin in the border between the highlands of Ethiopia and the Congo, and it genetically split off into two main varietals, Coffea arabica, which grew into the highlands of Ethiopia, and Coffea canephora, referred to generally as robusta, which grew into the lowlands of the Congo," said Sarley.


"The highlands of Ethiopia are a more delicate place, so coffee Arabica at its core is a fairly delicate fruit-provided evergreen shrub," he added. "It has natural defenses including caffeine and polyphenols, which help prevent disease, but with generally increasing humidity and temperature because of climate change, even fairly higher grown Arabica has become at risk, because it's a fairly delicate plant."

Robusta, on the other hand, is much heartier in the face of climate change, which means as temperatures rise, so does its prevalence.

"Robusta is more and more being spliced into Arabica for its sturdiness, for its resistance," said Sarley. "It is a much heartier plant. It has on average about half as many sugars and twice as much caffeine and polyphenols which help protect the plant."

Caffeine and polyphenols act as a sort of natural pesticide, which helps defend coffee plants.

What this means for taste is a question that preoccupies coffee experts. If Arabica is threatened, so too is the delicacy and complexity it offers.

"The best coffees are bouquets —they're floral, they're chocolatey, they're fruity, they're rich, they're exotic, they're complicated," said Sarley. "They're a mind-altering, joyful experience."

Related: Consumers Are Dumping Keurig's Single-Serve Coffee — And That's Great News for the Environment

Interest in specialty coffees continues to rise and to spread worldwide. When Blue Bottle opened branches in Japan last year, the Associated Press reported that customers waited in line for up to four hours for a cup of coffee.


"The issue along with that is that we have this massive increased global demand for very good coffee, but on the production side they're struggling," said Sarley, estimating that the specialty industry has grown more than 400 percent over the last 15 or so years.

Because Brazil produces more than 30 percent of the world's coffee, the country is at the heart of concerns regarding the intersection of climate change and coffee. Farmers are worried, even if many consumers have remained relatively oblivious.

A joint study published last year by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture under the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS) focused specifically on projections for the more delicate Arabica plant.

"Increases in temperature and changes in precipitation patterns will decrease yield, reduce quality, and increase pest and disease pressure," according to the study, which also estimates that Brazil will see a 25 percent decrease in Arabica production by the 2050s.

As is the case with grapes and wine, scientists predict that what grows where in terms of coffee varietals will continue to evolve as temperatures change; this could be good for certain regions, bad for others.

"If we're thinking of long-term solutions, we need to be looking at how do we deal with climate change worldwide because these exporting countries suffer the worst, and in the long-term will suffer the worst, from those repercussions" Sarley said. "The real question is how do we prevent climate change so we can preserve these delicate beautiful coffee varietals that produce magnificent cups of coffee?"

Related: Fair Trade, Free Markets, and the Bitter Fight Behind Your Morning Cup of Coffee

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