Venezuelan Coffee: A Broad Overview of Coffee Culture and History

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You might not have heard about Venezuelan coffee before because those beans were exported out of the country back in 1710. But during those days, Venezuela ranked as one of the top coffee-producing countries in the world.

Coffee was once also the primary source of revenue in the Venezuelan economy. Besides, their coffee is said to be the best in the world, and it is for many reasons. The high-altitude location combined with favorable weather conditions makes for a recipe of greatness, as these may never change.

But while Venezuela’s coffee is natively grown and has been exported since 1710, it is now largely unknown in the specialty market outside the country. And even then, only a tiny number of Venezuelans ever actually see their favorite beans.

Today, the country produces less than 1% of the world’s coffee, and it is now known globally for its crude oil.

Focus Venezuelan coffee culture and history

The History of Coffee in Venezuela

Ever since it became known among European countries with expanding markets that coffee was becoming an interesting crop for the colonies, several attempts were made to discover the ideal growing conditions to establish profitable plantations.

Chronologically, Haiti was the first place to grow coffee in 1696, then Santo Domingo, Martinique, and Surinam in 1715, and around the same time, in the central Caribbean islands.

In Venezuela, coffee arrived in 1732 from the West due to Jesuits’ settlement in the Orinoco River Delta region, located in the country’s east. And the rest of the country mainly in the mountainous regions as the Andean area and nearby Caracas.

Here, some of the wealthiest families owned important coffee plantations, replacing cocoa as the main agricultural product of exportation to Spain and Europe around 1875.

The earlier part of the 1800s saw conflict across the Americas due to several independence movements, and coffee became a vital part of the recovery of the newly free countries, despite the devastation inflicted. Since then, the coffee economy had experienced its ups and downs, especially while the war was raging over in Europe, the leading consumer of agricultural products from South America.

During the First and Second World Wars, the demand for coffee (and other commodities, including cocoa) decreased significantly, and the prices fell drastically; in Venezuela, the discovery and exploitation of oil around 1920 caused a quick transformation of the economy that, up until that time, was mainly based on agriculture.

Focus Venezuelan coffee culture and history

Coffee Culture in Venezuela

The growing oil economy attracted government and society’s attention over a short period of time; it was the first time that widespread migration from the countryside to the cities was observed. And therefore, the unplanned urban settlements around important cities such as Maracaibo and Caracas appeared, many of them known as “Barrios.”

Despite the change in the economic dynamics, coffee earned its place in the Venezuelan culture, historically grown in the states Tàchira, Mèrida, Trujillo, Sucre, Monagas, Lara, Aragua, Portuguesa, Anzoàtegui, Yaracui, and the Delta region.

Due to European immigration during the Second World War, the coffee-drinking culture in Venezuelan cities was heavily influenced by the Italians. The “Italian roast”/dark roast is commonly preferred, being prepared at home using cloth filters, with sugar, milk, and even “papelón” (a sugarcane bi-product). At the same time, espresso is offered in more fashionable restaurants.

In overall terms, most people tend to prefer sweetness as opposed to its bitter aspect by using commercially produced coffee. And with lesser established standards for aroma or quality over the years, the coffee-loving community has been trying to promote a more discerning consumer culture that would appreciate coffee more than instead as a mere stimulant daily beverage.

Venezuelan Coffee in the Specialty Market.

While Venezuelan coffees are again slowly entering the specialty market, especially with the rising popularity of “specialty coffee” or “gourmet coffee,” it will be a long journey to be repositioned in the foreign markets. 

During my training in Italy in 2019, I was asked frequently: is Venezuela a coffee producer? And despite my initial surprise at such a question, it soon became understandable why. Because for twenty years, Venezuelan coffee has more or less been absent from international markets in Europe, possibly due to how the Venezuelan government has been handling the economy during the last two decades.

Complicating the exportation of coffee, denying farmers and traders access to the benefits of exports, and diverting most coffee production in Venezuela to internal consumption or through illegal exports to Colombia are factors that hold the country back. Including the fact that coffee production nowadays is below 1% worldwide. 

However, paradoxically, due to the fall of oil prices and the need to access US dollars, which impacts Venezuela’s economy, the government has been gradually relieving those restraints on exportation. But most farmers and traders that aren’t in some way involved with “the right channels” have a long way to go before producing and exporting coffee in significant amounts.

What Makes Venezuelan Coffee Special?

Let’s remember that, generally, for market researchers and professionals in the agriculture, food, and services sector, there are certain factors to consider that have a direct impact on the quality of coffee:

Its origin: country, altitude, soil, climate

The processing: in both stages, on the farm (criteria of picking, washing, and drying of the cherries, condition of the facilities) and roasting (degree of roast, roasting times, presence of unripe beans).

The type of coffee used of which there are the two main commercial coffee species: Arabica and Robusta or Canephora. Among Arabica coffee varieties, the range of aromas that can be perceived may be more comprehensive than Canephora coffee. Arabica varieties express either fruity, flowery, chocolaty, and citrus tones with more acidity or sweetness. The Canephora, on the other hand, is generally said to describe woody, earthy, or smoky tones while being more bitter.

Venezuelan coffee shares many similarities with Colombian coffee in aromatic terms since they both can be perceived as chocolaty, with pleasing acidity and aftertaste. Depending on the location and other previously mentioned factors, coffee may present specific differences.

Both, Arabica and Canephora plantations can be found all over, depending on the climatic conditions, since Canephora is more capable of withstanding warmer locations that aren’t suitable for Arabica.  

If we talk about how coffee is grown, farmers prefer plantations under partial shade since they demand less labor and are better protected from drought. Due to the country’s economic situation, farmers prefer to produce commercial natural-dried coffee since they need the money quickly to sustain themselves. That leaves little room for special or complex preparation methods that aren’t widespread among the coffee farmers regarding the specialty coffee market.

Wrapping it Up!

Despite the economic situation, hopefully, the Venezuelan coffee industry will be able to become as competitive as other coffee-producing countries and be renowned once again as a stalwart amongst consumers for high-grade coffee.

But farmers should also learn to be less dependent on the Government and willing to foster better communication with traders and roasters alike to set prices. And most importantly, they must also learn about the quality aspect while picking the cherries and be willing to do the extra labor required.

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