The Source: Alcides Carvalho

Coffee is oftentimes referred to as an affordable luxury. I agree. Let’s take a look at the work that has been done in coffee and tip our hats to those that have done so much to provide us all with daily access at very reasonable prices to the elixir we so dearly love. <

In my twenties I underestimated the inertia of things; in my thirties I pushed hard against that inertia in the direction I thought right. Now in my forties, I am still pushing hard. But after having done so much damn pushing, many times in contrary directions, I have developed an interest in peeking behind the curtain of that inertia—why things are the way they are and not the way we think they should be.  We grow up accepting things as they are. We reach an age, mentality, or perhaps hormone level where we rebel against that. As we grow older, one of the joys life can offer is to peel things back and peek into their existence to see how a confluence of events, oftentimes random, and/or a few exceptional individuals created the world in which we live. Maybe most of you knew this from day one, but it took a couple score to sink in for me.

In coffee, a great example of one of these individuals is Alcides Carvalho. Never heard of him? No worries, I hadn't either. But his work has impacted the lives of millions of coffee drinkers, and if you are reading this, I think it is a safe assumption that Alcides has had an impact on yours. Born in 1913, Alcides Carvalho worked as a geneticist at the Instituto Agronomico de Campinas for 59 years, up until his death from cancer in 1993. He developed 65 cultivars of coffee, and, by several estimates, over 90% of all Arabica coffee produced in Brazil came from his work.



When you explore that statistic, the numbers become jaw-dropping. Brazil produces a third of the world’s coffee. According to CONAB—the Brazilian governmental institution that gives us citable numbers—Brazil will produce 44,333,400 bags of Arabica coffee this year.* At 60 kilos, or 132.277 pounds per bag, Brazil produces 5,864,289,152 pounds of coffee a year. If you use the same 32 cups-per-pound yield we used above, that means Brazil “produces” 187,657,252,857 cups of Arabica coffee a year. Given that 90% of the genetics in Brazilian Arabica production came from the work of Alcides Carvalho, that means his work is responsible for 168,891,527,571 cups of coffee a year. One man, 168 billion cups of coffee a year—462 million cups of coffee a day. And that’s just his direct impact on Brazilian coffee. When you consider that these cultivars have made their way across the globe, both directly and as “ingredients” for newer cultivars, those numbers grow considerably larger.  

So the next time you really need a cup—the baby kept you up all night, long day ahead, term paper’s due, one too many the night before, or maybe you just enjoy drinking coffee—take a second to think that there was a Brazilian scientist who spent his life improving coffee quality so that you and millions of others across the globe could share in that source of joy.


*Most coffee references—CONAB, the International Coffee Organization (ICO), etc.—cite numbers in terms of “bags.” So what the hell is a bag of coffee? I remember watching the nightly news and listening to AM radio growing up in Iowa, daily hearing the latest crop prices per bushel, and thinking what the hell is a bushel and why don’t they just give the price in pounds so everybody can understand it?! I still can’t remember what a bushel is. But I guess you get pulled into the jargon and mindset behind it at some point. I have been doing work in SE Asia where they usually refer to coffee quantities in metric tons—totally logical and it should be a hell of a lot easier to absorb. But I need to convert tons to 60 kilo bags to actually make some sort of mental connection. Bushel man I have become, I guess.