Peru has always possessed amazing potential to produce great quality coffee, yet excellent Peruvian coffees are rare. To some degree, the success of Peru coffee has been it's downfall. Organic certified Peru coffees are ubiquitous, always as close as your local Trader Joe's, but the coffee is often poorly picked, processed and roasted, if it is even freshly roasted at all.
We have been hard at work to establish stable relationships in Peru to gain access to the best coffees. A great Peru is a clean, wet-processed coffee with striking acidic brightness, a clean cup, moderate fruit or floral hints, and good basic sweetness. The dominant aspect is the brightness. Great Peru coffees are grown at exceptional altitudes, often above 1800 meters, and most of the plants are old Typica variety. So with great altitude, great Typica varieties, and plenty of farmers to grow coffee, why is Peru not often found among first class coffees like small-farm Southern Colombia lots, or great 1800 meter Guatemalas?
Peru is usually the cheapest certified Organic coffee on the market, it's the "blender" coffee of Organics; it's $4/Lb. roasted at Trader Joes, and it is threatening to lower prices for organic coffee farmers globally. The Peruvian coffee industry took note of the premium prices paid for Organic coffee, and realized they could produce Organic for less cost, focusing on quantity, not quality. They wanted to be to organic coffee what Vietnam is to robusta. There are stories of forests being clear-cut for organic coffee farming (it takes 3 years for an existing farm to become certified organic... not so with a "new" farm). I doubt the image of cutting down forests to grow organic product is the image consumers have in mind ... then again, it's organic and it's $4 per lb. roasted. Well, you get what you pay for.
The problem is, the Peruvian organic coffee glut forces quality-oriented farmers within Peru and elsewhere to accept lower prices for their crop in order to compete. A farm that is trying to produce a truly excellent coffee in a conscientious way cannot compete with a larger quantity-oriented farm, whether its a co-op or not. Cup a Trader Joe's organic Peru versus a high quality organic Peru and the differences are profound; not only do the cheap ones have little to no positive qualities, they also have defective taints in the cup, grassy, fermenty notes in particular.
Okay, I am a little cynical about Peruvian coffee. It's not because there aren't good lots though. They do exist and it takes some detective work to find them and some skill to get them out of the country in good condition. After all, Peru is a hugely varied land and they produce a lot of different coffees. It's the land of the Incas and by most measures a latecomer in the modern world coffee trade. Peruvian offerings are hardly mentioned in William Ukers' 1936 edition of All About Coffee and have not been well thought of due to an indelicate, blunted acidity that doesn't have the refinement of Centrals. I think a lot of this is historical bias because Peru can produce some very fine coffees. In general, these coffees have Central American brightness but in a South American coffee flavor package overall. The good organic lots do have more of a "rustic" coffee character, but mostly because of poor processing practices. Coffees with flavors like this might be pleasant enough, but sweetness and fruited notes can be unstable and might fade a few months after arrival in the US. We avoid these coffees.
It's a lot of work to find a good lot among the abundance offered by brokers and other channels, although they can be found. We prefer to work in a more direct way to identify single farmers or small groups to import, and then we work with mills and exporters to get the coffee out intact. The journey overland, and processing facilities in the hotter coastal zones can kill a coffee if care is not taken.
I have been to Peru a few times - here is the travelogue from my first visit in 2006, and then when I acted as head judge of regional competition in 2008 and participated as a judge on a second trip. I went to visit the Quillabamba area more recently, and others have taken over on the trips since then. -Tom