Brazil is the largest country in South America and covers almost half of this continent. It is a country rich in natural resources and active in climate change, known as the home of the Amazon Rainforest and one of the most bio diverse places in the world.
Coffee has been introduced to the North of Brazil from French Guiana in 1727. Over the years, coffee plantations spread within the northern area. Today, five of the main producing estates are located in the central Southern Regions of Brazil: Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo, Espirito Santos, Rio de Janeiro and Parana. Brazil is the first coffee exporter with mostly commercial quality; roasters are mainly choosing this origin for blending due to its soft body and moderate flavours. In the last few years, Brazil started to offer a large diversity of flavours and building its good quality reputation thanks to its first semi – washed coffee process. I travelled to Brazil with the main objective of having a taste of their coffee diversity and also how the technical focus supports harvest, process and sorting. I visited Minas Gerais: Cerrado Mineiro and Southern Minas Gerais (red circled area on the map below).
I started my trip in Cerrado Mineiro visiting one of the pioneers in the Brazilian Specialty coffee industry; Daterra. This involved a flight North to Uberlandia and three hours drive east, a long journey but worth it. In this region, the altitude is around 800 masl to 1,200 masl with an acidic soil, red like the colour of fire, surrounded by Amazone forest. Our passionate hosts Gabriel and Gustavo took us to every corners of the estate. We have been visiting two farms called Boa Vista and Tuobas, both of them subdivided in smaller lots. Each lot is geolocated with a system where every record is kept for the maintenance and harvesting procedures. They draw samples at each stage of maturation to organise their harvest accordingly.
This way, they have a better idea of the their coffee quality per lot and already think about their blends. Once the harvest starts, the cherries go through the wet mill process where the first quality separation happens. The natural, raisin and pulped natural will be sorted separately. Then, the cherries will slowly dry in mechanical dryers with a control temperature by indirect heat. At this stage, there is another quality check done by the cuppers who compose the blend for “the collections” and “the classics” range according to flavours-cup profiles. The coffee will rest as good wine in the wood silos for 60 days and then it will be sorted by several machines. First step cherries pass through destoner and densimetric table. Then, they pass each bean through three colour sorters (Black and white – remove pale white and black bean/ Multicoloured – remove sour bean/ Infrared – separating chipped, broken, insect damages etc…). For the best premium coffees which are “The Collections”, two extra quality controls are done. The UV machine to detect the pheonolic beans (white under UV lights) and the Led lights machine to remove phoenolic as well as brocca beans. It is a camera taking 80 pictures per bean to remove all defects.I was impressed by the technology used by the estate and also the strict quality processes in place to make sure coffee production will be done at its best.
In Brazil, one of the issues is the labour cost. It is one of the reasons the selecting is post-harvest, which means done through wet and dry mill as explained above. Also, another consequence is the adaption from manual harvesting to mechanical harvesters launched in the late 1970 but only adopted by the farmers in 2000. Indeed, the mechanical harvest can be deployed in favourable areas where the topography is not too hilly. In Daterra, all coffee is harvested mechanically except in their organic-free grow, genetic, and experimental farms where pickers harvest the coffee. The mechanical harvest uses a traction tractor with bilateral (or unilateral) rotatory forks utilizing vibrations to pick the coffee cherries from the branches. The speed of those machines and the length of the forks plus the rotation speed and levels of vibration can all be adjusted to ensure the harvest occurs without damage to the cherries or plants. A machine can harvest 15 bags of 60kg per ha, or can harvest 800m tree line in 1ha. It was the first time I’ve seen how the cherries are mechanically harvested on a hundred hectare field.
It was so impressive!! In Cerrado, the weather is mostly dry where few rains can happen occasionally. Therefore, irrigation is used to maintain a constant water drip to the coffee trees. At Daterra 20% of the farms are irrigated where the terrain is flat. Circular pivot drip irrigation like the one used by Daterra is common, but they decided to introduce drip/emitter irrigation to be more efficient. One machine can irrigate up to 115 ha, and a circular distance of 1.2km.The only problem being that the cost of hosting is very high. At Daterra it is the perfect compliance between productivity and quality. As the main value at Daterra is innovation, they invest on Maisa, a PHD researcher in science, who works on different impacts of the fungus on the cherries, the use of different yeast for fermentation and also on the development of new varietals. I had the chance to cup new coffee varietals that could be part of the masterpieces range. I have already my two favourite ones: Aramosa Natural and Laurinas Natural. DRWakefield will make a final selection in October before we market these special exclusive coffees. I cannot wait for the new Daterra coffee season as the quality is getting better season after season.
After three days
It was now time to continue the trip to a new sub-region – South West Minas. After a five hour drive, I discovered a new landscape with much more hills and green mountains where coffee was planted in terrace due to erosion matter. In this region, the average altitude is 1,000-1,200 masl and the main farmers are small and medium estate. I visited two different estates: Palmital, a medium size estate located in Cabo Verde and Santana situated close to Campestre. Both estate process the coffee as natural and pulped natural. Due to the steep hill, the coffee has to be harvested manually as strip picking i-e the pickers totally strip the branches of all the cherries but there’s no clear separation between levels of maturation.
Using this method, farmers are waiting until most of the cherries are red before stripping the trees of their fruit. Strip picking is suitable for drier climates where maturation occurs more homogeneously. In some case, they also use a “high broom” vibrating to get the cherries on the floor. It allows a faster harvest which is really useful for larger estate. While some producers continue to employ manual labour to harvest their crop, it is crucial to understand the importance of mechanical harvest in Brazil. Indeed, many farmers struggle to find a balance between the cup quality and the cost of production. The main challenge for farmers in Brazil today is the cost of labour and this makes it difficult to ensure a sustainable coffee production in the market.
Contendas Farm – Divinolandia
For instance, I visited Contendas farm owned by two brothers Sergio and Mauro, located in Divinolandia, Sao Paulo State, which produce mainly naturals. They cannot hire employees due to the high costs; therefore they create an exchange service within the coffee producer’s community. One of the impacts of the drought that I have seen is the size of the cherries and also the bean not being developed in the cherries. This producer almost lost 30% of his production due to the drought and farm renovation; in the normal year he only loses 15% of its coffees. In the same district, I visited a cooperative Aprod who has 85% of their members certified Fairtrade. The particularity of this cooperative is the use of agroforestery management for all members. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy, and sustainable land-use system. Next stop was Varghina, the alien city of the 1980, but it was not the purpose of our visit as we were mainly there to meet one of the Fairtrade villages where we buy coffee from. Varghina is one of the main centres in the countryside where, after the city of Santos, the coffees exporters are based. The day after, I had a two hours drive to arrive to one of the most beautiful coffee region of Brazil: Mantiqueira de Minas which has perfect conditions to grow specialty coffees.
He is growing his coffee with his entire family – wife and four kids. It is a beautiful farm management with mainly bourbon and Mundo Novo varietals. I had a unique experience of visiting this farm sitting on the back of a big tractor reaching the 1,150 masl with kids from the village, it was a special moment with great company!!! I had such a lovely time all day that it would have been nice to stay a bit longer but I sadly had to leave everyone to go to Poco Fundo, the last coffee production area of my trip. I had the chance to see the last few organic coffee plantations in Brazil located in South Minas. Over there, little volume is produced where it is often a daily struggle against price/market and weather to maintain their belief to keep the organic certification
After spending a week on the road visiting different farms, I stopped in the city of Santos, known as the main South America harbour where all coffee exporters are based. There, It was the perfect time to talk about the situation of the market, by comparison with comments from producers. I came to a conclusion that still 30-40% of coffee remains to be harvested and indeed there is a large volume lost due to renovation, drought and brocca. In my opinion, it represents around 45-50 Million bags, 13% less than the volume initially forecasted. Many farmers are keeping their coffee and waiting to see if the market will rally and get the final volume of the crop before selling it to export. On the other hand, I have also seen more rains than usual for the time of year which will have an impact on the coffee remaining to be harvested ( much of it may fall on the floor and be lost) but also it will cause an early flowering for the 2014-15 crop. The main problem is that there is little coffee with 18 or 17 screen sizes so the majority of the coffee will be sold as Sc 16 maximum. Already some exporters are negotiating again their contract from 17/18 to 16 up. Finishing on a positive note, the overall quality is higher than last season where I discovered some incredible flavours out of some coffee cupped more like East Africans or Central coffees.
The time when Brazil was led by volume is over and now; a new specialty range of coffee led by quality is re-born. The challenge is to make our roasters aware of those new trends and forget about the Brazil as just a commercial quality!!
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