Focus on Quality Could Save Brazil’s Small Coffee Farms

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Can the world’s growing appetite for unique coffee save Brazil’s specialty coffee farms?

by Aleszu Bajak

Brazil, long known for being one of the world’s leading producers of bulk commodity coffee, is now trying to make a name for itself as a country where smallholder farms produce specialty coffees. But low wholesale prices and limited international interest are forcing farmers to switch over to more profitable crops. Can a few intrepid buyers seeking out Brazil’s most unique coffee farms help save the country’s specialty coffee?

“Prices are so low in Brazil that specialty growers are giving up,” says Isabela Raposeiras, a coffee roaster and award-winning barista who owns Coffee Lab, a roastery and coffee shop in São Paulo. “They’re changing over to sugarcane and eucalyptus.” Isabela travels throughout Brazil looking for the country’s most unique beans, but increasingly she’s seeing farmers bowing to pressure and closing their coffee farms.

Though overall coffee production volume has remained relatively stable over the last decade, the Brazilian market has long been focused on quantity, not quality. Brazil produces one-third of the world’s coffee and the country’s top 50 producers make up 90 percent of exports. Small specialty farms are feeling the squeeze from this competition. Indeed, arabica prices have fallen precipitously since 2012. Last November, oversupply caused them to hit a seven-year low.

To make matters worse for specialty coffee, arabica beans are being replaced by lower-quality robusta beans in response to market demand, notes Guilherme Braga, director of Brazil’s Council of Coffee Exporters. Add to that a trend that has been repeated throughout Brazil’s agricultural history: coffee being replaced by other crops.

Sugarcane is one of the crops encroaching on land once used to grow coffee. Used in the production of sugar, cachaça (a distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice) and, increasingly, fuel, sugarcane has seen production volume grow 43 percent between 2006 and 2009; thanks to genetic improvements, higher yield and infrastructure expansion in the ethanol industry.

To boot, Brazilians’ interest in specialty coffee has not grown comparably to that of North Americans and Europeans. Most of the country’s 200 million drink tiny cups of strong, low-quality drip coffee called cafezinho, or slurp down bitter espresso throughout the day. This means that São Paulo, a city approaching 20 million inhabitants, has very few specialty coffee shops. “There are four different specialty coffee shops in São Paulo,” estimates Isabela Raposeiras, “mostly chains, and that’s not including Starbucks.”

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A few intrepid coffee explorers

Though some American coffee sourcers have made the trip to Brazil in search of unique producers, most of the interest has come from Europe, Oslo in particular. Norwegian roaster Tim Wendelboe has been showing coffee aficionados for years that Brazil can be just as good as Colombia, Central America, or Kenya.

Wendelboe started sourcing specialty coffee from Brazil in 2010, after years of watching first-hand Brazil’s farming and coffee processing practices. Knowing that he couldn’t compete on price or distribution with major players like Nescafe and Maxwell House, Wendelboe became intent on putting in the legwork to find what can differentiate his product: quality. And he’s found some gems in Brazil.

“The best three coffees I have ever had in Brazil all came from Espirito Santo [state] and I tasted them all last year,” says Wendelboe, who points to regional flavor notes like molasses and chocolate, and undertones of dried fruits like figs and dates. “There is a range of flavors in Brazilian coffees that I recently discovered, much thanks to Isabela Raposeiras, who took me to Espirito Santo and showed me that Brazilian coffees can be very complex and have high acidity.”

“I think there is a lot of unseen potential in Brazil for growing much better coffees,” he says. Wendelboe, like other intrepid coffee sourcers, spends years repeatedly visiting farms, building relationships with farmers and explaining what he’s looking for in a bean. And every farm and bean is different.

Brazil is known for producing bulk quantities of low- to medium-quality arabica coffee. Around 50 million 60 kilogram bags for this growing season, in fact. Last August, due to the price dip and in response to pressure from coffee farmers, the Brazilian government has offered to buy up three million bags of arabica coffee for storage in federal warehouses. If farmers sell—and this of course will not help all of Brazil’s coffee farmers—the government will have the largest stockpile of coffee it’s had in a decade.

Roasting and the consumer

Many roasters used to brag that they did not source from Brazil because of its stigma as a producer of low-quality coffee. But that thinking is changing. In the face of large farms with mechanized harvesting and processing methods, smaller coffee farms are focusing on more artisanal growing, processing, and drying techniques. If farmers can pursue partnerships with direct buyers and band together with their peers to test new cultivars, Brazil’s specialty coffee market can strengthen.

After the sourcing process, roasting is paramount in achieving exceptional aroma and flavor profiles. “Brazilian coffees are different in terms of density. It takes discipline and a lot of experimentation to pull out a good coffee,” says Coffee Lab owner Isabela Raposeiras. Proper roasting and tweaking several parameters are essential to bringing out great coffee. It’s time-consuming, but also Raposeiras’s favorite part of the chain.

Raposeiras roasts the unique coffee she’s found in the states of Minas Gerais, Espiritu Santo, and São Paulo on a Diedrich machine she bought in Ponderay, Idaho. The roaster is connected to a computer and can store hundreds of roasting profiles. Like the coffee farms she sources from, she visited manufacturer Steve Diedrich in the United States to learn everything she could about the roaster—even how to fix it if it broke down. She swears by the machine and chalks up much of her success to it. “Diedrich built and flies his own airplane,” she says, “so you know he can build a roaster.”

Like Wendelboe, Isabela Raposeiras is optimistic about Brazil’s yet-to-be-unlocked potential. She’s been drawing repeat customers for four years, and offers informational courses and a menu of 12 “coffee rituals” to evangelize by educating palates on quality coffee and food pairings (she says cheese is a much better pairing than chocolate or pastries).

São Paulo coffee fans already know to go to Raposeiras Coffee Lab to find the latest and greatest Brazilian specialty coffee. She hopes the rest of the world will be as curious.

Aleszu Bajak is a science journalist who has lived in Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. He’s the founder of LatinAmericanScience.org and is currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photos: Tim Wendelboe

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