Exploring Brazil: a country of contrasts.
Tales from a country in which two divergent coffee worlds co-exist
by Eduarda Cristovam, Head of Coffee
I visited Brazil last year. Unthinkable now, I know. It was my first time there and the focus was visiting coffee producers. Before I tell you about the visit, I have to say I had naïve expectations before going. If you’re brought up on Brazilian telenovelas you too would develop fancy and outlandish ideas.
For those who have never seen a telenovela, it’s hard to explain or define. It’s tv drama but on steroids and like a rap beat, it loops into a feel of coiling infinity. The story normally makes two worlds collide; rich people who are very rich and poor people who are very poor. The Romeo & Juliet scenario is played to exhaustion with the gigantic class divide being centre stage. The gestures are grandiose, the dialogue is loud and emotional, and the family mess is always on a gargantuan scale. There will be a background of power and corruption and plenty of complicated relationships wrapped in layers of catastrophe, heartbreak and joy. Throw in romance, passion with luscious scenes, dramatic close ups, gorgeous colours, catchy music and beautiful people and you have a telenovela. A rollercoaster of everything.
Was Brazil like that, you ask exhausted with shiny eyes and beating hearts? Sort of. It felt familiar for one, the language is musical and the accent gurgling and generous with prolonged hissing sounds. My Portuguese accent was prim in comparison and made people giggle; always a good start. People were beautiful, with beautiful smiles and generous with their time and knowledge. The vastness of the country hits you. The state of Minas Gerais (try hissing the g and the s) produces approximately 50% of the country’s coffee and the state of São Paulo (the ão sound needs to come from deep in your throat ) is the home to the Port of Santos, Brazil’s main coffee exporting port and the namesake for Brazilian coffee. Travelling through Minas Gerais makes you aware of the huge variation in the landscape, from Africa savannah to cool green hills and how long it takes to get anywhere. And then there is coffee.
And this is the best part, the quality of the coffees. If you are raising an eyebrow in disbelief, hold that thought. Like colliding opposing worlds in a telenovela, the coffee industry in Brazil shows the same disparity. There is volume of a standard Santos on one side and there is exquisite quality of small speciality lots processed with ingenuity on the other. Two worlds apart able to co-exist.
“Like colliding opposing worlds in a telenovela, the coffee industry in Brazil shows the same disparity.”
When visiting large farms where mechanisation is the norm and all you can see is coffee for miles, you think volume. But after you are shown the mill, equipment, tonnage processed, warehouses and workers facilities, then they show you the small projects. Coffee fermented with cocoa pods drying on raised beds; the boozy nose wafting in the sunshine and the heavy molasses sweetness stay forever imprinted. The stories of small trials abounded on every farm. Some were planned in detail with the expectation of prizes; and some were accidents because a truck broke down and couldn’t get to the mill, so nature took over the fermentation. One farmer has been chasing the quality of that broken truck lot since then and in chasing this rainbow he has tried everything, including leaving coffee on the same truck overnight, on the same stretch of road. Coffee growers in Minas Gerais know how to deliver volume, that’s their bread and butter, but their pride comes through in the small lots; they know quality is needed for reputation, to win prizes and to boast. One farmer had a folder with all the coffee prize certificates lovingly filed and showed these with care, just like my mother baring my bare bottom baby photos to friends. These farmers have pride by the bucket load and the real competition is between neighbours. Yes, they want the prize certificate and score, but the grins come out when they get more money for their lot than the neighbour down the road. Chest are puffed, eyes sparkly, and they look taller, oozing pleasure. Pure and unadulterated boasting!
In every farm or co-op we visited cupping tables were set out with coffees ranging from commodity lots to speciality. All our hosts showcased the variety on offer unashamedly and cupping was a joy when stumbling over a coffee that just delighted. That is the moment to throw the cupping sheet away and just tease the flavours out and smile like an idiot because you are blissfully happy. To shout out a quality score feels wrong because a number cannot possibly describe how sticky dates and sweet roasted hazelnuts with cereal feel like on a sunny hot day under a jacaranda tree.
And where are they now, one year on, these generous and beautiful people? In Paraguaçu 22 cases with two hospitalisations were reported, but no deaths. Coffee farmers in Minas are busy at this very moment harvesting so they stay away from towns in cities. This self-enforced social distancing may be well timed when Covid-19 starts making its way inland. Although shutdowns were temporarily enforced in areas, coffee is still being exported. We depend on this volume. Let’s not forget that there is beauty in what is known as the standard container lot. We need good solid well processed and clean coffees. They have body, plenty of toast and cereal and can be kind in a blend without obscuring other origins. Choose well and those sun kissed flavours will deliver.
“To shout out a quality score feels wrong because a number cannot possibly describe how sticky dates and sweet roasted hazelnuts with cereal make you feel on a hot, sunny day under a jacaranda tree.”
Coffee tasting in Brazil bounced between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Brazilian coffee farmers adapt with flair, stubbornness and originality. Brazil’s reputation may be built on volume; being the world’s largest coffee producer does not come with an obvious quality stamp. The answer to turn this engraved world view is to offer both bulk commodity and delicate speciality. After all, this is the model for the country, and Brazilian coffee farmers have been doing it for a while. They still hold the top position worldwide on coffee volume but look what they can do. This is not a love letter to Brazil. There were plenty of bug bites to put a damper on the most ardent lovesick feeling. At times there was formality reminiscent of a different era, but the spell broke quickly. No moment is better than when the ice is unceremoniously cracked with broad smiles, scattered kisses with the familiarity of long-lost friends and unreserved colourful language. The telenovela vibe rolls in, everyone relaxes into convulsive Technicolor laughter and incessant chatter followed by a cup of coffee. That is my image of Brazil, half delightful and half infuriating.
Share this article
About Dr Eduarda Cristovam
Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie
Eduarda is our resident sensory expert, with 21 years of experience in Sensory Analysis; 19 of which are specific to the coffee industry. As a result, Eduarda has a unique and inspiring way of describing coffee attributes and her interactive tasting sessions come highly recommended.
In addition to holding a PhD (Quality drivers in Port Wine and Espresso Coffee), Eduarda has lectured in Sensory Studies at Adelaide University, Australia, and is an Honorary Guest Lecturer at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.
As Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie, Eduarda oversees the development and introduction of all our new coffee and non-coffee products.