Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, himself a coffee farmer, just returned from visiting Brazil to taste and purchase coffee for Dallis Bros. On this entry he arrives at our own sister farm in Brazil, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, after travelling about the land, meeting farmers and learning about the special agronomy of Brazil, in between exhaustive cuppings. Here is his final trip diary from Summer 2012.
On my way to the airport the taxi driver and I made general taxi-driver-and-passenger conversation. He was very nice about how fluid my Portuguese was, or did he say fluent? I don’t know because I only really can communicate like a 3 year old child in Portuguese. I often use the wrong conjugation and when I don’t know the word I just say it in Spanish. I understand a large percentage of what people are saying, but my mouth is much slower than my ear at this new language.
One thing I did fully understand from the driver was his relationship with coffee. He said, “Coffee is my vice, I’ll drink it an any hour of the day. From where I’m from in Minas there is very little great coffee that is brought in. One thing that I’m not willing to give up is my brew method. I use the traditional method only (affectionately called the Sock Brewer most of us coffee professionals in the US). I have a very specific way of brewing. I grind the coffee, and then apply the very hot water to the coffee, never the coffee to the water (referring to the boiling coffee method that some people use here in Brazil). Then once you add the water there is nothing left to do*. Let the water do the work and the aroma will let you know if you did it right. I wouldn’t trade my cloth brewer for any machine on earth. Nothing makes better coffee than our traditional brewer.”
*He may have mentioned something about a stir, but I don’t know the word for stir…
I loved it, this guy was gushing about his relationship with coffee. We clearly had something in common. He asked how I purchased coffee and if I thought Brazilian women are beautiful. The first answer was much longer than the second, which was a yes (he knew I am married).
This is my third trip to Brazil and I’m only now starting to understand Brazilian coffee. There are so many people involved in getting Brazilian coffee to market and the methods of production are so different in Brazil. A few trips to this beautiful origin are the the minimum to start to understand the needs of the farmers, processors and exporters.
In Brazil there is a big push toward mechanization. According to what one farmer said, “I have to either end using manual labor or manual labor will end us”. The labor costs and insurance in Brazil are very high. This is great for the individual workers to meet the high costs of living and transport in Brazil, but it puts the farm owners in a tough spot. Coffee culture is in the fabric of Brazilian life. No body wants to move toward all mechanized production, but if farmers want to stay in business they need to sell at a profit. In every Brazilian coffee ad there is a picture of a person winnowing coffee. This is how leaves and sticks are removed from the picking using a round screen and the wind. It is beautiful to watch. Just look at our Flickr site for some examples. Now there are machines that work. Are farming regions suffering from high unemployment rates? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like the draw of urban life and urban culture wins over getting dirt under your nails.
The way I view it is like looking at a forklift. Every warehouse in the US nowadays has a forklift to move pallets of product. When cargo first arrived, warehouses needed fewer people to move the same product. At Dallis we have one employee, Carlo Simeon, from the pre-forklift days still working with us in Ozone Park. Bag by bag they unloaded truckloads of coffee. Carlo doesn’t smile about those days, it is actually a sigh. 60 to 70kg bags of coffee is a lot of weight for one person to carry and that is how coffee was moved between warehouses. At most origins I only see workers carrying bags on their back and loading them into the long trailers, not a forklift in sight. Eventually forklifts will be purchased and the heavy lifting can be done by machines. We are seeing this happen in Brazilian coffee production not because of profit-hungry farm owners, but because of farm owners trying to stay farm owners.
I had one (what seemed to be well informed) agronomist tell me the cost of production based on a production per hectare. Then another agronomist told me a number that was 30% higher. I shared the first number with the second agronomist and he told me that the first agronomist was either lying or mis-informed. Regardless, the numbers are all over the place and nobody seems to know how much Brazilian farmers need to break even. When I asked one farmer he told me the honest truth, “I don’t know, I’ve been planting new coffee areas every year so all the costs are mixed up together”.
The overall number of coffee cultivated areas is going down and the production of coffee per area is going up. This comes from new varieties and more appropriate fertilizations, in my opinion.
On the consumption front, Brazil loves coffee. Most of what is drank in the normal coffee places is a blend with robusta. Most of it was pretty rough. Some was simply benign. Aside from the cupping table, only three places: my friend Hektor’s house, with Villa Essencia coffee, Labratorio do Cafe – Isabela Raposerias, and the Octavio Cafe in São Paulo had amazing coffee. There is plenty of room on the larger scale for improvement. I was able to share a few coffees with the workers at Octavio Cafe and they loved trying some new things. One was the Espresso from Ninth Street Espresso which came from the same farm that supplies the Octavio Cafe coffee: Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Same farm, different varieties, different roasters resulting in different espressos.
It has been amazing to see how some regions with poor soils produce beautiful coffee. The Speciality potential here is incredible. There are world class coffees in Brazil that can compete with the best coffees in the world.
Currently sitting on the plane to JFK, what comes to mind are more and more questions because I’m only just starting to understand how this massive and complicated origin works. I have a list of questions to ask our suppliers in Brazil and hopefully, that will only lead to more questions.
Sul de Minas
Here are some crazy numbers. One of the less affected regions in the Sur de Minas region was Alfanes. The rain levels in June were 5 times higher than normal. The average rainfall in June is 22 millimeters. This June it was 124 millimeters. Not only that, before some of the heavy rains dumped on the coffee, there were several days of constant rain that saturated the soil. When that happens a farmer can only wait for the bad weather to pass and the soil to dry before they can resume picking and drying coffee. The maturation of the coffee speeds up drastically and cherries fall off the trees on to the ground.
I tend to like the coffees from Sul de Minas. I was excited and nervous to see what this crop looked like. To get there from Pedrugulho we left Nossa Senhora at 6am and headed straight south.
We started by having a breakfast of pao de queijo on our way to the first farm. A talkative ex-potato farmer. He decided to move into coffee farming by exploring all his options. He visited farms all over and decided to use a beneficial grass and a fungus to build his soil. He shared the highest yields I’ve heard all trip. Truly incredible amounts of coffee per hectare: 84 bags. He lives on his farm and doesn’t want to be a volume producer, he wants to be a quality producer. His coffee was great last year. He is doing an impressive job diligently managing every step. “No, I don’t want to be big. I want to be on the drying patio looking at my coffee to see it is being treated right. It is the eye of the owner that improves the health of the farm”. He meant his own two eyes watching everything. This year he had some great cups on the table.
Another farm had all the really cool artisan methods down to a science. Raised beds, slow drying and a breath taking view. Their Natural Process Yellow Bourbon was amazing.
Today I cupped 24 coffees after visiting 3 farms. Some had brilliant sparkly acidity and some were that caramel-sweet body-driven coffee that I love from Sul de Minas. Those tables sure had some land mines as well. The amount of Rio (a defect that apparently comes from the Fucario fungus and tastes a lot like hints of chlorine in your coffee) and phenol on the table was disturbing. It wasn’t that bad, but there were a lot more of these defects than I had found earlier on this trip.
It was a long day I got to Sao Lourneco about 12:30am. Tomorrow Carmo de Minas.
Carmo de Minas
At least one farmer in very growing region told me, “The rains weren’t that bad for us, but that other region you are visiting had it bad.” And at least one farmer in every region told me, “The weather was terrible this year, the worst in 30 years. Expect high prices and lots of Rio and fermented cups”.
I heard the same thing everywhere. And every where seemed to point at Sul de Minas as having the worst problems with weather. I found more Rio on the cupping table in that region for sure, but how do I sort out all the mixed messages from farmers?
Clearly it has been a rough year for the Brazilian coffee crop. Rains are the problem. It really can change everything about how the coffee is “finished”. Even if the farmer did everything right for the first 8 months, the final months of the harvest cycle make all the difference in the cup. If there is rain at the end of the maturation it kind of messes up the system. The cherries fall of the trees before they are ripe and they ripen very quickly. The cherries can also “explode” or split open because of the rain. Then when it comes to processing, coffee can’t be processed on the patio. It must be dried in the driers. One positive thing is that mechanical driers are everywhere in Brazil. But most farms don’t have the mechanical drying capacity to handle the entire harvest.
I was interested to hear from the farmers in Sul de Minas, but especially Carmo de Minas which routinely produces the finest coffees in Brazil, according to the Cup of Excellence. They often win about 70% of the international finalist positions. I did three tables in Carmo. There were a few brilliant coffees. Truly standout, amazing coffees. There was mostly decent to meh on the tables. But that is how coffees work, a couple winners and several 2nd places.
Farmers have more and more contact with buyers and they are quite good sales people. All the talk about Sul de Minas being terrible this year. . . was that just a sales pitch for me to focus on their coffees? Clearly Brazil is going to have a rough year in terms of quality, but lets not forget that this harvest is going to be 25% larger than last year. It should be near record levels (about 54 million bags of coffee). My take-away is that we (at Dallis Bros) have to be very careful with a few types of defects coming out of Brazil this year but there is still amazing and brilliant coffee sitting in Brazil waiting to be purchased.
In Brazil, there is more research and technology invested into coffee than almost any other country. Just look at the amount of varieties coming out of Brazil: Tupi, Topazio, Acaia, Catucai, Caturra, Catuai, Icatu and many more. All those names come from the Tupi Guarani indians that lived in Brazil before the Portuguese arrived. The point is, with all this technology and investment into coffee in Brazil, they are still susceptible to climatic conditions. And in a country that sells coffee based on size, defect count and cup quality (clearly they know a lot about grading coffee), they still can’t tell which lots are going to be Speciality until they hit the cupping table.
I think if anything, I’ve learned that truly speciality coffee is still something beyond what we currently understand. Farmers can do everything right on the right piece of land and that doesn’t mean that every bean will blow your mind in the cup.
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, himself a coffee farmer, is currently visiting Brazil to taste and purchase coffee for Dallis Bros. On this entry he arrives at our own sister farm in Brazil, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, after travelling about the land, meeting farmers and learning about the agronomy of the land, in between exhaustive cuppings. Here is his third trip diary from Summer 2012.
One of the many lessons I learned from my mom was that until you hear the same thing from a few different people, you haven’t really started to understand the topic. Well, in my last update I only talked a bit about some of the farms I visited. At one that has a really impressive operation with irrigation, full lot traceability, and some really great coffees, the owner was telling me about how great his naturals were. I asked him point blank: why? He spoke English so it was easy to talk to him so directly. He just pointed to his patio. He struggled to find some words and said, we watch them closely and next year our naturals will be awesome. LIke a two-year-old I asked again: why? Come look. And he took off to the patio with drying coffee.
He started telling me some details: the problem with naturals is how they arrive to the patio at different moisture levels. In Brazil the naturals are either the floaters in water processed or partially and fully dried on the tree. So they arrive to the patio at different levels of moisture. Some arrive at an overly dry 9%, others arrive to the patio at 20% humidity. And the target is 12%. So he has a plan to separate the fully dried naturals from the partially dried naturals through a screen sorter. The wetter beans being larger and the more dried smaller. Makes perfect sense. He showed me one tiny bean that was dry and one wet larger bean. In my hand I found beans that were much closer in size and very different moistures. I loved the intention and spirit but I didn’t know if that was going to really work with the precision that he was describing.
Next stop was Nossa Senhora Aparecida. This is my third trip to our sister company in Brazil. So for me it was most important to see all the new improvements, irrigation system, and try and understand more about this crop’s cup character. We are at the tail end of the harvest. We are only processing naturals right now. In the pickings there are only about 2% ripe cherries. Therefore all the coffee is being natural processed because it is tree-dried. The farm is working on Saturday right now but not pulling the 24-hour processing shifts like it was in peak harvest. I arrived on Friday night from the Cerrado region. Sat AM the farm manger Serrafim took me around and patiently described every process. This would become a novel if I tried to relay a quarter of the info he downloaded on me.
These are the highlights. After riding on the mechanical picker while it picked one row, the driver got off the machine and ran back where he had just picked. It looked like he dropped his keys in the field. Nope. The second time he and Serrafim did the run up and back, I asked him what they driving was doing. Oh he is just checking the trees for stress and the quality of picking. If they are losing too many leaves, he can adjust the vibration intensity. If I’ve learned anything in coffee, it is that the attention to detail and these small touches in the name of quality make all the difference.
I had lunch with the irrigation expert. Irrigation makes sense for our farm. Last year’s crop really suffered in terms of production because of the drought we had in the prior year. Irrigation doesn’t mean “just watering the trees”. He made it very clear that there is an incredible amount of finesse required to treat the trees right. A few things: we can fertilize with a system which pinpoints the application of a fertilizer to the trees so less is used. We can also encourage the trees to have a more uniform flowering by withholding water, then hit them with heavy water for about a week to open all the flowers. Then keep the trees wet until the buds take. But that doesn’t mean turning on the irrigation and turning it off after a couple hours. Based on the clay-to-sand ratio in each section of the farm, the soil has a different holding capacity of water. Therefore the amount and the timing for every section of the farm can be different. And there are sensors at different levels in the soil to detect if the water saturation.
The Alta Mogiana region was not spared from rains of June. Nor was our farm. I had visions of this trip to Brazil being entire cupping tables of the Rio defect and ferment. So far I was spared, I was only shown clean delicious coffees. The 19 coffees I cupped from Nossa Senohra Aparecida were no different. Delish. The stand out was our Fully Washed Yellow Bourbon. Sparkling acidy in a balanced sweet cup. I was also able to taste some of my own handiwork. The farm director Edgard Bressani and I spent several hours in New York working on specific ways to process some microlots at Nossa Senhora.
We decided to build some raised beds and a patio with a tarp over it. The raised bed coffees were solid and some were outstanding. All separate varieties, all very small quantities. Edgard also did a coffee fermented with milk in the tank which was quite nice this year. Here is the crazy thing. Pedrugulho is the most productive municipality in the State of São Paulo Brazil. Now in Pedregulho, there are only 3 farms doing pulped-natural process. Most farms are only doing natural process. I had no idea how rare pulped-natural process coffee was in the Mogiana region. At Nossa Senhora we do the 3 major processes: pulped-natural, natural and fully washed all start as single varieties and now we have tiny lots microlots that started as a brainstorm in Queens New York.
Our dry and wet mill manager, Marcelo, looks like he just stepped off the surfboard. Tan, cool and excited. He has 15 years experience working on some of the best farms in Brazil. I dug a bit deeper with how we do things at Nossa Senhora at the wet mill. We do an underwater ferment on the fully washed coffee from our farm. Some were along the way Marcelo figured out the exact pH of water to mark the end of the fully washed process. Don’t get the impression Marcelo processes only with machines that tell him what to do. In every step, I asked him why he did certain processes or methods. He would just smile and show his hands. This is how I know adjust this machine. I feel the cherries before they go in the machine, I watch how they come out and adjust accordingly. So I asked him about the theory of the other farmer to sort out the more and less try natural process coffees. He smiled and eloquently disagreed with the theory I shared from the farmed I talked about at the beginning of this post. “Well,” he said, “I have a different method to homogenize the humidity in the beans.”
He described how he manages the thickness of the cherries every day depending on the weather and the moisture of the natural process beans. The proof is in the cup and our naturals this year were solid on the cupping table, clean, sweet and balanced.
More later from the Sur de Minas region.
A late summer tour of our coffee roasting factory and tasting room in Ozone Park, Queens!
Our coffee pros will lead you on a romp through local history, the history of our 99-year-old New York City coffee company, coffee roasting, coffee tasting (cupping), and a tour of our roasting plant.
Tours are $10 and include a free bag of coffee at the end! Our next tour is Saturday, August 11th, beginning at 1:00 and wrapping up at about 4:00. Space on the tour is limited due to all the coffee in here, so reserve your space in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Due to the tasting component we ask that all participants show up perfume and cologne free.
If you have any questions, feel free to call our office during business hours, (718) 845-3010.
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, himself a coffee farmer, is currently visiting Brazil to taste and purchase coffee for Dallis Bros. He’ll eventually end up at our own sister farm in Brazil, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, but currently he is travelling about the land, meeting farmers and learning about the agronomy of the land, in between exhaustive cuppings. Here is his second trip diary from Summer 2012.
In typical Brazilian fashion, I asked to speak to an agronomist and they made it happen. I wanted to understand the climate and the agriculture as it related to coffee. It might seem like Speciality Grade is “luck”. But coffee is anything but dumb luck. Coffee is 76% of the income in Patrocinio, a town in the heart of the Cerrado (se-ha-do) region. After talking with the agronomist until the sun was well set, it became clear to me how methodical these farmers are. The agronomist was really patient with all my questions. I asked why they were planting so many trees per hectare. Most farms in the world are planted with 1500-3000 trees per hectare. They are planting about 5000 per hecate in the Cerrado region. “Oh, we only started doing that recently, about 10 years ago”. I totally appreciated the view that what they have is working. The yields are averaging 30 bags per hectare of coffee and they are doing it in totally poor soils. Let me explain. Cerrado translates to “savannah”. The native trees barely grow. The elevation is high and you will want to wear a jacket at night. In regions with richer soil the mango trees are huge. In the Cerrado they are short, squatty and don’t grow straight if they grow at all. It is clearly a rough place to grow things.
After the black frost of coffee in 1975 in Parana in the south of Brazil, farmers started moving north where the frost risk didn’t exist. A lot of these farms have been in production for only about 20 years. They use a fair amount of fertilizer and have learned to use the weeds that grow in between the rows as fertilizer. One farm doesn’t use any chemical weed killer, only mowers, and has a higher level of organic material and (I assume) therefore a higher yield of 50 bags per hectare. Several of the farms I visited are Rainforest Alliance certified. They have taken a dry-brush-filled savannah and planted trees all over the place in poor soils and considering coffee is profitable (at current market levels) there are new coffee plantings all over the place.
So I walk back into the trade house the following day and find the cupper Lucas giving the dry mill manager a hard time because he is letting certain defects through for a Brazil NY 4/5, which is a low commercial grade coffee with defects—the green smelled like a public school restroom, musty and funky. The result of the conversation was to re-run the coffee through a couple machines to get it right. Needless to say I was impressed at the attention to detail for a such a low-grade commercial coffee. I went out to see 3 farms that day. The first was aptly named Paraiso. The farm is from Italy and is totally . . . insane. Before I met the farmer, it was obvious that the farm was strictly managed. I could tell by the natural process cherries on the patio resting at 90 degree angles. I met the farm manager and the owner. The owner was clearly pissed about something and communicated this clearly to the manager. Based on the cupping results, this farm is doing a lot of things right. The Yellow Icatu (variety) was delish, the Tupi tasted like a good espresso base, and the natural from last year (although old) also tasted like a winner.
There were 4 of us in the truck: coffee trader, an interpreter, the farm owner and I. At one point the farm owner was excited and making a joke. I didn’t understand what he said. So I looked at the interpreter, who also didn’t understand, then she looked at the coffee trader, who also didn’t understand who looked at the farmer, who simply repeated what he said in Italian. We all laughed, understanding nothing.
The next day we did another table of calibration. While the history of the Cerrado is all commercial coffees (many farms only produce natural process) this group is passionately excited about Speciality. You can see it in their faces when sharing cupping notes. One employee there told me he enjoyed sharing information and cupping his coffees more than making money on commercial coffees.
Weather: the weather in the Cerrado region has been rough this year. The region received rain in June like never before. It accelerated the maturation of the crop and therefore reduced the amount of pulp-natural the farms could produce. Most farms will mechanically pick their coffee twice. Then do the sweepings to pick up the loose cherries from the ground to control the broca and sell the coffee as a lower grade. One farm I visited is doing the sweepings, then picking the coffee once, then sweeping again because there are so many cherries on the ground already. At least for now it isn’t raining and they are all racing to get the coffee on the patio and dry before all the remaining coffee ends up as sweepings.
More coming soon from Nossa Senhora Aparecida.
After about 18 hours of travel I arrived in Belo Horizonte to visit Bruno from Beccor. The biggest lesson from buying coffee last year was to really be utterly clear with everyone long before I arrive. Laying out details like when I wanted the coffee roasted, what I wanted to see, what my expectations were in terms of profile. I walked into Academia do Cafe and found two cuppings waiting for me. Game on.
The table first was all naturals. The amazing thing is that it all came from the same farm, Fazenda Esperanza. Different varieties, and some of the lots were neighbors, as in dried on the same patio, same picking and yet still tasted drastically different. The only lot that I thought had some potential had one slight rio cup. (Sigh). Half of the lots were painfully fresh tasting (which is what I asked for). We stopped for Acai juice. (Considering I had my rice and beans at 9:30am in the São Paulo airport, I was good till dinner). The second table was much more dynamic. The largest lot, a 700 bag lot, was the best on the table. Fazenda Esperanza was on the table again. Fazenda Esperanza had one of the best coffees there, with a dynamic citric acidity, a beautiful body and outstanding character—but the other two lots of the same variety were way behind in terms of cupping score. What is the difference? Dried on the same patio, same variety, same trees, etc. We could only shrug our shoulders. We ate dinner at 10pm. Some kind of river fish, in a boiling bowl of goodness called Mocequa.
Bruno doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. He is 100% a brilliant coffee person. He knows every region, cup profile, and is point blank honest on the cupping table. Considering he is a farmer, exporter and importer, he is pretty well rounded. He sold us some great lots last year. He thrives on doing 10 things at once. He walks through the Cerrado region like a politician running for office because everyone knows and likes him.
I slept really hard the first night. Day two, we did another table at 9:00am “Bruno time” (actually 10:30am) which will determine our route through Campos Altos and Petrocinio. That table had some real standout coffees. I still didn’t find anything that jumped out to me as being perfect but it was progress. That afternoon we drove the 4 hours to Campos Altos. Only stopping for a corn drink and cheese bread with sausage sandwich. Delish. I stayed at Bruno’s family’s house in a tiny room with two twin beds. Bruno is a polite snorer. Never so long that it will keep you up.
That morning, after drinking bad coffee with this parents, we went out to his farm. At first glance the trees look ok, but the farm looks “run down”. But really digging into where things are going, you can see a farm that is on the upswing. Three years ago the 40 hectares of coffee only produced 80 bags. This year he is on track to produce 700 bags simply because it is being taken care of. They have a dry mill on the farm with a bunch of equipment from 1962. This equipment is not only mostly wood, but it is beautiful and it still works. We talked a lot about Bruno’s next steps in and improvements. His coffee has received a 91 from Ken Davids and the coffees on the table showed some real potential.
Then we headed off to the heart of the Cerrado. A region known for producing what I’m after: espresso bases. Just before Patrocinio we stopped at a little house and had the most slammin’ meal so far. The garlic and salt balance in the beans was divine. So was fried pork and the natural juices.
Bruno dropped me off at a trading office. They have really strong relationships with several producers here. We talked a bit and then did a table of 5 coffees. The roast was off on all of them but the character still showed through on most. After going through the notes—some of the coffees had great potential—Lucas, their Q Grader and QC Person, continued to ask me questions as to how to get closer to the profile I was after. I could have kissed him.
“So, if this coffee #2 had a better body then you it would fit your profile?”
“If you had to use these coffee, how would you blend them to get hit your target?”
I was giddy excited to find someone so willing to really dig into what we want. Also having the espresso targets relayed to us from the sales team at Dallis helps immensely.
Here is the crazy part. The farmers here are so large, one lot can totally miss the target of what I want in coffee, and the next lot can totally nail it. One farm was on the table at the trade house 4 times yesterday. Sure, they were similar, but each one was a different variety. The Yellow Icatu was delicious. Another farm that I dismissed on a cupping earlier this week because it showed too thin of a body had a different lot that was much closer to the target. That farm also won the Illy Competition a couple years ago.
Again we just shrug our shoulders. And the farmers do too. There is so much potential here. For example, Bruno’s neighbor produces only naturals and Bruno has found some brilliant lots but they are never consistent or predictable. “It is just luck.”
At one point we dropped in on a trade house that has that 700 bag lot, Bruno walked in and grabbed the owner from behind and attempted to drag him out of the door. Everyone thought it was hilarious and in good taste, except the owner. He was visibly pissed. Apparently someone had been kidnapped 300 meters from the warehouse a couple days ago. The point of the story is that the warehouse has all the capacity to deal speciality coffee but doesn’t. They have a great cupper, green graders, machines etc. But when it comes to identifying great lots and putting in the extra work to market them and find the right buyer, it isn’t part of what they do. It would take an investment on their part and they would be selling in a new market.
For dedicated exporters and buyers this is a gold mine, but just like finding gold there is a whole lot of dirt to sort through before you find any gold.
We’d like to be the first to decree the NYC-Philly rivalry over and done with. You know what? We’ve always loved Philadelphia, not just for its history but for its constantly leading culture and cuisine—and we especially love that it’s such a short trip from Ozone Park to a whole other world.
On this note, we couldn’t be more thrilled to have entered a partnership in bringing our coffee to Philly with one of the city’s most influential leaders in both culture and coffee, and folks we’ve been friends with for a long time, MilkBoy.
Established in first as a recording studio in North Philly, MilkBoy’s empire today includes a spacious cafe on the Main Line in Ardmore, a bar, restaurant and live music venue in Philly’s city center, as well as the renowned recording studio. And we all know music people “get” coffee more than anyone else—so who better to lead a killer coffee program than the guys who lead a killer music venue?
We went down to Philly to check out both MilkBoy cafes (okay—one portrays the outward appearance of a bar, but where else can you drink a wonderfully crafted espresso and a YuengLing from 7:00am until after midnight?) and tour some of the city’s other amazing cafes and pop-ups, like Ultimo Coffee, Odd Fellows, Shot Tower, One Shot and Rival Bros. After spending another fun day cruising Philly, we at Dallis Bros. feel honored to be part of bringing coffee to this great town—and great coffee town.
So next time you’re in the City of Brotherly Love, sidle up to the bar on Chestnut Street for a great espresso or single origin coffee, grab a bite and a beer, and stay for a great band upstairs. And if you want to kick back, head out to Ardmore, where our coffees are crafted on a beautiful La Marzocco GB5 machine in a sunny, warm room full of big-city-small-community charm. And much as we love our own city where we’ve roasted coffee for 99 years—you’ll see right away what we love about Philly—because MilkBoy is a coffee (and so much more) company all about loving Philly too.
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, earlier this June. The 2012 crop of Finca La Paz has just arrived at our roastery, and it’s better than ever.
I spent the better part of today trying to ask the right questions. One of the best lessons I learned in Peace Corps was that if you don’t ask the right question, you won’t get the right answer. A huge assumption that most of us make is that the other person understands our position. Usually people (especially in the DR) they just try and give the answer that will make the other person happy.
For example: Peace Corps Volunteer to a random Dominican in the street: “Where is the CODOCAFE building?”
Dominican: “Oh that is just that way, keep going straight.”
Several blocks later. It plays out with different directions. Several blocks later, it plays out with different directions. Eventually someone actually knows where the building is and gives accurate directions. The first two good Samaritans just wanted to be “helpful”.
Today I had pretty simple plans: get to the export warehouse and dry mill cup some offerings and really dig into what happens at a mill.
The cupping was pretty straightforward. I’ve found that usually when I’m clear on specs or profiles and have previously cupped with a company, the cuppings get smaller and better. They don’t try and show me everything, just the stuff I asked for. So there were about 7 lots on the table. All were solid. The Lagulito was slamming. The acidity was pretty insane. Overall it had everything we wanted. I’m going to try a
few different blends in our lab and build the lot for this year.
I can’t tell you how many dry mills I’ve visited, enough to see all the major brands of equipment and know what each machine does before I’m told. My questions were all about the control that the workers had over the sorting. See, dry mills are all about sorting or “extracting” the good beans from the bad. In the dry mill all the machines are using physical attributes to indicate defective beans. Extracting may not be the best word but it seems appropriate for this analogy.
Dry mills work by a few major steps. All of them are different. But there are some standard machines. Here are some basics that need to be understood.
Pergamino: Coffee dried to about 11% moisture, with the papery parchment layer still on
Hulling: Removes the parchment
Size sorting: Separates the beans into about 8 different sizes
Density table: Separates beans by density (the denser the better)
Catador: Uses airflow to pull out smaller and broken beans
Optical sorter: Uses laser lenses to read the color of the beans and reject beans based on the color
Walking through most dry mills, usually I find a few workers babysitting a couple machines and most of the machines are “self-managed”. Watching the workers, uh, mill around, always made wonder what they were doing. It is like a watching a barista make a shot but not knowing the important controls.
I spent most of the time working with the optical sorter and the density sorter. The density sorter has 4 major controls: feed rate, air flow, vibration rate, and the paddles at the end of the table. Some people call them Oliver tables but that is a brand, just like Kleenex. The paddles at the end direct the coffee into different slots. The worst coffee is pushed out directly on the lowest side. The middle coffee is usually either run again or pulled as a slightly lower grade. The best is usually sent to the optical sorter.
Time is money. When the sales rep is booking coffee faster than they can prep it, that is a problem. When a buyer asks for X Grade of prep, how does the dry mill adjust the machines to fill that grade?
Dry mill equipment is sold on how many lbs or quintals (100lbs) of coffee the machine can process in an hour, and they are all usually connected so no one must move the coffee once the system starts. When
a box has to be prepped the clock is ticking to make certain the coffee is ready before the boat leaves. The natural tendency is to push as much coffee through the system as possible. Run the density table at its maximum “feed” rate, run the vibrations high, run the air medium to low (increases the first grade) and the paddles are left untouched. As the feed rate changes, everything else is affected, much like adjusting the grind for espresso. The airflow pushes the coffee harder towards the lower qualities. So more air means cleaner coffee but more time cleaning. Remember the dry mill only sorts by physical appearance, size and density. So the workers aren’t milling around: they are vigilantly monitoring the quality.
There are only two places in the dry mill that have good light: the density table and the laser sorter. This is because the workers need to be checking the quality as the coffee is flowing by looking at the
The optical sorter had some similar adjustment but it is a lot more complicated. I was working with an Xceltron brand from Costa Rica. First the machine must be calibrated to expect certain defects in bean
color: black, white, red, red/black, and yellow. Each color can be set on a scale of 0 to 94 individually. Setting everything to 94 would make the machine hyperactive and cause it to reject too many beans. Setting it to zero means every bean would pass.
Optical sorters take coffee from a hopper, run it straight down a channel of by two rotating cylinders and then at the last second the bean flies straight off the end in to the air where the coffee’s color is read by a laser and a blast of air pushes defective beans out of the path the good coffee into the path of the defective coffee. This all happens very fast.
Again, time is money. Running a coffee twice through the machine adds a couple cents to the dry mill’s cost. They can be run at different rates because they are built just like a weigh-and-fill machine. The lenses need to be cleaned often. Dust is a major issue in dry mills. When dust covers the optical lens, it can’t read the color and defects are allowed through. Once again, these machines are baby sat. If all the
sudden they stop rejecting any coffee. . . something changed. Either the coffee became perfectly clean or some dust covered some lenses or the machine fell out of calibration. Often times the machines just
keep running until someone steps in and fixes it. This is why sometimes people exporters and importers say, “oh you just found a bad bag of coffee.”
The optical reader and density table will keep running until told otherwise. And if out of calibration, they could be pushing the wrong quality into the export silo. The dry mill workers are the final custodians that bring the coffee from a seed to green coffee that can be roasted. Once the coffee goes into the burlap bags and is put on a sealed dry container, that is it. You can’t really re-run the product once it gets to the United States.
So if someone is taking a long lunch and comes back to find a machine pushing the lower quality coffee in the “first” quality slot and they just adjust the machine and pretend like bags of coffee weren’t just
compromised it is hard to say if anyone will catch it until it gets to the roaster. That is where one sample from the same lot should show brilliance and the other defects.
The dry mill processing cost is typically not a huge percent in the final green price but it is incredibly important. From what I hear, the dry mill costs range from 7-30 cents per pound for prep. It depends on the
defect percent going in, level of automation, and whether you are looking at the real cost or the charged cost.
Even though it was only one day, I feel like I’m starting to grasp where the quality control points in a dry mill are and how they are manipulated to produce brilliant coffee. Dry mills make the coffee dance in a million different directions to try and shake out the dirty from the clean beans. The attention of the workers and the calibration of the machines is paramount to quality coffee.
Again, it just confirms that any delicious cup of clean coffee is a miracle.
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, earlier this June. The 2012 crop of Finca La Paz has just arrived at our roastery, and it’s better than ever.
Currently I’m sitting in a Washington, DC airport en route to the Dominican Republic. I left Camp Pull-A-Shot at 9am, I will get to the DR at 2am. It will be a long day. Tomorrow I leave (hopefully) from the capital, Santo Domingo, at 6:30am to Los Frios arriving there about 3pm on Friday (hopefully). I’ve already been de-planed once. Thankfully it looks like I’ll make my connection.
In my CHECKED BAG are hand pruning shears, large pruning shears, and a 12″ bow saw with 3 replacement blades that i bought in Brooklyn from one of those hardware stores that always has pregnant cats in it. The Dominican Republic was built on agriculture: rice, sugar, coffee, beans, mahogany, and coffee of course. It seems they have forgotten about their farmers. It has been so dang hard to just find a good pruning saw in the nearest big city. I resisted bringing tools because I don’t want to depend on US tools for a DR farming operation. But part of my pruning this year was done with machete, something I hate to see on other farms, much less on my own. (Using a machete opens huge cuts on shade and coffee trees exposing them to attacks from fungus and other plagues common in tropical climates. Furthermore it is not good for the tree because it doesn’t know it was pruned, it just feels like someone took a machete to its arm.)
The DR has a terrible broca problem (destructive bean borer beetle). The DR has embarrassing production levels per hectare. The DR has leaf rust (fungus). The DR has ojo de gallo (fungus). There are about 160 agronomists here that are supposed to work with coffee. And do we have the tools to build broca traps? no. do we have access to the natural fungus that kills broca? No. Are there another 3 technologies I could list that would help that is not available in the DR? Yes.
So also in my checked bag are 25 empty 2oz vials so that i can make and create my own broca traps. while I’m there I hope to install a bunch of these and start to control the broca problem on Finca La Paz.
On the second half of my slam-packed trip I will be tasting through the better coffees from the North of the DR that have just finished their harvest in late May. The coffees will be fresh, but I will have “first dibs” on the best of the best. In the North of the DR there were some really terrible rains that damaged some of the coffee during the drying process. I hope that we are shown some really stand out coffees like El Lagulito from last year and I can get some of that moving toward NYC for our customers.
Flash back about 8 years ago when i was a peace corps volunteer. I was on my way to El Tetero which is a neighboring community that was about 4 hours away on mule. I was traveling with Miguel from Los Frios. Miguel knows everyone. Miguel greeted someone on the trail by name. As we rode away on our mules I asked Miguel, is that guy from La Cucarita?
It was so clear that he was from La Cucarita because polygamy and land were both very abundant about 80 years ago. Often these tiny remote towns were founded by only one man, maybe two and several women. There was plenty of land. Slash and burn agriculture was an effective way to produce cash crops and food crops. Each town has a few of these men still around. They are easy to spot because they look like they fathered the entire town. They didn’t but their fathers did.
People in La Cucarita have really interesting foreheads (big and boxy), high cheek bones, really dark skin, dark round eyes, and huge forearms.
One of these older men that founded Los Frios had a heart problem and was really sick and bedridden these last few months. All the neighboring towns were on alert on Sunday morning because he was really sick. Just after lunch we heard that he passed. People from every tiny town made their way to see him for one last time before he was buried today. He was always really sweet to me and I really like his kids and his grandkids. Two of them I hadn’t seen in years. They drove from Santiago Sunday and I had the chance to see them as they passed through Los Frios on their way to La Cucarita. I could still see hints of their grandfather in their faces. Their eyes still showed his warmth.
This has nothing to do with coffee, this I know. But this is how communities grow. This story isn’t totally different or unique. I think it is a reflection of how these towns were built.
And now on to coffee. Climate change is real. One of the effects of climate change is weird weather. June is supposed to be the rainy season here in the DR. Not the crazy intense rain but the softer rain every couple days. It is good for coffee development. It works for short-cycle bean crops. Two weeks ago the rain wouldn’t stop. Los Frios, in the South of the DR, was drowned in water for several days in a row. Now the rain has stopped for a week and it was crazy hot. The path down to Finca La Paz is rocky, loose, dry and dusty.
Nerva (my Dominican mother) told me, “we didn’t need ice in Los Frios because the water was always cold”. Now on this trip the cold water shower didn’t take my breath away and the drinking water from the filter wasn’t even a little bit cold. Very strange weather.
I spent Saturday walking the farm with Antonio (my farm manager) and planning where to plant the grafted lime trees. We also checked the progress on this year’s coffee harvest. It looks bigger than last year. The 4 flowerings went well. The gas powered weed trimmer saved me about a 4/5th of the price on a weeding verse weeding with machete.
The upper section of the farm looks great. The two-year-old coffee already has fruit on it.
There are a few trees that have died in the weirdest way. They just try up from the bottom. It takes a few weeks. I think it has to do with how they were planted. The tap root which pulls up the water basically either gets a fungus or just dies. The result is that the tree has nutrients but no water.
The farmers that we bought our new “Los Vecinos” lot from are very happy. They sold to Dallis just as the market came off and walked away with the last good prices of the year. Those that had quality were rewarded. Those that had “decent” parchment were paid the normal market rate. If things go well this year, we could expand the program and build a larger lot.
On Monday I travel from Los Frios to Bonao. Then Tuesday I finish the loop around the island to Santiago to meet with my exporter from the DR to build the next lot of Lagulito and see some of the better offerings from the North of the DR.
To be continued…
The sign of great farming is the willingness to continually improve—we’re delighted to be purchasing coffee again from this nearly 60-year-old association of coffee growers. Their improvements at the farm level show a dedication to quality which is immediately evident in the beautifully acidic, dark fruit and stone-fruit-laden cup.
Colombia is made up of different “departments” which are akin to our states in the United States. This coffee hails from a department known for producing brilliant coffees, Nariño. Nestled at the foot of the Andes mountains in the southwest of Colombia, this coffee comes from an association called Cerro de Reyes, meaning “King’s Mountain”. Since 1953, this association has been exporting quality coffee grown by its 60 members to demanding importers and roasters. Its farmers come from the town of La Union, which is located way way up in the mountains.
We are very happy to buy such a delicious coffee from a region that we haven’t purchased from in quite a while. The farmers in the Association are participating in a Farm Improvement Program to produce sustainable and higher quality practices. These often come from simple farm changes like putting ceramic tile into the fermentation tank, and pruning the coffee trees to improve yields and decrease certain defects.
It’s exciting for us here at Dallis Bros. to taste the brilliant acidity and the clean, dark fruit notes when brewing this coffee back here in New York City—sure signs that all those seemingly minor changes on the farms are paying off.
Visit our webshop to purchase a bag of Cerro de Reyes coffee.