Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Five: Beginning to Understand

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.

Irrigation at Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

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.