Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part One: It’s Just Luck

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.