Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Three: Home on the Farm

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.