Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Four: After the Rain

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.