Big, open spaces, wide skies, and rows of coffee trees that stretch as far as the eye can see: This is Brazilian coffee…
I wrote this article for Coffee T&I Magazine (China) — it appears in Chinese language in issue 53. Below is the English version.
Big, open spaces, wide skies, and rows of coffee trees that stretch as far as the eye can see: This is Brazilian coffee production. It is the world’s powerhouse of coffee, dwarfing all other nations, and it can be difficult to know where to begin.
However, within the massive giant of Brazil, we find countless interesting details and niches where surprising developments are taking place. This article explores how a few small producers manage to produce great coffee despite sometimes difficult weather.
The state of Minas Gerais is the epicenter of Arabica production in Brazil, and one of the giants of world coffee. Producing between 25 million and 30 million bags of coffee each year (60 kg each), the output of Minas Gerais state alone is bigger than many entire countries, such as Colombia, Indonesia, or Ethiopia.
With such a huge output, by so many farmers, across such a wide region, it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about coffee production in Minas Gerais, but there are a few things we can say: the climate, especially recent changes, have a major impact.
I visited Minas Gerais for the second time in my life in October of last year, traveling by car across huge expanses of territory, down long, straight roads that run for hundreds of kilometers. Minas Gerais is at the heart of Brazilian agriculture, and you can see farms and ranches of all kinds that stretch far away to the horizon on all sides. This is big, open territory.
Changing markets, changing climate
In the town of Machado (meaning “axe” or “machete”) and nearby Poço Fundo (“deep well”), I learned about some of the interesting contradictions of coffee production in Brazil.
Demilson Batista Jr. is one of the founders of Legender Specialty Coffee, a new company that’s one of many changing how great Brazilian coffee reaches the world market. I spent several days with Batista in October touring local farms and tasting the coffee. These are interesting, unique coffees that have never before reached the world stage.
To understand the current developments, we must understand the history of this region. Coffee production has been a huge industry in this part of Brazil for centuries. The internal market for coffee in Brazil is highly developed, and in some ways it has become ossified. There are structures in place that funnel coffee production through well-established channels. This system has worked adequately for so long that sometimes there is resistance when changes are proposed.
In the example of Machado and surrounding areas, the farmers there have been producing specialty-grade coffee for generations. However, none of it has ever reached the specialty market branded as “Machado coffee.” This is because traditionally the coffee is sold to large traders, who move it by truck to larger cities, where it is blended with containers of coffee from other regional producers.
This can result in good coffee, but the product is undifferentiated and the particularities of each individual area are lost through blending. Traditionally, coffee from this area was sold and marketed as “Brazil Santos.” But Santos is just the port city from which it is exported — Santos is not even a coffee-producing town!
Batista and his partners, Athos Caixeta and Herico Gonçalves, are dedicated to their local coffee culture, and decided to change this by beginning to export the coffee directly from Machado. They buy natural processed Arabica from local farmers, preserving the local characteristics, and sell it directly to the specialty market. For the first time in generations, the quality of this small town is being shared with the world.
Batista explained that it’s sometimes difficult to convince producers to change their ways — after all, the system they used before has been working, for better or worse, for a long time. But changes are happening nevertheless.
One complicating factor here, as in so many places around the world, is that the unpredictability of the weather can have a huge influence on the decisions farmers make. Many farmers in the Sul de Minas area hold on to their dry-processed coffee in warehouses on-site at the farm, as a form of “money in the bank.” They only sell the coffee when they deem the market is right for them.
Dry process, or natural process, is the universal method here. Because the coffee remains in the dried pod of the cherry after processing, it can be held in-warehouse before sale much longer than washed coffee in parchment.
In the calendar year of 2014, leading into the 2015 crop, Minas Gerais suffered a severe drought. It was the worst lack of rainfall the area has seen since reliable climate records begin, in about 1950. So it was the worst dry period in 65 years, at the least.
Batista took me to a large plantation in the lower-lying areas near to Machado, and show me examples of coffee trees that were still struggling to bounce back after the drought. The soil in this area is naturally and orange-red color, but it had become bleached a paler shade of orange by the sun. You could see “burnt” areas of the trees, where blossoms had withered and died before they had a chance to produce fruit.
Even the fruits themselves, and the beans within, fail to develop properly when the climate becomes so dry. A recent report, by PS Baker and R Ruiz Cardenas of CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, showed that in some areas hardest hit by the drought, as many as 80% of coffee cherries failed to develop fully, leading to a superabundance of “floaters,” which indicate defective coffee.
This kind of severe event can drive up the price of coffee, even as farmers are suffering. Then, when things recover and the price goes back down due to increased supply, farmers can be left with coffee that was difficult to produce, but whose price is now high. Likewise, coffee that was relatively easy to produce can sometimes fetch only a lower price. So farmers attempt to game this system by strategically holding and releasing their stores of coffee, to maximize the money they can get from their efforts.
Batista and his partners have been able to survive the drought. Since they deal in specialty grade coffee, they are able to pay marginally higher prices for quality coffee, keep their standards high, and ride out the tough times.
But it has been a huge difficulty for the producers in Machado, in Sul de Minas, and in Minas Gerais in general. Many farms are still struggling to regain the quality and quantity they once had.
Tough times lead to new gains
Coffee is a cyclical crop. Even when weather conditions are normal, we tend to see a biannual up-and-down pattern in both quality and volume of production. A down year for production one year can often lead to a fantastic year the next.
Nutrients are concentrated in the soil and in the root networks of trees that fail to produce a lot of fruit. We must keep in mind that every cherry produced by a tree sucks some of the vital nutrients out of its mother plant. If the mother survives a tough climate event, then the next year she often springs forth with more fully developed cherries than ever before.
Many areas, including Machado, are seeing this bounce-back phenomenon in the 2015-2016 crop cycle.
To get a better idea, I spoke with Warley Carlos de Oliveira, expert in charge of quality for Fazenda Barinas near the town of Araxá, about six hours by car north of Machado.
Fazenda Barinas, meaning “Windy Estate” gets its name from a Venezuelan word for strong winds. Situated on a gentle rise of land, Barinas sits higher than the neighboring farms, and tends to receive strong, sweeping winds across its plantation and drying patios.
Oliveira explains that this wind helps them greatly in drying the coffee. They have little fear of the coffee drying too slowly, and so they manage their drying process precisely.
Barinas uses a technique of drying found in other places in Brazil, that consists of “doubling” or “folding” the lots of coffee periodically as the moisture content goes down.
When it is first harvested the cherries are put in water tanks to remove floaters, then laid out on the expansive patios to dry at a depth of 14 to 20 liters of cherries per square meter. Space is not an issue for Barinas, so they are able to dry it exactly how they would like, and they do not need to use mechanical dryers.
After two days, they “fold” the lot on top of itself one time, resulting in a depth of 40 liters of cherry per square meter. After two more days, they double it once more to 80 liters/sqm. At this stage, it already has lost most of its water, and it’s down to about 20% free moisture content.
From that point on, the workers at Barinas move the coffee around throughout the day, and periodically put it in “mountains” covered by a tarp. This process temporarily stabilizes the humidity of the surrounding air, so that moisture in the inside of the bean can equalize with the exterior moisture levels, which are much lower. Then they take the tarp off and spread the coffee once more. Through this careful process, they are able to ensure an even drying of the coffee.
“We are lucky here because of the dry winds and the patio space we have. It allows us to create exactly the coffee we want to create.”
Oliveira also explained that while Barinas was hard-hit by the same drought mentioned before, 2016 was turning out to be a bumper year. A regular judge on cupping juries throughout Brazil, Oliveira is already seeing a 1.5-2 point increase in quality scores for his already excellent coffee, and the production is much higher than previous years. (Barinas is also a newer plantation, so much of the increase is due to young trees finally reaching maturity.)
Blazing hot sun can cause many problems for producers in Minas Gerais. A startling and severe drought like that of 2014-2015 is a major issue. And too much heat and wind can cause cherries to dry unevenly. But by careful attention to quality and uniqueness like we see in Machado, and with careful methods of processing as at Fazenda Barinas, farmers and exporters can manage the difficulty.
Every year is a new adventure for coffee producers such as these. Luckily, after recent severe difficulties, quality coffee production in Minas Gerais seems to be bouncing back stronger than ever. Farmers are wary of future problems that may arise from climate changes and anomalies, but for now, Brazil’s Arabica powerhouse is still going strong.