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Hadassah in Brazil, Part 1


30.11.12

I have always been fascinated by Brazil. Its history, its culture (described as one of the only truly multi-cultural nations in the world), its music and dance. I dated a Capoeira instructor when I was younger, and although I never got the hang of all the flips and cartwheels, I fell in love with the syncopated rhythm of Brazilian music, and the equally musical Portuguese language.

Up until about a year ago, the exception to my interest in Brazil was Brazilian coffee. My experiences with coffees from Brazil were of bland, poor quality coffees with very little acidity or complexity. After tasting some of the coffee Fraser had discovered on his trip to Brazil in 2011, I realized how wrong I was.

I started paying attention to the stories of newer generations of coffee farmers in Brazil, committed to moving away from the old model of coffee farming – vast crops of poor quality, commodity coffee grown and processed with little regard for taste or the environment – and towards a model of environmental sustainability and careful attention to detail in growing, harvesting and processing.

Procafe scientist explaining the regular environmental hazards for coffee farmers in the region.

This shift in focus, away from quantity and towards quality, only increased my desire to see  the country. Brazil is uniquely placed within the coffee market. The economy, and by extension the cost of living and labour, are too high to continue to accept commodity prices for coffee, and yet commodity is what they have traditionally produced. The other side of this coin is that Brazil is one of the only coffee producing countries which can afford extensive research into coffee quality.

It seems the odds are stacked against Brazilians when it comes to growing quality coffee – the altitude is low, the cost of labour is too high for hand-picking, and wet mills are vanishingly rare, meaning the chances of over-fermentation and defects are higher. Despite this, some of my favorite coffees this year have been from Brazil, and what I have tasted has consistently challenged my ideas about what Brazilian coffee can taste like.

As an outsider, this overcoming of the odds seems typical of Brazil as a country. Its history is rich, but also bloody. It has overcome a brutal and painful colonization, complete with slavery, oppression, segregation and social apartheid, deforestation of the native rainforest, corrupt government and immense economic instability. Despite this, Brazil continues to shape its hardships into beauty. To take its disadvantages and, rather than copy the rest of the world, buck the trends and create something both wonderful and surprising.

 

Sample for soil analysis at Procafe.

The SCAA Coffee Science Origin trip.

I believe it was these advances in quality, research and technology that led Emma Bladyka, Science Manager for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, to organize the first ever SCAA Coffee Science Origin Trip. A week of learning, touring farms, research centers, cooperatives and processing equipment manufacturers, focusing on the fascinating advancements being made into the production of quality coffee. As soon as I found out about the trip, I knew I had to be a part of it, and Supreme was kind enough to agree.

A spectrophotometer at Procafe, used for measuring a number of elements including trace minerals needed for healthy trees.

We arrived at a wonderful time to be visiting coffee farms. Although the trees were a little worse for wear after the harvest, they were just coming into their second bloom. The rows and rows of trees covered in delicate white blossoms was an amazing sight. It was also an amazing smell! No one had told me how intoxicating the scent of coffee blossoms is, and I found myself wondering if anyone had ever thought to bottle it.

There were ten of us on the tour, representing every facet of the Specialty Coffee Industry – roasters, baristas, trainers, q-graders, business owners and even a coffee producer from Colombia. It was a tight-knit group, and we quickly bonded over our shared excitement at what we were doing.

For me, the highlight of the tour was our visit to UFLA, where we spent the day with Dr. Flávio de Meira Borém, the world’s leading expert in coffee research. I felt honored to be able to spend the day learning about his research. What started as an interest in the relationship between altitude and acidity has become an extensive study into gene expression, and the environmental and genetic causes of particular flavors. Although the study is still in its infancy, I believe it will eventually lead to some incredible breakthroughs in the production of quality in coffee.

Thiago Trovo from BSCA, our guide for the week.

Everyone on the tour was thankful for the partnership of the SCAA and BSCA, who did an amazing job of organizing a tour absolutely packed with learning and fantastic experiences – too many to recount in just one blog post. In particular, Thiago Trovo from the BSCA, was kind enough to take time away from organizing the Brazilian Cup of Excellence, to spend the week with us as tour guide, translator and all round incredibly-helpful-person.

My overall impression by the end of the tour was that Brazil is a country to watch out for in the next decade of coffee production. As research and technology increases, I believe the number of coffee farmers making the shift from commodity to specialty will increase, and with this increase will come more diverse, surprising and exceptional coffee, which will continue to challenge ideas about the taste of Brazilian coffee.

 

Continued in Part 2.

Where to from here?