After 24 hours of travel we finally arrive at Sao Paulo international airport. Leaving the terminal I am immediately struck by a familiar reeking heat, not too dissimilar to Bangkok. We meet our driver and pile into a black Mercedes van. He high tails it for 2 hours through the night at speed. Tailgating, merging with endless trucks, past roadside slums, down a narrow winding gorge to the seaside city of Santos. The port here is the largest in Latin America and moves 60% of the coffee export from Brazil’s interior. We reach our hotel at 11pm and after some texting meet up with Karim Sulaiman, a coffee trader from Bero Coffee Singapore. John Burton works with Bero to import coffee from Brazil to New Zealand. Karim is to accompany us on the trip. Still wide awake we head out for dinner and beers.
Saturday. After approx 3 hours sleep and breakfast of papaya, cake, and coffee, we jump in a cab and head across town to the Coffee Museum. Located next to the port, it is a beautiful historic building that was the original Official Coffee Exchange until 1950. Here we get some history of the production and export of coffee in Brazil. This area is also the neighborhood to most of Santo’s coffee traders and exporters.
Lunch at Tasca do Porto follows and our first taste of the local drink Caipirinha; a strong cocktail made from Cachaca, a liquor made from fermented sugar cane juice. We then walk over to Monte Serrat, an old casino on top of a hill that gives 360° views of Santos, taking in the expansive port, around to the vast city that hugs the coast.
Later that night over dinner and neverending Chope (Brazilian beer with nearly 50% creamy head) Karim gets us on the door list at a two storied café and nightclub called Bikkini Barista. By chance we meet a coffee broker there called Christian. He works for the Walters family who own the building and the club. Once he realizes we a roasters from NZ everything becomes on the house, and he takes us up a lift to a secret third floor. We discover a fully operational coffee quality control room and broker office, complete with sample roasters and walls of floor to ceiling green bean samples. Through a lattice of coincidence we get our minds blown by a kind of underworld of coffee trading. The vibe of the whole building is like a scene from Blade Runner. At around 4am we reluctantly cab back to the hotel…
Sunday and our only free day. Hungover, we search for local cafes looking for espresso. 80% of coffee consumed in Brazil is filter, and always with sugar. We stumble apon a cafe called Casa do Cafezinho which has been going since 1973. Institution! I order an espresso which comes on quite rustic with a very thick and pale creamer (robusta?). They have three grinders offering different blends but I get sideways looks when asking what’s in them.
Monday. 8am. We meet Ole Kerbsties, a trader for Stockler, one of Brazil’s largest coffee exporters. He takes us through cobbled backstreets to their Quality Dept which is located down by the port, next to Bikkini Barista and the Coffee Museum. They have 12 staff here, 4 of which are official cuppers and graders for the Brazilian exchange. We are shown through their building which is divided between trade offices, sampling, grading and cupping rooms. It’s a hive of activity. These guys are roasting and cataloguing hundreds of coffees a day. After a brief tour of operations we crack into a comparative cupping of some brazil coffees: Mogiana, Zona da Mata, Cerrado, Sul de Minas, Riado, and Rio. The standout for me was the Zona da Mata which was amazingly clean and fruity. The Rio was awful. We latter find out that Rio is one of their low grade coffees that is destined for the local market.
Stockler well and truly look after us with lunch at Clube 22, a members only fine dining restaurant next door. This is where they take clients to talk business. We then pile into a water taxi and take in a tour of the massive port before heading back for another cupping session. This time we cup different varietals all from Fazenda Pantano: Icatu, Bourbon, Ibairi, Uva, Topazip and Acaia. The Bourbon and Icatu are both from yellow cherries which are thought to keep more sun and enhance the sugar content. The Ibairi is a rare Kona varietal from Hawaii; creamy mouth-feel and smooth with hints of vanilla.
6pm. Inspired but wired, we head to a corner dive bar up the road to deconstruct the days learnings over more Chope. Much discussion is had about which coffees we want to import back to Auckland, and how to do it…
Tuesday. 8am we check out of our hotel in Santos and jump in a bus which will take us on a roadtrip to the interior for the rest of the week. I ride shotgun with Louize, our driver. And so it begins, we roll back through the city wastelands of Sao Paulo and onto vast farming landscape and… sleeeeeep.
I wake to find it’s lunch again. We are at a restaurant on the outskirts of Pinhal, a coffee growing area in the lower Mogiana region. Here we meet Mauricio Coelho. He is a grader and trader from Stockler’s Pinhal office and will host us for the next 24hrs. We eat some fish called Pintado. It’s like a piranha but about two meters long. More chope, and we all try the coffee, espresso with sugar. Mauricio explains about harvest. Generally here they harvest between May and September. So we have arrived right in the middle of it. In June they had a lot of rain which caused a 10% drop in quality.
The bus struggles and grinds down red dirt roads and we finally visit our first farm, Sita Santa Rita. A family owned small holding run by 3 generations, with 20 unregistered employees all working under the table. They produce approx 1000 bags per year. Chickens strut around, afternoon sun beats down. We are shown how the coffee is processed, then jump onto the back of a tractor and are taken over bumpy goat tracks to get amongst some harvesting. This is done manually by hand. It takes 16 bags of cherries to yield one bag of green beans! Most of the coffee here are naturals, which means the cherries are left to dry on the tree. Expecting red cherries we instead find them black like raisins. As the sun sets we are invited back to the family farm house for home roasted coffee and freshly baked bread.
5pm. Back to Mauricio’s Stockler office in Pinhal which consists of some sample roasting and cupping rooms in an old historic building. Time for another coffee. We try a blend of his which consists of 3 brazil coffees: 25% natural past crop screen size 17 up. 25% pulp natural new crop. 50% natural new crop screen size 14 up. Roasted separate as old crop is drier and roasts faster. I’m buzzed, I’ve never considered a blend like this?! Sensing my level of stoke, Mauricio kindly gifts me 1kg to take back to NZ.
We check into our hotel (which resembles an old psych ward complete with open live wire shower heads) then out to a restaurant called OPCAO. Caipirinha and various Carpaccio follow. We finish with espresso. A Yellow Bourbon from Santana Estate of which we will visit tomorrow…
Wednesday. 8am checkout then off to visit Paulo Rosioni’s warehouse/storage/processing facility. Massive silos hold and shift green beans through sorting machines. Sacks of coffee impossibly stacked to the roof await grading. A separator machine takes light readings of coffee and spits out defective black beans. Mercedes trucks come and go unloading tons of coffee for processing. The continuous piercing noise of the machinery is ten times more punishing than our bean lifter back at the roastery. Nobody seems to be wearing earmuffs.
Mid morning we head over to our next farm. Fazenda Santana Estate. 2500 bags per year. Yellow Bourbon Icatu. Pulp natural and natural. Similar set up to the last farm but much more investment in facilities. There are a lot more ripe cherries on the trees which means more pulp naturals and some fully washed. I get to hand pick and squeeze open ripe cherries, then suck the sweet mucilage straight off the bean. With pulp naturals the mucilage is left to on the outside of the bean to form a honey like parchment.
Back to Pinhal for Lunch. Churrascaria. Traditional Brazilian BBQ meats… and Chope. I get talking with Rozman, a roaster from Indonesia who is travelling with us. He’s very quiet and softly spoken, but really good value once you engage him. He reveals to me some of his blends which I will try when I get back to NZ.
Plenty to think about on the bus for the 4 hour afternoon drive north to Franca in the higher Mogiana region. Bloated sleep daze. Dusk sun. Drive by landscape photos. VW bettles. VW trucks. Mercedes pickups. Missed turn off double backs. Cloudless haze…
We check in at our hotel then go out for dinner with our new host, Jose Nascimento, from the Stockler office in Franca.
Thursday. Breakfast 7am Then off to Fazenda Santa Ferezinha, run by farm owner Antonio Grese. Morning filter coffee on front porch in morning light. Still yet to have a flat white! This farm is fully RainForest Alliance compliant. 120 hectares. 45 bags per hectare. Approx 5000 bags per year. It fluctuates up and down. Some areas are pruned back or replanted.
Again naturals are dried on the tree, then onto the patio for 8 days until they have a moister content of 25%. The coffee must be rotated or mixed every half hour to prevent mould or uneven drying. It then goes into a furnace heated rotating drum to dry further until moister levels are down to 11%. Finally it’s rested in a silo for 2 days and put through a beneficial machine to separate husks, broken beans and good beans.
With Pulp naturals (semi washed), green is separated from ripe (red or yellow). Ripe is pulped then patio dryed for only 3 days. Green (unripe) is pulped again and squeezed for hardness before drying.
After Lunch we head to Fazenda Mila Flor. A bigger farm again, owned by Lauro Olivera. Here we see mechanical harvesting of larger 8 year old adult trees. Mostly Naturals and red cherries. Lauro then takes us to Florada Brasil, his massive brand new processing warehouse. Trucks can unload 1000 bags per hour, or 50 bags per minute, through a gate in the ground which leads to a huge underground silo. Green beans are then sorted and stored in 1.5 ton bags. Industrial scale. Next door in a reconditioned old motel are the offices, sample roasting, cupping and grading rooms. Its now 5pm and we have to leave for Alfenas but we decide to quickly cup the coffees that we saw a few hours earlier on the farm. The roaster and graders are still working away but they take the time to prepare the coffee for us.
We thank Lauro, then the four of us NZ roasters transfer from the bus into a new Mitsubishi 4×4. Our new driver from Ipanema Coffee then proceeds to absolutely floor it to Alfenas. The 4 hour trip is done in 3 hours with constant blind passing, reaching speeds of 150kph. Crazy road etiquette. Non of us sleep.
9pm. Wired and shaken we pass through Alfenas and come to an unlit long winding chunky cobbled drive. Wondering what awaits we then arrive at the Ipanema Coffee guest house in an amazing setting with immaculate grounds. Conversation over dinner with our host Ubion Terra is surreal, like a scene from Django Unchained, complete with servants and talk of business.
Friday. Ipanema is huge. Over 5,500 hectares dedicated to coffee with an annual production of 120,000 bags. They have 3 main farms in South Minas Gerais – the most traditional growing region in Brazil. We are staying at Conquista Farm which is considered one of the largest continuous coffee farms in the world. Here they use selective picking, manual and mechanical harvesting.
After breakfast outside, and a misty dawn walk of the grounds, we go check out the nursery where we see Acaia varietal seedlings. After 3 months these will be planted in the fields. They will yield their first harvest in 2 years and will be adult trees in 8 years, with a lifespan of up to 30 years.
10:30am. We jump in the 4×4 and drive through a seemingly endless maze of coffee trees playing spot the mechanical harvester. Eventually we find it gliding up up and down gently stripping ripe cherries. Agitation is controlled so that unripe cherries remain and the trees are left undamaged. We take a ride on top of the harvester and get panoramic views of the 2000 hectare farm.
For the afternoon we check out the production facility. They have over 80,000 square meters of patio drying space, a mechanical drying structure with a capacity of over 2,500 bags processed per day. Electronic sorting technology with full traceability right back to the day of harvest and bulk shipment infrastructure. They ship to over 25 countries. Apart from scale, the biggest difference with these guys is that the processed coffees, still in their parchment, rest in wooden bins for up to 30 days to promote uniformity of the humidity levels and flavour complexity. They cup samples from these bins to determine whether a coffee will be blended, kept as a single, or saved as a microlot, depending on the flavour profile. The coffee is hulled just prior to export. Small or defective coffee (30%) is destined for local internal market. 70% goes to export.
We finish the day with a cupping of each of Ipanema’s main varietals before heading back to Alfenas for a Friday night blow out.
Hayden Fritchley – Head Roaster The New Zealand Coffee Company