While Brazil has a long history of producing and exporting large amounts of commercial grade coffee, it is also possible to find some exceptional and very distinctive coffees from this part of the world.
Over the last couple of decades, some very focused, quality-conscious coffee growers have emerged in Brazil, and they are dedicated to specialty coffee. We actively seek out these producers and work to build long-term, sustainable relationships with them.
Overview of Coffee in Brazil
Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer, supplying around a third of the world’s coffee. Today, over two million hectares of land in Brazil are dedicated to coffee, producing an average of 43 million bags of coffee a year, of which at least 70% is Arabica.
Coffee was introduced to northern Brazil from French Guiana in the late 18th century. Over the following decades, coffee plantations spread throughout the northern and then southern regions, and Brazil quickly became the biggest coffee producer in the world. The industrialisation of the early 20th century brought technological innovations to many Brazilian farms, particularly in harvesting and processing techniques, transforming it into the most advanced and modernised coffee-producing nation in the world.
The farms in Brazil range in size from small family-run plantations of less than ten hectares, to large estates in excess of 2,000 hectares. To put their scale in perspective, many of the bigger farms in Brazil produce more coffee annually than Bolivia does as an entire nation (last year Bolivia produced 30,000 bags). One of the things that separates Brazil from other producing nations is its flat terrain in many coffee-growing regions, which allows for large, uninterrupted plots of land to be dedicated to coffee farming. This means that many aspects of the production process (such as picking and irrigation) can be mechanised, which has both helped increase coffee farmers’ potential to produce great coffee and been at odds with it.
There are three main ways that coffee is harvested in Brazil:
- Selective hand picking: ripe cherries are selectively picked. With this method, several passes are made during the harvest to ensure only the ripest cherries are selected each time. This is the most labour intensive and costly method of picking.
- Strip picking: the branches of the tree are completely stripped of the cherries, regardless of their ripeness. Often they are collected on large plastic sheets, which are laid on the ground to collect the cherries.
- Mechanical harvesting: the tree is shaken using a mechanical harvester to remove the cherries from the branches.
Both strip picking and mechanical harvesting require the sorting of the coffee cherries to happen at the wet mill and dry mill, using machinery and the latest technology to help sort the coffee. These methods have become more popular in recent years as the cost of labour in Brazil has increased.
Most of the coffee we source from Brazil is selectively hand-picked. This is often due to the fact that the coffee farms we work with are at higher altitudes and tend to have more mountainous terrain (making mechanical harvesting impossible). In other instances, the producer may have made a conscious choice to hand select their coffee cherries, so as to ensure that only the very ripest cherries are selected.
Historically, most coffee in Brazil was processed using the natural method, due to water scarcity in the early coffee-growing regions. This processing method was notoriously inconsistent and subject to processing defects, such as over-fermentation. In the 1990s, the pulped natural processing method was introduced, and this method has been increasingly employed by producers, along with the washed method.
When done well, with an eye to quality selection and separating, all processing methods have the potential to bring out unique and delicious characteristics in the coffee. Typically, when we buy coffees from Brazil, we let the cupping table drive our decisions on which coffees to buy. As a general rule, we look for coffees that are sweet, clean and balanced. A good, well processed natural is often full bodied, with notes of chocolate, dried fruit and roasted hazelnuts or almonds. A washed or pulped natural coffee from Brazil often tends to be more elegant, with a more defined acidity and sweetness.
To find, promote and recognise their country’s quality coffees, Brazil pioneered the juried Cup of Excellence competition. The first competition, which was originally called ‘The Best of Brazil’ was held in 1999. The purpose of the Cup of Excellence program was to promote traceability and direct trade, and to discover and reward quality in Brazil. The success of the first program demonstrated that the market was willing to pay more than double the commodity price for quality coffee and, over the last two decades, a new generation of Brazilian coffee producers has emerged, focused on cup quality and producing the very best coffee they can. This has led to advancements in selecting, sorting and processing the coffee, and the discovery of new coffee-growing regions, which have the potential for exceptional quality.
Key Regions That We Work In
Today, coffee is produced in 14 different regions. This regional diversity means that Brazil is capable of producing a wide range of cupping profiles. Of the seven states that produce coffee in Brazil, five are in the south (Espirito Santos, Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo, Parana, Rio de Janeiro), while in the northeast, coffee is produced in Bahia, as well as Rondonia (robusta only). Most of the Brazilian coffee we buy is from the following states:
Bahia, Brazil’s fifth largest state, is located in the northeast of the country, 1,000km from the coastline, and is characterised by its high altitudes and warm climate. Most of the coffee we source out of Bahia is from the Chapada Diamantina region. Farms in this region vary in size – from family-run smallholdings up to vast estates with 1,000 hectares or more under coffee.
This growing region is still relatively unknown, but in recent years the region has dominated the Cup of Excellence awards – most recently in 2016 when an extraordinary 19 of the 24 coffees in the Pulped Natural Cup of Excellence were from Bahia, and more specifically Chapada Diamantina, where we source all our Bahian coffees from!
Chapada Diamantina is a stunning mountain range in the heart of Bahia. It is the home of the Chapada Diamantina National Park, famous for its mountainous cliff formations (Chapada) and 19th century diamond mining (Diamantina). We source coffee in this region from farms near the town of Mucagê as well as the town of Piatá, a unique and privileged growing region, with high altitudes (1,300-1,400m above sea level) and temperatures that vary from 2°C to 18°C in the winter, presenting quite favourable conditions for producing high quality coffee beans.
The state of Minas Gerais is the largest coffee producer in Brazil, and has some of the highest mountains in the country, providing a good altitude for producing specialty coffee. The climate is mild, and elevations range up to 1,400m above sea level. There are four key regions producing coffee in Minas:
- Sul de Minas – This region is known for its specialty coffee, with high elevations and a high concentration of smallholder farming families, many of which have produced coffee for generations. We source some great coffees from Carmo de Minas, which enjoys high altitudes and rich soil suited to specialty coffee.
- Matas de Minas – This fertile, mountainous region in the southeast of Minas Gerais has a long history of coffee production. Most of the farms in this region are small to medium in size, and most rely entirely on family members to work on the farm. Due to the more mountainous and steep terrain, most of the coffee in this region is hand-picked, and most farms do not use pesticides. In recent years, some excellent quality-focused farms have started to emerge in this region.
- Cerrado Mineiro – This is a relatively new area to coffee production, and is dominated by larger, mechanised farms.
- Chapada de Minas – This region is in the north of Minas. The land here is flatter, and farms are typically mechanised.
Espirito Santo is quite small compared to other coffee-growing regions. While most of the state is dedicated to robusta at lower altitudes, we have discovered some exceptional coffees from the south and southwest – near the mountainous border of Minas Gerais / Matas de Minas – that grow at high altitudes and produce a very unique flavour profile. The harvest in Espirito Santo usually runs from August to December – a later season than in many of the growing regions in Minas Gerais. This is quite a new growing region for us, but one that we’re really excited about and see a lot of potential in.