Sourcing Beans in Brazil
Saturday, January 15, 2011
Anna Canning, Peace Coffee Project Manager
Last Spring when our roasting team created the Pollinator blend, they asked the question "How many cups of coffee does it take to make a blend?"The answer was somewhere in the mid-80s. Most recently, we've asked an analogous question: How many miles and how many meetings does it take to meet a new buying relationship? The answer, of course, is that it depends. Just before Thanksgiving, our Head Roaster Derek took off on an expedition to Brazil to source coffee. Now that the rush of the holidays is over, we finally had a chance to catch up with him and hear about his trip, just as we're about to begin tasting the fruits of his labors (OK, we've been sampling the fruits of his labors in the lab for a few weeks as he prepares the coffee for public consumption).
Brazil is the giant of world coffee production, growing approximately 1/3 of the world’s green coffee. Giant not only in output, much of coffee production in Brazil is comparable to corn and soybeans in Iowa: big, mechanized business. In most of the world, coffee is painstakingly picked by hand, here however there are giant machines to pick the coffee on huge estates. When Derek returned, he was amazed by the scale of industry on the country, the giant semi-trucks, the vast truck stops and their huge buffets. Unlike many of the communities where we buy coffee, Brazil is a thoroughly modern place, developed in so many senses of the word.
In Brazil, we came face to face with one of the challenges of sourcing excellent organic coffee; quite simply, it's a lot of work. We knew that of course (to put it a little in perspective, it takes one coffee tree a year to grow what becomes a pound of roasted coffee -- imagine all the hands that takes!), it’s at the root of our commitment to Fair Trade. But here, the coffee industry has evolved in a way that is in many ways more analogous to our own domestic agriculture. Most places that we buy coffee, it's the norm for small farmers to pass through their fields several times to pick the cherries as they ripen. It's a lot of work, but the additional price premium that coffee can command based on quality is worth it. In Brazil however it's the norm, even for small farmers selling to the specialty market to "strip pick" all their coffee in one pass: the price premium simply isn’t worth the additional labor costs. We heard that a lot in the course of this trip: labor costs are simply too high for picking and sorting only the best beans, and the additional labor that the cultivation of organic coffee requires is likewise hard to come by. As an industry, Brazilian coffee has prepared itself for the large-scale volume focus -- this is after all the country where a variety of NGOs have collaborated with Wal-Mart to crank out the volume of Fair Trade coffee that the giant retailer requires to dip just a toe in the market.
That's by no means to suggest that there's no good coffee in Brazil, it's merely to say that in surveying Derek's notes, nearly every one of the ten days begins with the note about where they drove that day, how many hours they put in criss-crossing the state of Minas Gerais, meeting with coffee co-ops, munching pão de queijo and cupping coffee. While we heard disheartening stories of how this year’s yields are low, 24-40% below projections in some cases, and how with high market prices the organic premiums that buyers are willing to pay aren’t keeping up with the cost of producing quality organic coffee, there were exciting developments as well.
One of the smallest organizations that we met with was Coopervitae, whose coffee will soon be warming your mug. Approximately 370 producers, a small fraction of whom are currently producing organic coffee, Derek's face lit up as he described their meetings: the passion of the agronomist who is working to increase organic capacity, and the overall potential demonstrated by their infrastructure. An SCAA cupping judge and a former prize-winning chef, both aspects of Derek's passions were kindled in the course of that visit (if they’d had some bike racing too, we’d probably never have heard from him again). In the Bourbon Specialty Lab, we were able to taste both a variety of local offerings as well as the lots we were actively considering to put our choices in context. While many cupping labs at origin are more Rube Goldberg than state-of-the-art, Derek showed us shot after shot of his newly expanded wish list for our lab: vast bank of sample roasters? Check. Plexi-glass enclosure with venting for said roasters? Check. Hot water gun to dose each cup as precisely as a bartender? Check.
After a more-than-full day of meeting, greeting, observing, slurping, spitting, a little food is needed to come back down to earth. The churrascaria made it into the top highlights of the trip: cuts of prime beef neatly numbered on a cow diagram set out on the table. Enumerating the virtues of each, Derek was nearly as animated as when extolling the beauty of those golden bourbon cherries (should you make it there yourself, the hump, #21, got the highest endorsement).
That’s just a brief overview of a whirlwind 10 days of meetings, tastings, and field visits, all with the goal of better understanding this behemoth of the coffee world and getting to know our new partners at Coopervitae with whom we look forward to a productive buying relationship.