, Brazil contemplates its position in the
coffee world. Its production potential alone commands this leader a
respect not warranted by any other producing country. Yet, what
does the country have to show for it? For decades this giant’s
reigning strategy has been to set aside quality for the sake of
quantity. And while the sheer size of its territory makes it a
powerful player, being ostracized from the shelves of gourmet stores
and absent from the vocabulary of specialty roasters is too high a
price to pay to continue down the road toward volume.
Brazil's economy is in a delicate stage of development.
country is moving forward in the Digital Revolution while fighting
back a recession. Meanwhile, its coffee business faces one of its most
difficult years in a long time. Quite a difference from its former days,
when coffee lured inhabitants toward the interior of the country and
transformed a mostly agrarian society into a modern nation. From
the beginning of the century until the 1960s, this commodity was
essential to the survival of the country. The market became so big
that a branch of the government, the Instituto Brazileiro do Café
(IBC), was set up to administer it. Under IBC policy, the price
differential between a high quality coffee and a low grade bean was
minimal. While the plan was initiated in the best interest of the
economy, the bottom line was that, without incentive to produce
quality, most of Brazil’s farmers focused their energies on producing
volume instead of taste.
Eventually, however, bureaucratic red tape and favoritism
reared their heads into the IBC plan. In 1991, the IBC dissolved and
Brazil’s coffee industry was left to pick up the pieces. While the
scientific community mourned the loss of its center, Brazil’s coffee
industry mourned the loss of direction. After a long period of
uncertainty, a somewhat divided and significantly unarmed Brazil set
out to begin the arduous task of restrategizing. Fazendas redefined
their business goals and went to work to implement change. Progress
was underway and in a few years, results were starting to show.
Then came the frost of 1994, crippling Brazil yet again.
It would seem to have been one step back for every step
forward for Brazil. Yet, even though its farmers have taken a few
hard blows, they have been determined to come out ahead. In the
past six years, the country has poured much of its energy into a
targeted plan of restructuring. Farming and export efforts have been
proving relatively lucrative and Brazil now has the chance to show
the world what it is made of.
The first logical investment to make would be in machinery.
Depulping machinery had been around for a while, but the ‘90s had
given it new capabilities, which, for Brazil, meant the ability to
provide pulped natural beans, also known as semi-washed.
Mechanical harvesters were also improving and becoming more
affordable, helping to get the most out of the picking season. Even
dryers have found ways to advance their techniques by
incorporating a new conical motion. And let’s not forget the internet,
which has been a big help in gathering and exchanging pricing and
The most interesting piece of equipment I encountered on my
trip was not a piece of coffee machinery, but a piece of equipment
from the grape industry. From afar, this big machine looked like
some sort of clumsy amusement ride, white and blue with plastic
pieces coming out of it. Upon closer examination, however, it
revealed itself to be a sturdy modern plucking mechanism. One of
the executives of the Daterra corporation was attending a conference
in Chile where he was introduced to the technology. He immediately
proposed the idea of making the vineyard item into a coffee tool. The
manufacturing company agreed to take on the request and went to
work. What resulted was the latest in cherry picking.
“We haven’t had this harvester for very long, but so far it
works very well,” commented Daterra Corporation director Osvaldo
Pizano. “What I liked about the machines in the wine industry was
that the bottom of the trucks where the grapes fell was lined plastic
tabs, not the hard ones we find in coffee. The cherries can now hit
the shovels and bounce off undamaged, allowing for a healthier crop.
Also, the machine can be fitted with sprayers, so it can be used 12
months out of the year, not only during the harvest.” Looking to
other industries can prove to be helpful when researching ways to
advance--elsewhere in Brazil, a similar machine is being used which
incorporates technology from the olive industry.
New harvesters have made their way to farms of all sizes and
crop yields. The savings have big significant, and in most cases, are
being applied toward improving quality at all levels. Eduardo
Junqueira, co-owner of the farm CorCampo Coffee, shares, “One piece
of equipment-the right one, of course-could make such a significant
difference. Our farm’s philosophy has always been to cultivate high
quality standards, and in all our years here we never really gave
way to the push to mass-produce.
“Our crop yield is higher now that we use the harvester,” adds
co-owner Beatriz Junqueira, “and we can concentrate a little more on
our bourbons and higher grade crops that need more attention. So
now any new machine that comes out is of interest to us.”
“To stay ahead-or maybe just because they didn’t care-some
farms were overloading their lands with trees to the point where the
plants suffered because their roots didn’t have enough room to grow
properly,” she adds. “With the new technological advances coming
out, those farmers can then save in one area and invest in better
practices. Unfortunately, in Brazil, the big exporters have the added
advantage of having the government’s support, but the rest of us
don’t really see that funding. So it’s all up to us.”
Another smart move by producers was the incorporation of
ecologically-friendly practices. In being forced to redefine farming
techniques, Brazil was able to adopt modern ecological practices that
other countries could not afford to invest in at the time. At the center
of this change has been the treatment of water, includng newer
methods of irrigation and filtration.
Jose Carlos Grossi, owner of Alto Cafezal explains: “In the
Cerrado region, we don’t have to worry about frosts. The only real
threat is drought. But technological advances are making that less of
a threat. With water being such an important part of growing good
coffee, we’ve invested in the drip method of irrigation. It helps the
trees get the water they need on a steady basis.
Grossi and many producers in the region have are also using
what is known as the “fertirrigation” process in which fertilizer and
nutrients essential to healthy growth of the plant are mixed in with
the watering. It has been found that the plant absorbs the nutrients
more readily. The time spent is cut down significantly and costs are
reduced by combining two separate applications.
“Right now we are using organic matter from pigs and bulls as
fertilizer--about 20% worth.” continues Grossi. “In the next five years
we hope to get that figure up to at least 50%. It is a bit of a challenge,
but in the long run, it will be in the best interest of the coffee and
Throughout Brazil there has been a move to lessen the use of
chemical fertilizers and use more organic matter. It is cheaper and
more convenient, since most farmers use livestock as alternative
sources of revenue, and it is also healthier for the plant and for the
Paulo Veloso, Jr., director of Veloso Exporters, has rethought his
company’s direction to place emphasis on developing ecologically-
friendly practices: “Brazil has undergone many beneficial changes.
We’ve learned how to deliver not only a quality product, but an
environmentally-friendly one. We have been using organic fertilizers
for a while, but are now creating a whole system for it. We are
incorporating the use of phosphates in the fertilizer, which makes
our crops stronger and the overall product better. We’re also building
housing for more animals to increase the amount of organic matter.
“Additionally, we are placing a great deal of energy into
recycling. The dried pulps of the cherries are reused and mixed into
fertilizer. And any chemicals that need to be used are put in
recyclable bags and a specific truck comes to pick them up.”
Another concentration has been on understanding the
relationship between agriculture and biodiversity. Pruning has been
redefined-farmers now limit this practice, keeping in mind that 5%
of a crop will need to be completely cut or removed yearly. More
workers are being taught how to check the health of different areas
of the trees and are being sent out on a regular basis. This is part of
an effort to redirect focus from treatment measures to preventative
measures, helping to limit the use of chemicals. Also, when a crop is
no longer useful, a common practice has been to burn the whole area
and start anew. It has only been recently that the coffee community
has learned just how negatively this process affects them, since it
destroys the natural lifeforms which may not return. Those plants
and insects are necessary to the healthy growth of the crop, helping
to regulate disease and balance the ecosystem.
Brazil is rich in natural resources and farms stretch out over a
great part of its land. It is not unlikely, then, that some of the
country’s many natural wonders are part of a large plantation. An
image of the evil corporate monster over-running the precious earth
often comes to mind. However, the reality is much different. The
growers value and respect these gifts of the earth.
On Fazenda Monte Alegre, the maze of coffee and sugar cane
led through a rain forest. Earlier in the year, its director, Jose
Francisco Pereira had the luck of spotting a jaguar on his walk from
his house to his office. At Daterra’s Fazenda Boa Vista, Osvaldo Pizano
led us through miles of fenced-in fields, only to stumble onto not one,
but two waterfalls; a bird watcher in ourgroup excitedly took a
picture of a rare species perched on a tree. Paul Veloso pointed out
the nature reservation situated on the outskirts of his fields as we
moved through the farm.
In each case, the owner has actively taken steps to preserve
and coexist with the natural surroundings of their farms. Throughout
the trip, it was common that producers, both big and small, mention
such a prized piece of their farm with enthusiasm, as well as with
care and respect.
A critical part of Brazil’s development has been the
proliferation and distribution of farming techniques. The best way to
provide this is often through the development of a cooperative
(coop). The term coop is used worldwide to refer to a business
network made up of separate owner-affliates-in this case, the term
refers to the structured sale of producers’ coffee crops. As a group,
the organization is able to provide clients with an extensive range of
products varying in type and grade. This is a popular route for small
farmers who can’t afford to market themselves-or don’t know how
to-because it offers the security of being aligned with a powerful
The coop represents the interests of some of the larger
producers. Because of their size, the interests of these larger
producers tend to carry more weight regarding the direction of the
organization. Yet, for the most part, decisions are made for the
betterment of the cooperative community as a whole.
“The most important element of an agricultural business vision
is to act based on the needs of its providers,”states Joaquim Leite,
export director for Cooperativa Guaxupe. “To be competitive means to
act as a regular player would, keeping in mind the best interests of
farmers, rather than acting as a corporate entity…. For example, a
large fruit corporation, which is generally based on distribution, isn’t
necessarily invested in the industrial side. In the past, the strategy
had been to work off of that model, to manage big companies like
coops based on the final consumer. Many didn’t realize this wasn’t
the right answer to achieving a better price and product. We, as
coops, have taken a different approach, basing our system on our
network of our farmers. In many cases these are farmers who are
carrying on the legacy of years of family coffee farming and still
working to make a living at it-this holds especially true of the Minas
Another coop representative resonates this philosophy:
“Everyone’s coffee is important here,” states Caio Junqueira, export
manager for Coopertiva Poços do Caldos. “I think that people see
Brazil as a few big cooperatives--and that’s it. However, it is
important to note that, while the face that tends to greet the world is
one of a large exporter, in reality it is small farmers-whose harvests
yield less than 100 bags-that actually produce most of Brazil’s
coffee. They are really the backbone of the industry.” Coops make up
about 80% of Brazil’s coffee export market, leaving the other 20% of
the market supported by independent exporters and their affiliates.
In addition to having fortified business systems in place, Brazil
has focused on training its coffee growers at all levels in an effort to
refine farming techniques. Looked upon as an essential part of a
farm’s infrastructure, workers are given opportunities to benefit
from learning new skill sets and are personally empowered by the
trust instilled and the knowledge gained. Companies such as Daterra
have built learning centers where classes are held. “Education is
central to the plantation,” says Pizano. “It’s equally as important for
the workers to understand the process so that they can do their work
better. It’s a simple concept, really. They are given the tools to do a
good job and are taught that their ideas and input are a lifeline to the
Daterra also takes its commitment a step further and is
addressing the physical demands of field labor. “Another aspect of
the farm we’ve put in place is the use of physiotherapy to treat staff
members. For example, a worker many tend to stay in one position
for an extended period of time and a few basic exercises a day can
ensure that problems don’t arise as a result.”
The coffee farm is a business, and as such, must run like one.
Yet, it is also a central part of the lives of many families; in some
cases, a plantation actually supports the livelihood of an entire town.
In other instances, workers from rural regions of Brazil, where jobs
are far more scarce, are transported to the farms for the harvesting
seasons; these workers tend to earn most of their yearly earnings
during the picking season.
It is crucial, then, to find a balance between corporation and
community. Francisco Pereira comments: “Brazil is a country of
beautiful natural resources-and coffee is one of them. Most of the
country lives off the land. I have made it a point to develop good
working relationships with workers so as to ensure they return each
“The plight of the field laborer is often one of sacrifice with
little expected reward. But I think most producers here value their
employees and let them know their worth to the degree that they
can. I provide housing and meals at about 10% of actual cost-in
addition to salary comfortably above minimum wage. I look for
potential in people and offer training for them to better their skills.
“There is a lot of poverty in Brazil, this is true, but it is part of a
bigger picture in which there are many people facing a slowing
economy. It is important that consumers know that, relative to
worldwide standards, Brazil’s laborers are offered a supportive
working community and fare wages which we hope will not only
continue, but will improve as the market improves-this cannot be
said for other parts of the world.”
On the grounds of Lambari Exportador & Comercio, a weaving
shop has been built to provide workers, mostly women, with an
additional means of income. Pressed recyclables are transformed into
woven fabrics and resold.
“It really gives them a sense of accomplishment,” explains
director Raymond Rebetez. “I believe strongly in the value of
producing an item from a socially conscious process, whether it be a
scarf or a bean. It would seem to be a given, but that’s not the case.
Producers around the world have been taking steps toward creating
“It’s good to hear that many of Brazil’s farms are adopting such
practices, but there is still a lot more room to grow in this direction.
This is a worldwide matter in every industry and in every country.
Issues regarding sustainability are just beginning to surface here.
And Brazil has many small farmers, many more than other producing
countries, waiting to benefit from this methodology.”
CAFES DO BRASIL
The concept “one country-many flavors” made its way around
the world this past year, appearing at the Specialty Coffee
Association of America conference in April and making presentations
throughout the world. A multi-million-dollar budget-coordinated by
the Cafés do Brasil program of the Ministry of Agriculture-backs the
campaign currently feeding Brazil’s coffee momentum. Its purpose?
To highlight Brazil’s ability to be the one-stop source for most buying
Carlos Brando, consultant for the Cafés do Brasil campaign,
elaborates: “We’ve been very pleased, not say amazed, with the
reactions we’ve been getting. The [cupping sessions] at the SCAA
show in San Francisco were full. Most were amazed at the quality of
cup….We were worried that, although we promote the diversity of
the coffees, there would still be a risk in that the distinctions
wouldn’t stand out in the cuppings.”
“But they did--and we served almost 20,000 cups. Espresso had
the biggest following, but you know what came in a close second?
The cafezinho. Ted Lingle, [executive director of the SCAA], was right
when he said that the cafezinho was like a stepping stone between
the drip and the espresso. This proved true at the show.”
“Another important point we’re addressing,” adds Brando, “is
proving that you can make quality with mechanization. It isn’t just
based on what you have, it’s also in large part what you do to
cultivate the quality. And Brazil has it all-from the small farmer to
the high-tech plantation. The really good news was the interest in
the lesser known origins and varieties that were present at the
stand; it helped to validate point of ‘one country, many flavors.’ “
Brazil’s crop lands spans extensively-from 5º S to 25º S
latitude. Along the way there are savannahs, hills, and valleys, which
range in climate patterns from 100º Fahrenheit and very hot and
dry, to 55º Fahrenheit and cool and damp. Hence, each producing
state has its own agronomists working on development projects
specific to their needs.
The Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA) has also
played a big role in gaining credibility for Brazil’s quality efforts.
Since its creation in 1991, it has been present at the annual Specialty
Coffee Association of America conferences and has concurrently been
involved with the international growth of the coffee industry. BSCA
meetings are held to discuss ways to improve harvest, coffee
processing and the overall product. There is a quality control
structure in place which evaluates practices and monitors quality.
The organization also promotes the exchange of experiences,
information and technology among its member companies. The most
important asset to the BSCA is that it has an independent company
certify the lots that are shipped to ensure product quality and to
preserve BSCA’s gourmet classification.
Brazilian beans generally undergo the natural wash process, in
which the cherry is plucked and laid intact in the sun to lower
humidity. This process, unique to Brazil and a few other countries,
delivers a distinct result because the bean is dried with its natural
sugars. The result is a sweet, fruity, full-bodied cup, with low acidity.
A sommelier, whose own preference may be for a Napa Valley, still
recognizes the value of a Bordeaux; likewise, the appeal of this cup
characteristic will depend on personal taste.
Veloso Exporters is one of the few producer-exporters to have
taken the creative initiative to further distinguish coffees as “natural
cherry” and “natural dry.” The difference is that Veloso Natural
Cherry coffees pluck and lay to dry the ripe cherries, while Veloso
Natural Dry coffees pluck and process the cherries which have
already dried on the plant, before being picked. The idea is that
because the cherry had dried naturally and for a significantly longer
period with its own layer of sugar, it produces an even sweeter cup.
Veloso comments: “Brazil is just starting to take advantage of all its
possibilities. We are providing a selective product unique to our
country and unique to our company.”
The most significant effect of the adoption of new machinery
has been that Brazil can increase its use of the semi-washed process,
an application that hadn’t been readily available in the past. Due to
these advances, new areas have become conducive to producing good
coffees. Brazil continues to invest in improvements on the production
side and subsequently, every year the amount of Brazil’s semi-
washed beans increases-as does the demand for them.
While Brazil’s size acts as a strength, it also acts as a weakness.
Looking at it from a marketing perspective, it is more difficult to
form a solid association on what a Brazil origin coffee is because
there are so many different coffees to choose from, many more than
in other producing countries. And within those coffees are Robustas.
While this type has its place in the market, its recent production
increase doesn’t help Brazil’s struggle to prove its place as a
purveyor of quality. Yet, if Brazil was smaller, it might get away with
growing only Arabica. However, with a country so large, it’s not a
“It has been challenging to teach consumers the diversity of
Brazil’s climates and the varieties of coffees that it can produce,”
explains Grossi. “Keep in mind that Brazil is the fifth largest country
in the whole world, many times larger than Colombia and the whole
of Central America. It is as if we are many countries of coffee in
“In an effort to educate,” Grossi continues, “we find it important
to inform the consumer of the region the coffee purchased is from. In
this regard, the concept of estate coffee becomes important. We need
to work with the roasters to ensure that once our coffee is used, it
remains pure. If it is later blended with other beans, but our estate
label remains, it is misleading to the consumer and not fair to us.”
The current solution lies in regional branding and a group of
growers from the Cerrado area are doing just that. Located in
southwestern Minas Gerais, this region has a steady rainy season and
only one blooming period, which helps bring on a more even ripening
and makes harvesting easier. Brazil owes a lot to Cerrado producers,
a group who has been cultivating an attention to detail for its crops
and is pioneering the country’s specialty movement. Most important
still, they are making a name for themselves internationally and
getting people to talk about Brazil once again.
The soil in Cerrado was less than ideal for growing coffee. The
Brazilian saying was that the soil was good for holding the tree and
that’s about all it was good for. The farmers had a real challenge on
their hands. “I remember when we started farming here,” remarks
Ismael Andrade of Andrade Brothers, “people told us we were crazy,
that nothing good would ever come from this land. But I’m happy to
say that here we are, years later, producing some of Brazil’s finest
coffees. We are moving toward an even greater understanding of
what it means to be a gourmet provider by creating a network of
producers interested in all the ways to cultivate beans for a superior
The land has, indeed, been nurtured and treated thoroughly so
as to be able to produce coffee. However, it would have to bide its
time before actually being able to give birth to quality. “My family
has been investing in this area for many, many years,” states Pedro
Humberto Veloso of Golden Coffees. “Mechanization has played a big
role in us being able to create a good product. And now, producers
like me who believe in quality, can take advantage of marketing
efforts because the Cerrado name is out there. Our region produces
very special coffees, plus we can deliver a more consistent product.
We are working on developing a system in which to exchange and
take full advantage of information unique to our area. The more we
work together, the better our products become.”
Another vehicle directing attention toward Brazil is its bourbon
cultivar. Generally referred to as Bourbon Santos, it’s the highest
grade coffee Brazil produces. This coffee is now being listed on the
selective menus of five-star luxury hotels around the world
alongside the ranks of Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona.
Even the quality-pusher, Starbucks, has lended its trust to this bean,
carrying on its shelves “Ipanema Bourbon” by the Alfenas company
Ipanema Agricola. That’s quite an achievement for a country whose
name until recently made roasters cringe.
“More and more people are becoming interested in carrying
bourbon,” shared Cristiano Ottoni, director of the company Bourbon
Exports. “Exports keep increasing and I think the word is spreading
quickly. It is delicate, so it takes extra care and tools to grow it. But
that extra time and money invested is rewarded in the premium. It
is a very select grade and deserves its place among the best coffees.”