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Brazilian Coffee: Shangri-La in Brazil
By Mark Pendergrast

The global language of coffee unites those from around the world with the common goal of producing the best beans possible. Here, we can explore the story behind the family-run Brazilian farms that supply industry leaders, such as illy, with their high-quality varieties. Getting to know an origin means more than exploring the country and its landscape, but rather, the people and their passions.

It feels like Shangri-La. I am in the Zona da Mata region of Minas Gerais, Brazil, standing in the Estouro Valley, surrounded by the mountains of the Serra do Brigadeiro national park. Down the sides of the highest peak, Rochedo (Rock) Mountain, a waterfall tumbles, feeding the manmade ponds near me and providing water for some of the 80,000 coffee trees nestled in the valley and climbing part-way up the mountainsides. The trees grow between 1,200 and 1,400 meters (3,900 to 4,600 ft) above sea level. In the forested sections, I can see the distinctive white leaves of the imbauba tree and the brilliant red flowers of the espatodia tree. Avocado, orange and banana trees grace the property, and a little house sits on an island reached by a causeway to the middle of the pond.

Édio Anacleto Miranda, the 65-year-old owner, has walked here from his home in Araponga, eight kilometers (five miles) away, as he does every day. It takes him one-and-a-half hours each way. We are standing together on the concrete patio where he dries his coffee cherries after processing them. His beans won first prize this year, 2007, in the 16th annual illycaffé Brazil Award contest. The famed Italian espresso firm paid him $30,000.

I suggest that perhaps he could purchase a motor scooter with some of the money. He is a trim man around 5’ 6” who stands very erect and looks directly at me, the skin around his eyes wrinkled from sun and good humor. “No,” he replies in Portuguese, “Walking helps me to think. The coffee earned me this money, and I will put it back into improving the coffee.” He intends to purchase a mechanical drum drier to augment the sun when necessary.

From Rio Macaco to Pricey Gems
Drying has always been an issue in the Zona da Mata, which means “Forest Hinterlands.” Until recently, the coffee from this region was notoriously bad, fermenting in the high humidity as it dried imperfectly in the traditional Brazilian dry “natural” method inside its whole cherry covering. It was nicknamed Rio Macaco, which roughly translates to “fermented monkey coffee.”

In the last few years, however, thanks largely to illycaffé’s agronomists, contests and educational efforts, these same beans have begun to win top prizes and command high prices. The 2005 Brazilian Cup of Excellence winner, from the Zona da Mata, sold for $50/lb.– and that’s for green beans. How did these spurned beans turn into gems?

The secret is mostly in the “semi-washed” processing, called cereja descascado in Portuguese, usually called by the initials CD. In the wet process used in Central America and many other places around the world, coffee cherries are stripped of their skin, then soaked for 24 to 48 hours in water, allowing the sticky mucilage to ferment just enough to wash off easily. Then the beans, clad only in their parchment covers, are dried. In the semi-washed CD process, in contrast, the skin and most of the mucilage are mechanically removed. The partially denuded beans are then dried and the remaining mucilage flaked off.

The taste profile of the Zona da Mata beans is utterly transformed by the CD process. Instead of the usual nutty, chocolaty taste of Brazilian beans, these have fruit overtones resembling those you would expect from Ethiopia. Hence the high prices commanded by the beans, the rush to grow more coffee in Zona da Mata, and the rising real estate value. Land prices around sleepy little Araponga, for instance, have tripled in the past few years. In an attempt to distance themselves from the negative connotations that have come to be associated with Zona da Mata, coffee officials have changed the name to Matas de Minas, though few remember to use that new moniker. Regardless of what it is called, Zona da Mata is beginning to stand for quality.

The quality story goes beyond processing, though. Until 1989, when the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) collapsed along with the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, all Brazilian beans were treated equally under the national quota system, receiving the same price. Growers strove for quantity, not quality. In the wake of the disastrous worldwide price decline following the end of the ICA, the Brazilian specialty coffee industry emerged. Brazil, which had developed a reputation for mediocre coffee, began to produce some extraordinary beans that grabbed the attention of high-end roasters.

illycaffé Makes an Impact
illycaffé was one of the first roasters to become proactive in Brazil, encouraging high quality and promising to pay well for it. The company launched the Brazil Award in 1991, paying cash prizes for top quality beans. The first year the contest attracted 230 entrants. This year Édio Anacleto Miranda was one of 843 contestants. Over 10,000 coffee growers have entered the contest over the years. In 2000 illy founded the Brazilian University of Coffee in São Paulo, a rather grandiose title for a one-day learning seminar for growers. Nonetheless, along with the illy Coffee Club, begun the same year, it has had a profound impact on growers, encouraging better quality, communication and loyalty to the roaster.

The illy company loves to brag about its high quality all-Arabica espresso blend, its direct relationship with growers, Coffee University (now with a version in Bangalore, India, as well), recyclable steel-tin can, elaborate scientific laboratory at Trieste headquarters, contests (now in Colombia and India, too), globe-hopping advisors, sustainable approach to the environment in growing and processing, premium payments to growers and its positive impact on the social fabric of entire nations. That is why illycaffé invited journalists from Italy, Germany, England and the U.S. to go on this May 2007 trip to two fazendas in the Zona da Mata, along with a visit to a sparkling new processing plant and meetings with other local coffee farmers, agronomists, cuppers and exporters.

I was somewhat hesitant to go on a sponsored trip, afraid that I would be subject to undue influence, like an American politician taking a junket paid for by a lobbyist. On the other hand, I would not have been able to afford to go on my own, and I dearly wanted to see Brazil. Although I had written extensively about the country’s coffee history in Uncommon Grounds, I had never been there. I do not regret going, but readers may be pardoned for being skeptical of all the nice things I have written thus far about illycaffé. They are all true, however. Perhaps these farms were handpicked and we didn’t see others who might say something bad about illy, but I don’t think so. We were encouraged to ask hard questions, to explore issues, to wander off on our own.

I wish I had had time to climb to the top of Rochedo Mountain and to swim in the pristine pool at the base of the waterfall on the way down. Édio Miranda’s children, Edson Jr. (a pharmacist) and Andréa (who works at the University of Vicosa), showed me wonderful photos of themselves swimming in that pool, but that’s as close as I got.

Edson, 24, was born the year after his father bought the land. At that time, Édio Miranda was 40 and worked for others on local cattle farms. He earned enough money to buy 100 hectares in this valley, where he raised cattle and began to plant coffee trees. Today, half the land is covered in coffee, while cows graze in fields on the mountainsides, and the remaining 20% of the land is part of a forested nature preserve. When I visited in May, it was approaching the Brazilian winter, though it never gets very cold. The harvest season was imminent, the cherries ripening on the trees, mostly catuai, with some Mundo Novo.

As did every Brazilian coffee man I met, Miranda complained that the weak dollar was hurting him. The Brazilian real is now worth about 50 cents. While the real is strong, coffee is indexed in U. S. dollars, so it is more difficult to export on the open market. Miranda was fortunate, however, that the drought that hurt other areas of Zona da Mata last year did not affect his lush valley. Amazingly, he has no pest or rust problems and does not use pesticides, though he does apply chemical fertilizer with sodium, potassium and nitrogen, along with recycling his organic waste as compost. Of his 400-bag harvest, illy purchased 120 bags. illy paid 340 reals per 132-pound bag ($1.29/lb.), while he received 240 reals for the rest of his beans (91 cents/lb.) sold to other roasters. (Because of improved practices, many roasters can sell all of their beans for a higher price than before, even though they may not meet illy’s quality standards.)

Throughout the year, Miranda does most of the work on his relatively small farm himself, with the help of six other local farmers. In return, he helps them. During the harvest season, he hires 20 temporary employees, paying them a base minimum wage augmented by pay dependent on the volume of beans harvested.

The Dutra Brothers
I didn’t meet any of Miranda’s laborers, but on São Jõao de Manhuaçu, the Dutra Brothers’ farm several hours to the west, I got to question two workers who were harvesting a few early trees. Wagner Silva, 31, a permanent employee who has worked on the farm for 17 years, has reached a supervisory level. He earns 700 reals a month, about twice the minimum wage. He also receives free housing, his two children attend school on the farm, and his family can attend a weekly medical clinic at no cost. He is saving money to buy his own home and land.

Carlos Alberto, a younger man with a bandana covering his head, also lives on the farm. He earns one-and-a-half time the minimum wage plus bonuses during the harvest season. Migrant harvesters can make 30-40 reals per day, depending on their speed. That translates to $20 a day, which is not bad, considering that in Zona da Mata you can feed yourself for $1.50 a day, if you don’t eat meat.

Wagner Silva hopes to emulate what Jose Dutra did. Jose, the father of the brothers who now run the farm, was a common coffee laborer who planted 100 seedlings on his mother’s 50-hectare farm in 1960. Through hard work and bank financing, he kept adding land and coffee. By 1999, when he turned 60, Jose Dutra owned 300 hectares with over a million coffee trees, and his two sons, Walter and Ednilson (nicknamed Dinho), were involved in every aspect of the fazenda. That September, their father was killed in a tractor accident on the farm. Despite the tragedy, Walter and Dinho carried on, and in the past few years they have purchased a second farm, Capativa, so that they now own a total of 500 hectares with over two million coffee trees.

In 1999, the year their father died, the brothers were in a branch of the Banco do Brasil and happened to see a poster advertising the illy Brazil Award. They sent samples to the contest, and though they didn’t win that year, illy did buy some of their beans. In subsequent years, they have placed as high as fourth. They attended the illy University of Coffee, joined the illy Coffee Club and usually sell some 15-20% of their harvest to the company, though last year, due to the drought, illy bought none. Walter Dutra credits illy with transforming the way they grow coffee. “Working with illy has changed our management, training, environmental stewardship and quality.” The Dutra farms have now graduated from three years in the silver level of the illy Club to the gold level, entitling the brothers to a possible trip to Trieste.

Walter and Dinho are now 39 and 38, respectively. Energetic and friendly, they appear to enjoy themselves while working. Their farm, set in another Shangri-La-like valley, features several varieties of coffee trees – everything from 50-year-old Bourbon trees to catucai, a new hybrid of catuai and icatu. The trees grow from 800 to 1300 meters above sea level. I asked the genial brothers whether they ever stopped and looked around in wonder at the gorgeous place they worked. They shrugged. They are used to it. Dinho’s wife Flavia, on the other hand, said that when she first came to the valley at age 15, it took her breath away. “I thought it was perfect here,” she said, holding their one-year-old daughter, Maria Clara. “I still do.”

We had a sumptuous lunch in the main farmhouse where the brothers were born and raised. Flavia supervised the feast, accompanied by some excellent coffee and cachaca, a potent Brazilian sugar-cane liqueur. Eating with us were two other local farmers, Marcelo Garcia Correa and Sergio D’Alessandro, both of whom sell to illy and are active in the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association.

Also joining the feast were Allesandro Bucci, Nelson Carvalhaes and Marcio Reis. Bucci is illy’s peripatetic green coffee buyer, whose frequent visits to Colombia, India, Africa and Brazil allow him to compare and contrast growing and processing practices around the world. Carvalhaes is the exclusive Brazilian exporter for illy and Reis is a consulting Brazilian agronomist.

During our whirlwind Zona da Mata tour – which required hours of sometimes dusty, bumpy bus rides – we also visited a brand new processing plant on the outskirts of the city of Viçosa. Financed by illy, it will allow small local farmers to process their beans with the semi-washed CD method. It will also double as a research facility where agronomists can compare different parameters, such as drying on elevated screens (a Kenyan practice) versus patios of concrete or asphalt or mechanical driers.

Why Not Fair Trade?
Despite illy’s impressive efforts to promote sustainability, the roaster does not purchase Fair Trade beans, which has raised eyebrows among well-meaning social activists. CEO Andrea Illy sponsored a 2004 event in Paris in which he met with Fair Trade representatives to explore ways to work together, but the conference ended without a solution. The official illy statements about social issues are somewhat confusing. “Why is illy coffee not certified as Fair Trade?” an illy press release asks. “To do so, it would mean to betray its own mission – to produce the finest quality espresso.”

As things stand now, illy pays around 30% more than the going New York C-market price for Arabica beans, which usually puts them around Fair Trade prices and sometimes higher. The company does not officially monitor its suppliers to see how well they pay their workers or what housing, education and medical benefits they receive. In fact, illycaffé agronomists have direct, intimate relationships with growers and keep tabs on how they treat their employees.

Perhaps the illy impact in the Zona da Mata was best summarized in three words by Edivaldo Generosa, deemed the best cupper in Brazil. He works with the growers in Vicosa and consults for illy. I met him at the new processing plant, where I asked him what impact illycaffé has had on coffee in the region. He smiled broadly and said, “Water into wine.”

Mark Pendergrast is the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. He lives in Vermont and can be reached at markp@nasw.org

Tea & Coffee - December, 2007

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