Our last origin trip, back in October of 2019, saw us visit Brazil, the kingmaker of coffee growing countries. We visited the small state (by Brazilian standards) of Espirito Santo, nestled against the southeastern coast, on the hunt for coffees that redefine expectations of what Brazilian coffee can be. Bright, complex and fruit-forward, this region’s unique terroir, processing and quality-focused techniques produce some truly extraordinary coffees. Read on to find out what we uncovered in our whirlwind tour of this beautiful and lesser known part of Brazil.
The traditional understanding of Brazilian coffee agriculture is of huge, monolithic farms sprawling over flat plateaus at a low to medium altitude. Typical Brazilian geography lends itself to mechanized picking and a simplistic, lower acidity cup profile.
[image –Left - Mechanised coffee agriculture alongside neat, flat rows of coffee trees, taken during a CCR trip to Brazil in 2015, Right – Mechanical harvester, Fazenda Santa Lucia, CCR trip to Brazil 2014]
Consistent and available in large quantities at a good price, many an espresso blend has been built off the profile that Brazilian coffee is well known for. To many in the industry, Brazil’s cup is dominated by nutty, chocolatey flavours with the odd bit of dried fruit or process-heavy funk, without clean and crisp fruit-forward acidity – but for every rule, there is always an exception.
Having tried several outstanding samples from the region of Espirito Santo that presented a complexity and acidity to rival any coffee from Colombia or Africa, we set our minds to travel to the source of these stellar lots. Travelling with CCR partner Ally coffee at the beginning of October 2019, we visited a number of smallholder farmers, part of a community that has seen widescale adoption of quality-focused production in recent years. These include selectively picking and meticulously controlling the drying process in the face of challenging environmental conditions.
Located on the east coast of Brazil, the mountainous region of Espirito Santo captures vast amounts of humidity from the south Atlantic ocean, with higher rainfall and chillier days and nights than would be experienced further inland. The region’s weather patterns and steep, hilly topography (some of Brazil’s highest mountains are located here) delay the maturation of coffee cherries, allowing the development of sugars and complex organic acids that are the foundation of top-quality coffee.
Brazil is more economically developed than many coffee producing countries, with rigorous labour standards and high minimum wages – something we fully support at Caravan. The increased costs of labour make hiring workers to handpick ripe cherries prohibitively expensive for many small farmers, though this is a key requirement of producing specialty grade coffee. Resultingly, on small farms, the harvest is a primarily a family-driven process, without hired help. Families will complete 2 to 5 passes over their own trees throughout the course of the harvest as the cherries mature and ripen.[Image – Left -Luana Sodre, at Sitio Café de Lala in Caparaó (which borders Espirito Santo) showing the rigorous separation of ripe cherries from underripe, with the drying process controlled through covered patios and raised beds. Right – Red and Yellow Catuai trees at Sitio Café de Lala] [Image – Steep hills prevent the use of mechanical picking techniques, but also allow for higher cup quality]
The region also presents other challenges - the weather and geography mean that using the traditional Brazilian methods for drying coffee (using the ‘natural process’ with the cherry intact) can take up to 60 days, with frequent rain and humidity resulting in problems of mould and other defects. As a result, the majority of coffee production in Espirito Santo is of low-grade Robusta. However, about twenty years ago, a revolution in technique allowed producers in the region to take control of the drying process, reducing the time required to manageable levels – unlocking some of the best coffee that Brazil has to offer. There are even some producers in Espirito Santo who are successfully producing high scoring fully-washed coffees, a process that is exceptionally rare in Brazil – as often the low altitude coffees require the extra sweetness imparted by natural processing, lest they turn out dull, flat and lifeless.[Image – Raised beds allow airflow through the coffee, polytunnels protect against rainfall or excessive humidity, and retractable shade nets allow the control of temperature. Left is Valdeir Tomanzini, who ran an incredible quality focused set up at his farm Sitio Tomanzini. On the right is the drying beds at Ezio Sartori’s Sitio Bateia.
Owing to the slower maturation of cherries, the harvest in Espirito Santo is delayed compared to the rest of the country, staggered throughout the autumn and winter months, with some producers finishing picking as late as December or January. As a result, our days of cupping in Brazil in early October merely showed indications of promise, as the best was yet to come. As with any long-term project, we look forward to working closely with the producers in Espirito Santo for years to come– adding the arrival of exceptional fresh crop Brazilian coffees to the spring CCR calendar.[Image – The washing station at Sitio Tomanzini. Valdeir produces washed, pulped natural and honey process coffees, alongside experiments in anaerobic fermentation]
Our first coffee from these endeavors is from Valdir Mansk, a third-generation coffee farmer who owns the 12 hectare farm Sitio Alto Santa Joana. Having converted his production towards specialty grade coffee in 2010, Valdir is growing Red Bourbon and Yellow Caturra varieties under cedar shade trees, and drying his coffee on a covered patio. The variety selection of Red Bourbon combined with the terroir of Espirito Santo is what caught our eyes on the cupping table – in a blind tasting, this coffee stood out for its bright acidity, with notes of redcurrant and lime, alongside a nuanced almond butter sweetness and a creamy body like dulce de leche.
We’re starting small with our buying from the region this year, but we look forward to building relationships and featuring these coffees as an interesting counterpoint to a period that is often East Africa heavy. We look forward to visiting Brazil again as soon as we’re able, and in the meantime, we are pleased to share this exciting and unique coffee with you from the misty mountains of Espirito Santo.[Image – Our head of quality control Alex, left, takes in the view on the way to help pick some cherries at Sitio Bateia #Welltraveled]