I Found the Future in Brazil (and now I feel like crying)
Is the Brazil of today, where coffee is becoming increasingly technified, the future of coffee in the Americas? What is pushing farmers in Brazil away from hand labor toward machine-based picking and processing? And what is the impact on quality of machine-harvested coffee?
Brazil is a vast and varied nation, which holds true in terms of its coffee production. From Cerrado to Bahia, Sul de Minas to Matas de Minas to Mogiana, there are different challenges that the landscape and climate bring to coffee growing.
Understanding what makes Brazil unique as a coffee origin requires a knowledge of the specific challenges facing the coffee farm. With a higher level of development comes certain demands on coffee producers, with great impact in managing the costs of labor.
"They grow an awful lot of coffee in Brazil" as Frank Sinatra crooned.
In other countries, even more developed Latin American nations like Costa Rica, the labor is supplied by indigenous Ngobe peoples who come from near Panama, and Nicaraguans who migrate to the West Valley to work the coffee harvest. In other words, the final cost of Costa Rica coffee to a US coffee buyer has taken advantage of the fact that there are people with no better choice than to pick coffee.
In Brazil, laborers do have other options, and working the coffee harvest is hard seasonal work. Laborers in Brazil, temporary or permanent, have the assurance of benefits as well, as one would expect from a more developed nation. The taxes paid with each salary are commensurate with those in the US or in some cases higher.
To manage the cost of production, farms have employed mechanical harvesting machines similar to what is used on many crops here in California, such as nuts and tree fruits. This has meant that coffee fruit at a wide range of ripeness (under and over) is picked at the same time, as opposed to selective hand picking found in other coffee areas.
Hand-harvested coffee on the ground tarp, a mix of unripe, ripe, and tree-dried.
Hand Picking is No Better
When coffee is picked by hand in Brazil, it is most often “strip picked” meaning that everything is harvested at once. Some farms will have pickers select ripe coffee, and may revisit a tree 3 times in a crop year to get all the fruit. But I have seen that this “selective” hand picking isn’t really done as one might expect, such as you might see in El Salvador.
All types of picking seem to have many unripes, half-ripes, glossy red cherry, crimson cherry, and “dried on the tree” coffee, or secos. In fact, manual strip picking is the least attractive in this way.
Nearly all coffee in Brazil relies on the milling process, both wet mill and dry mill, to refine the quality of what has been taken from the trees. While this seems like a monumental task to arrive at a top quality coffee, it is possible.
But it's important to note that the reason this is done is not because the Brazilian approach necessarily favors large scale agribusiness techniques, or because farms don’t want to do things in a better way to obtain high quality results. It is because the labor cost, and lack of willing laborers who would chose coffee picking over other jobs requires other techniques to harvest and process coffee.
Coffee farms must focus on costs, as well as efficiency and their volume of production. This doesn’t sound like a formula for producing world-class coffee, and I would agree. But as each coffee origin is different, it’s a huge error to simply export what you might learn in, say, Guatemala, and apply it everywhere else.
A contrast in harvest systems: uniform ripeness at a farm in El Salvador. While pleasing to the eye, this coffee scored about 84.5, in the same range as a pulp natural Brazil from the Fazenda where the hand-harvest picture prior to this one was taken.
How Good is Brazil Coffee, Really?
I have a slightly dour opinion of the prospect of world-class Brazil coffee in the current way the coffee is farmed and processed. I feel that a great Brazil coffee can score 86 on a global scale, maybe 87. Sure, when compared to other Brazilian coffees, the same lot could be a 92, a 95, a 100; it could be whatever you want. (And looking at competition scoring from Brazils, it can be. At Sweet Maria’s we have scored the top 10 from the national event between 81 and 87. Their scores were 86 - 94.)
Compare the best Brazils to nice Yirga Cheffe coffees and you would be challenged to get them within 10 points of each other. While I fully acknowledge that is an unfair comparison, it relates to the relative value of coffees from around the world that I consider every day, since I house Brazils right next to Ethiopian coffees under the same roof of our warehouse.
Should All Coffees Be Geshas?
But aside from lessons in humility, what is the value of Brazil coffee? What is the Brazil flavor profile? Why carry Brazil at all? Consider that a handful of good roasters have passed completely on Brazil, and some see it as a mark of virtue.
I think they are wrong. I think that some people enjoy a wider range of coffee taste experiences than others do, and I think that people might not want to drink Gesha coffees, Yirga Cheffes and Kenyas every day, even if they are world-class lots. I think people can come to appreciate the nut and cocoa tones, more moderate and integrated acidity, and restrained bittersweetness of a well-roasted 85 point Brazil coffee.
Also, Brazil coffees are soft, and difficult to roast to their maximum flavor potential, while dense coffees like many Africans are relatively easy. Even with an off roast they still taste pretty good. Tha's not the case with Brazil, which can turn ashy with bad roasting, especially high initial temperatures. Maybe avoiding Brazil is avoiding the challenge of roasting it.
Naturals on a patio in Cerrado area show evidence of surface mold. Note: that doesn't mean the bean is moldy. But off flavors would come out in the cup.
Good, Bad, Everything in Between
But even with the vast abundance of coffee from Brazil, another reason some smart roasters avoid it is the challenge of sourcing good lots. Many coffees sold as “specialty” grade are barely so … 79 to 81 points.
Many of the natural coffees (dry-processed) that get attention as being special have bad and unstable fruity tastes that fade quickly from the coffee, or mask underlying dirty tastes. These should be scoring in the 75 point range but are often touted as micro-lots.
But the majority suffer from the presence of under-ripe fruits. These produce astringency in the brightness and dryness in the finish, like walnut skins. The worst have peanut or peanut shell notes.
To achieve an 85 in Brazil, the careful hand labor of other coffee origins must be supplanted with exacting procedures in the wet and dry mill, and new innovations. There is huge potential that Brazil can be the “Great Producer of 85 Point Coffee” in the future. And while that might not sound like an achievement on par with a 94 point Esmeralda Gesha, I would say it is far greater.
Machine harvesting on a generally flat terrain: 2 laborers instead of 100 hand harvesting.
Coffee and Wine (Sigh)
I dislike comparisons of coffee and wine (especially since I know little of the latter), but this is about production, not taste. Forty years ago the wine industry was quite different, with mid-level product ending up as “jug wine” quality.
Technical problem in fermentation were part of the issue. But the main problems were cost of production. In order to produce high volumes to get the price down, indiscriminate hand-harvesting was used, with a mixing of all ripeness levels. Wine was extracted to maximize the volume of the final product, and quality of taste was of lesser concern.
Just as with the coffee trade of the 1950s to 1970s, this “race to the bottom”, forever cheapening the product in favor of saving cost, but taking little stock in how taste attracted buyers, led to fewer and fewer consumers.
But every wine cannot be a Gran Cru and receive the care of the plant, harvest and processing techniques afforded great the Burgundy vineyards, for example.
Yet now there is an abundance of mid-tier or better table wines that would score 85 points, solid drinking wines, $8 to $12 per bottle. This tier of wine is best exemplified by the Central Coast mega-vineyards of California, so technified now that a human hand need never touch a vine or fruit in the planting, picking, or processing.
Coffee in Carmo region, from my trip last month. This area is generally too hilly for machines.
Bad For the Mind
This might not sound like a great solution, not the image of wine production as we want to imagine it. But would consumers prefer the two poor options of a. jug wine, or b. $60+ bottles of palatable wine? Would we prefer a vineyard become pasture land because an owner decides that the costs and benefits simply don’t work?
In a sense, this is what the Brazilian coffee industry faces in production, and the rest of us face as coffee buyers and consumers.
There may not be a clear solution, or a uniformly attractive one. But one can hope that as the Brazil farmer tries to make her balance sheet work she finds a reason to continue to produce coffee, and the cup quality is increasingly attractive and an important part of the equation.
And one can hope that the way the relationship between quality, cost of production, and value to consumers plays out in coffee as it has in wine. As with the Central Coast vineyards, it seems that their improving quality does not make the products of small family vineyards any less attractive … in fact that it seems to make hand-produced wines more and more valuable.
But is this the future of coffee that we collectively desire? And do we have a choice, really? And how long until Panama and Costa Rica face the same pressures, at the same critical levels as the coffee farmer in Brazil? These are not easy questions with ready answers.
While this particular vision of where coffee is headed has unappealing elements, the improved life quality of the coffee workers and farm owners provides some ballast. But I still find machine techniques to be, generally speaking, a bummer.