I flew into Sao Paolo on a red-eye flight and caught a ride out to Varghina where we stayed. Parts of Brazil are much farther east than you might realize - I was about as far east as Greenland, so it took me a bit to catch up with my timezones, but thankfully there was plenty of coffee to cup. One of the benefits of travelling to origin is that the coffee usually helps you kick jetlag quickly!
We cupped several coffees at Cafebras - an exporter in Varginha - and kept getting notes of cheddar and parmesan. Thankfully - it wasn’t the coffee, but the delicious snacks provided along with the cupping. Those familiar with Brazil will know about Pao de Queijo - but these tasty little cheese breads are essentially the perfect savory treat and I enjoyed quite a few.
The next few days in Brazil were spent visiting different farms in the area that are members of the APAS cooperative - there are roughly 70 total members with farms from 2.5-7 hectares in size so we got to see several. Brazil is sometimes left out of the conversation in specialty coffee - but that's mostly because the majority of Brazilian coffee getting to the states is commodity grade coffee grown on massive, flat industrial plantations. The farms we visited were more family-run, with beautiful landscaping and a much more friendly, local feel.
Smaller producers in Brazil are very excited about the specialty market, where they can sell more specialized crops for higher prices than the commodity market. All the farmers we met with were very proud of their specialty crops and the more distinct flavor profiles they present - it felt as though they had a chip on their shoulder to prove that Brazilian specialty coffee can be delicious, and as a result they’re really swinging for the fences with quality and processing.
In part due to the robust commodity coffee market in Brazil, coffee farms are much more developed and mechanized, even when they're smaller. We saw much more equipment on these Brazilian farms than other regions - including an automatic picker! The machine is pulled along the rows of coffee plants, and the rotating tines knock the coffee cherry off the plants. A machine like this is less judicious than hand pickers when it comes to quality, so more sorting is required after the fact before processing begins - but it was neat to see one at a specialty farm nonetheless.
Speaking of equipment - most of the farms we visited were using the Bandeirante - Brazil’s version of the Toyota Landcruiser truck. You can go to pretty much any coffee-producing region in the world, and you’ll see some form of Landcruiser hard at work - at this point I think they’re the official vehicle of coffee production. In places like Varghina where the soft, red dirt turns to extremely slick mud with even a little rain, these trucks can reliably transport people and equipment to ensure the work gets done. We actually slid off the road a few times ourselves in our rental, which really underscored the value of these machines to coffee producers.
We also met quite a few great animals on the farms in Brazil - including Tor the sheepdog, who helped guide us on our visit to Santa Lucia farm. One of the great things about family owned and operated farms is the sense of home that you get from them. It’s evident in the pets sometimes hanging about the farm - but it also underscores how seriously these producers are about coffee. It’s not just a 9-5 job that they do, it’s their way of life. This is how most family farms are, regardless of industry throughout the world, but it was especially nice to see in Brazil when I was expecting more commercial-style operations.
There was a decent bit of rain while we were visiting different farms - but the patches of sun in between created some great moments to appreciate the scenery of Minas Gerais! Lots of rolling hills and very tidy rows of coffee plants stretched across the landscape.
After the farm visits, we settled in at APAS headquarters to cup the final round of the competition. APAS had pre-selected their top five coffees for us to judge, and the cups were all stellar. Almost all the specialty coffee coming out of Minas Gerais is fully natural processed coffees, which I wasn’t expecting but thoroughly enjoyed. They had some incredible profiles, lots of fruit notes and juiciness - which made choosing a winner difficult!
We did choose a winner in the end - and though the APAS cup is a relatively small regional competition, there were trophies awarded at a reception where APAS members and roasters from around the world had drinks, food, and enjoyed one anothers’ company. All in all a very successful competition for only its second installment - and I’m looking forward to future iterations of the APAS cup that continue to grow and yield even more unique coffees.
This visit to Brazil showed me a different side of what's going on there coffee-wise. When someone would say "Brazilian coffee" before this trip, the image in my head was one of the massive low-lying coffee plantations cranking out commodity-grade coffee for the world's gas stations and grocery store shelves - which definitely still takes place. But because of that large commercial industry, there are plenty of producers with access to equipment, capital, and coffee-specific infrastructure that are poised to make a real mark in the specialty marketplace.
After visiting with producers in Minas Gerais and seeing all the hard work and expertise directed towards specialty production, I'm excited about the future of Brazilian coffee. The flavors I experienced were jammy, fruity, and unlike anything I’d seen from Brazilian coffees before. It’s relatively rare to see South American coffees running with mostly natural processing due to rain being common in many growing regions, so it’s exciting to see that we’ll have more opportunities to pick up unique natural-processed beans. I booked a few of the lots from APAS for the club, and I can’t wait for them to arrive so that you can all taste what I tasted, and experience a different side of Brazilian coffee.