Soft and Sweet: Brazil Specialty Coffees
Brazil is a coffee country in transition. Still the world's largest producer of coffee - but now the world's second largest consumer of coffee as well. Still the home of vast patios filled with coffee fruit carelessly stripped from trees and often mildewing as it dries, but also an emerging producer of some of the world's most fastidiously prepared specialty coffees. Brazil still produces a low-priced Arabica coffee that fills a huge middle niche in the world's coffee supply, a coffee better tasting than cheap robustas but not nearly as good as the world's more carefully picked and processed Arabica coffees.
Nevertheless, today many Brazilian farms are among the most innovative in the world, and a segment of the Brazilian coffee industry is succeeding in achieving almost unprecedented refinement in its coffee production. Some of these fine Brazilian specialty coffees are artisan coffees, the product of small farms with exceptional soil and microclimates using largely traditional methods. These coffees doubtless always existed in promise and potential, but until recently they were lost in the sea of ordinary Brazil coffee.
Large Farm Refinements
But the most interesting Brazil specialty coffees, at least from the perspective of coffee history, are those that come from large progressive farms. In many cases these farms do not possess the most ideal terroir, to use the wine term, for producing great Arabica coffee. In particular, growing altitudes are not particularly high.
However, some of these farms are making the absolute best of the givens of soil and climate through an understanding of how to improve quality and differentiate cup character by planting varieties of Arabica with interesting cup character, and, above all, by sophisticated approaches to fruit removal and drying, the complex procedures together known as coffee processing.
The Crucial Role of Processing in Brazil Cup Character
At one time, virtually all Brazil coffee was dry-processed, meaning the coffee was simply stripped from the trees and put out to dry on patios, fruit and all. When picked and dried carefully these "natural" coffees could be exceptional, full-bodied, and sweet, with a low-toned, carnal fruit and semi-sweet chocolate character. But if the long drying period of the coffee fruit or cherries was interrupted by rain or if the sugars in the fruit began to ferment the result would be a "hard" cup ranging from mildly musty or mildewed to fermented to outright rotten and medicinal. Some farms began to process some of their crop as "washed" or wet-processed, the process used in most other fine-coffee-growing regions: The fruit and fruit residue is removed from the beans before they are dried, rather than after, as in the dry or natural method.
But the great breakthrough for fine Brazil coffee came with the development of the semi-dry or "pulped natural" method, in which the skin is removed from the coffee fruit immediately after picking, as it is in the wet or washed method, but the mucus or fruit flesh is allowed to remain on the beans as they dry. In this compromise method the coffee remains on the drying patio for less time than in the full-on natural or dry method because drying is more efficient owing to the removal of the tough skin of the fruit.
Brazilian farmers have refined this method to the point that it produces more and more of the finest coffee in Brazil, often with delicately fruity and sometimes floral sensory profiles, more complex than typically produced in Brazil by the washed method, but more consistent and silkily transparent than produced by the dry or natural method.
Combined with lower acidity owing to lower growing altitudes than prevail in most other fine coffee growing areas of the world and typically dry, sunny weather during fruiting promoting sweetness, the result is a Brazil coffee with sweetness, gentle acidity, and delicately complex fruit notes hovering between flowers and chocolate.
How About Here?
But what are the chances of an American coffee aficionado actually finding and tasting some of these exceptional Brazil coffees? Do they all go to Italy and Japan, two countries with a particular fondness for fine Brazils?
For this month's article, we sampled eighteen Brazil coffees from fifteen American and one Brazilian roasting company with a North American distributor. Some of these coffees appeared to be from the new crop harvested in 2004; several appeared to be from last year's crop, harvested in 2003.
Nevertheless, it was a rather impressive group of coffees. Only one of the eighteen scored below 80, and four 90 or above.
Furthermore, these coffees displayed an attractive range of cup character. Although most of the highest rated of these coffees appeared to be processed by the new pulped natural method, there were also impressive coffees of the more traditional dry-processed "natural" style of Brazil.
More Innovation: The Cup of Excellence
Finally, Brazil has innovated in ways other than coffee processing. The very successful Cup of Excellence program of juried competitions to determine the finest green coffees produced in a given coffee growing region and crop year originated with the forward-thinking specialty coffee growers of Brazil. Two of the 2003 crop coffees reviewed here were Cup of Excellence winners, and the 91-rated 2004 crop Brazil Organic from Allegro coffee is from Santa Terezinha, a farm that regularly appears among the winners of the Cup of Excellence competitions.