"S" as in Sexy: New Specialty Offerings from Brazil
The fact that at least half of the American roasters submitting coffees for this month's cupping spelled Brazil with an "s" - the Portuguese-Brazilian spelling - may be symptomatic of what has happened of late to the reputation of high-end coffees from that country. The spelling implies that these are not your old-fashioned, low-grown, stolid Brazils of years past, but Brasils with an "s" - something exotic, interesting, perhaps sexy. Maybe not divas of the cupping room, but exciting performers, as evidenced by the twelve distinguished and distinctive coffees reviewed this month.
How the world's largest coffee producer can be seen as a newcomer in the specialty market is a paradox familiar to coffee insiders but perhaps not to general readers. Brazil for decades was known for providing the world with very large quantities of rather ordinary coffee grown at relatively low altitudes, strip-picked, and processed by the dry method, which usually meant taking coffee fruit straight from the trees to patios to dry in the sun with little attention to sorting ripe from unripe fruit or to whether the seeds or beans inside the fruit developed a bit of mildewed or fermented taste over the long weeks of drying inside the fruit's tough skins.
At the high end of Brazil production, all of that has changed. Brazil has become the world's most technically advanced coffee origin, with a contingent of (often large), progressively managed farms that compensate for high labor costs with sophisticated use of fruit-sorting machinery and compensate for modest growing elevations with sophisticated manipulations of cup profile through variations in processing and drying methods. The heirloom variety Bourbon, once on its way to being completely replaced by easier to manage, higher yielding varieties, is making a modest comeback. Growing regions with distinctive micro-climates, like the Carmo de Minas region that provided three of the coffees reviewed this month, have emerged from under the anonymous blanket of the commercial coffee system. And Brazil dry-processed coffees are no longer called "unwashed" but rather "natural" owing to determined, marketing-oriented renaming on the part of Brazilian coffee organizations.
All of this makes reviewing this set of Brazil coffees an enlightening exercise in coffee connoisseurship and description. Their often fascinating contrasts in processing method and botanical variety are all reflected, sometimes very clearly, in the cup.
The Fruit of the Matter
The most fundamental distinction reflected among these coffees is in processing method: between those prepared by the traditional dry or "natural" method and those prepared by the more recently developed "pulped natural" method. In the traditional dry or natural method the freshly picked coffee fruit is simply spread on patios (occasionally on raised screen beds) and allowed to dry slowly, fruit and all. In the pulped natural method only the skins of the fruit are removed; the rest of the fruit residue, consisting of the sticky fruit flesh or pulp, is allowed to remain on the beans as they dry. Note that both of these procedures differ from the wet or "washed" method standard in most of the rest of Latin America, in which all skin and pulp both are removed immediately after picking and the scrubbed coffee is dried fruit-free in its parchment skin.
Natural or dry-processed coffees appear to take on differing cup character depending on how much of the fruit dried on trees before picking (not a good idea), on how fast the drying takes place, and on other factors that we are only now beginning to understand. The challenge is achieving relatively rapid drying without allowing onset of ferment or mildew, not easy given vagaries of weather and the tough skins of the fruit.
With some of the natural coffees reviewed here the sensory outcome of the drying procedure is rather typical for good natural Brazils: Acidity is muted, body is deepened, and nut and cocoa notes tend to dominate. This is the profile that is traditionally associated with Brazil.
Apparently dry-processing in Brazil does not inevitably conclude with such a profile, however. Two exceptions cupped this month are the superb Fazenda Boa Vista from Coffee Klatch (94) and the balanced, floral-toned Fazenda Sao Joao from Ritual Coffee Roasters (92). These coffees, both naturals, appear to have been subject to a very decisive drying that rounded and enriched their acidity rather than dampening it, while maintaining their aromatic high notes. I also suspect that these two coffees represent "whole crop cherry," meaning only ripe fruit was dried rather than a mix of overripe and almost overripe fruit, as is often the case in large Brazilian farms, where the ripe fruit may be reserved for pulped natural processing.
The Pulped Natural Strategy
Why do farmers reserve the ripe fruit for pulped natural processing? Because the pulped natural procedure enables quicker, less risky drying for ripe fruit - once the skins are removed the entire drying process accelerates.
A combination of rapid drying and ripe fruit doubtlessly helps account for the beauty of the Victrola Fazenda Esperanca Pulped Natural (92). But pulped naturals do not inevitably outshine their dry-processed, natural cousins. Note that the Coffee Klatch natural Fazenda Boa Vista (94) dramatically out-rated the same roaster's pulped natural from Fazenda Cambara (88). The Cambara pulped natural was pleasing but a bit underpowered and even grassy, absent the full-throated fruit and juicy balance of the natural from Boa Vista. Perhaps there was a bit too much greenish under-ripe fruit in the Cambara. Another possibility and another complication: Some Brazilian farms use machines called demucilagers to scrub some but not all of the fruit pulp off the beans. Although the consensus term for such coffees is "semi-washed" rather than pulped natural, it is possible that the Cambara pulped natural was subject to such a partial-scrubbing procedure, which often reduces the rounding, deepening impact of the fruit residue during drying.
The Var. Bourbon Revival
And finally there is botanical variety, another interesting subplot running through this set of reviews, with the main protagonist the revered (at least among cuppers) heirloom variety Bourbon. Typically, Brazilian farms mix botanical varieties in a given lot of coffee, with the widely grown selections Catuai and Mundo Novo most likely to appear in the mix. The majority of the coffees reviewed this month probably consist mostly of Catuai and Mundo Novo. However, some farms offer lots selected only from trees of the Bourbon variety, especially Yellow Bourbon, a yellow-skinned line that is particularly productive in Brazil.
The sensory identifier of Bourbon for me is dry berry or "black currant" character, a crisp fruit note that appears most often in the SL28 variety from Kenya, a Bourbon derivative, and often though not consistently in Latin-American Bourbons like those reviewed here. However, those readers interested in this rare and elegant note should be able to find it in this month's Fazenda do Serrado from Ritual Roasters (91).
Fair-Trade Certification and Brazils
Brazil's specialty coffee production is dominated by medium-sized to large farms. The larger farms that do produce specialty are typically quite progressive in their labor and environmental standards. I have visited at least two of the farms producing coffees reviewed this month and both were fastidious in their commitment to sustainability and responsible treatment of workers and environment. Nevertheless, the main certifications available to such farms are Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified. Fair Trade certification is only available to democratically managed cooperatives of small-holding farmers.
Such cooperatives do exist in Brazil, and may be growing in number. However, for this cupping we received only two Fair-Trade certified samples, both from the Poao Fundo cooperative. Both were otherwise impressive natural or dry-processed coffees that came off the patio with a very slight but distracting musty or mildewed note, so they were not reviewed here.
CAs Fair Trade certification becomes better established in Brazil and as planned programs to improve quality at the cooperatives are put in place, we can expect more and better Fair-Trade certified Brazils. Quality Coffees, Quality Readers
Congratulations to those readers who managed to sustain interest through the rather elaborate detail of this introduction. These coffees were created with such expressive care that they deserve similarly detailed attention, I think, and with the best of those reviewed this month the ultimate reward, of course, is in the cup.
Co-Cupper Ted Stachura
The current Assistant Editor of Coffee Review, Ted Stachura, contributed his cupping and descriptive skills to this article. Ted was for several years Coffee and Tea Training Program Manager of Peet's Coffee & Tea in Berkeley, California and has judged at United States and regional Barista Competitions. Ted has emerged as a confident, sensitive and independent judge of coffee quality and distinctiveness in his new role at Coffee Review.