Coffees of Brazil
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this month’s sampling of Brazil coffees may have been the absence of surprises. On the positive side, we suffered through almost none of the dismal “did anyone actually taste this coffee before they sold it?” moments that sometimes turn our cuppings into wakes rather than celebrations. This month’s Brazils tended to be clean, consistent coffees, with a mostly positive, sometimes exceptional range of typical Brazil coffee characteristics. But throughout they remained variations on a theme of Brazils. We sampled nothing that tasted like it had snuck in from another continent, as I thought might happen given the growing coffee world tendency to experiment with distinctive botanical varieties and unorthodox processing methods. For example, we ran across nothing that blew us away with some sneaky Gesha floral or cocoa notes or brightly soared like a Kenya loose on the Brazilian plateaus. The great bulk of the thirty-one samples we tested attracted ratings in the quite respectable 87 to 88 range. They tended to be chocolaty, with some nut and aromatic wood notes and a little low-toned fruit: peach, raisin, apricot. When they dropped below 85 they tended toward flat and listless, though never outright tainted. As a coffee type, most of these decent to very good samples appeared to be the standard Brazil “natural,” meaning a coffee dried in the fruit, though very carefully dried in the fruit, free from the wilder, fermented fruit notes that tend to develop in such coffees elsewhere in the world. A combination of dry harvest seasons, long experience with drying technologies and exceptional post-drying quality control all doubtless contribute to this relatively clean-tasting, chocolate-and-nut style of high-end Brazil natural. Most of these coffees appear to have come from trees of a mix of botanical varieties, none of them (aside from an occasional patch of heirloom Bourbon) known for their striking or unusual cup character. Growing elevations in Brazil are typically moderate, so there is less tendency to bright acidity than there is with coffees from most other origins.
The Brazil Style and Beyond
All of which means we tasted a lot of pleasant, comfortable coffees, with vibrant but usually understated acidity, smooth mouthfeel, low on citrus and big on chocolate and almond-toned nut. In general a very gratifying, drinkable style of coffee, though one often underappreciated by acidity-obsessed American coffee aficionados. And a style ideally constructed to anchor espresso blends, where Brazils have always shone.
The best of this month’s coffees simply pushed the limits of that style, expanded on it, varied it through processing method, or performed it almost perfectly, like the Brazil Monte Alegre sourced and roasted by Kéan Coffee (91). Produced in the classic Sul de Minas growing region on a large 100-year-old farm impeccably managed by Jose Francisco Pereira, this natural demonstrates the typical strengths of the type with simplicity and strength: richly round acidity, syrupy body, quiet chocolate and dried fruit notes with a discreetly enlivening hint of citrus.
Playing with Processing Method
Differences among other of this month’s high-rated samples related in large part to variations in processing method. The Brazilian coffee industry was the first in the world to aggressively experiment with applying a variety of processing methods to the same coffee fields, including the increasingly popular pulped natural or “honey” method, in which the skins are removed from the beans but the fruit pulp is allowed to stay on during drying, plus still more refined variants on that style, in which some but not all of the fruit pulp is scrubbed off the beans by machine, a variation often called semi-washed. On large Brazilian farms like Monte Alegre three processes may be deployed simultaneously during harvest: natural, pulped natural, and fully washed. (Fully washed refers to the classic wet-processing method prevailing in most parts of the fine coffee world, in which all of the soft fruit residue, skin and pulp both, is scrubbed off the beans before they are dried.)
The highest-rated of this month’s Brazils, the OQ Coffee Sol do Paraguassú Brazil (93) is another dried-in-the-fruit natural. In cup character it seemed more a pulped natural than a natural, but we will take the roaster’s word for the processing method, and assume that its purity of profile reflects ideal weather conditions in the recently developed Chapada Diamantina growing region in the scenic highlands of central northeastern Brazil, where I understand it virtually never rains during harvest and the beans, nestled in their slow-drying fruit, are not rewetted and seldom dew-dampened. At any rate, this is an extraordinarily clean, vibrant, honeyed version of the dried-in-the-fruit profile.
The Fully Washed and Pulped Natural Candidates
The fully washed or wet-processed method of fruit removal, standard in the fine coffee worlds of Central America and Africa but less typical in Brazil, generated this month’s delicately bright but sugary sweet Organic Brazil Diamantina from Kickapoo Coffee (90). Also produced in the Chapada Diamantina region, this coffee is not only organically grown, but produced as well following the arguably most demanding of all sustainable environmental standards, biodynamic.
Turning to coffees processed by the pulped natural or “honey” method (skin is removed but beans are dried in the fruit pulp), three samples processed by this method attracted 90-and-over ratings. The Panther Coffee Brazil Fazenda Chapadão de Ferro Peaberry (92) displayed the dark chocolate and nut notes characteristic of fine Brazils. The more delicate Carvalho Coffee Brazilian Specialty Coffee (90) also fulfilled the dark chocolate and almond expectation with a pronounced vanilla lean in the chocolate, perhaps owing to the influence of the Bourbon cultivar or perhaps to the impact of a tactful medium-dark roast. The lovely Gavagai Brazil Sitio do Tanque (92) pursued the opposite roast tack. It was roasted toward the light end of medium, which encouraged a delicate but lush floral and peach sweetness.
A Darker-Roasted Alternative
Ten years ago, of course, the majority of Brazils in a cupping of this scope would have been presented at a much darker degree of roast than were most of the coffees reviewed this month. The Caravan Coffee Zinho Peaberry (89) is a traditional dried-in-the-fruit Brazil nicely roasted in the older, darker style, and readers who enjoy darker-roast coffees may find it suits them better than the medium-roasted Brazils filling out most of the rest of our reviews. Under the impact of a medium-dark to dark roast, the chocolate shows a pungent, cedary richness, while the delicate almond notes characteristic of lighter roasted naturals display here as a crisp, dry walnut.
Brazil Coffee on the Move
Brazilian coffee production has gradually moved northward over the last couple of decades, away from hillier, somewhat wetter south-central regions that are subject to frost into the vast high savannahs closer to the equator where irrigation is often a necessity and dry harvest seasons promote clean, consistent sun drying. In some cases, this move appears to have encouraged responsibly industrialized production of dependable but usually undistinguished coffees, but clearly there are some coffee idealists among those farmers developing the rather isolated northernish Chapada Diamantina growing region, a region that produced four of this month’s seven 90-plus coffees. All are organically grown, two are additionally biodynamically grown, and all demonstrate a clear commitment to quality and distinction.
Of course this showing may have been an accident, a one-time coincidence. Nevertheless, the impressive showing of the newish Chapada Diamantina region is one piece of interesting coffee news generated by this cupping. The other may simply be the continued emergence of a very pure type of natural or pulped-natural Brazil, with the lushly balanced delicacy of the type foregrounded by a restrained and tactful light-to-medium roast.