Date: May 2002

Column/Title: A New Brazil Cup?

Author: Kenneth Davids


Not too long ago, Brazil coffees seldom made it onto American specialty menus. If they did they were identified rather generically as "Santos," a term describing the higher grades of Brazil coffees, usually from the growing regions of Mogiana and Sul de Minas. The Santos cup, long a mainstay in better-quality blends in Europe and the eastern part of the United States, is typically low-acid, medium- to full-bodied, sweet, often with dry fruit or pleasantly musty/malty tones.

In the past few years, however, Brazil growers, spearheaded by the Brazil Specialty Coffee Association, have managed to both change the perception of their coffees in specialty circles, as well as change the coffees themselves.

Brazil coffees, once almost exclusively strip-picked and dried in the fruit in thick, mold-inducing layers unprotected from rain, have become the recipient of considerable technical innovation and attention. Sophisticated sorting methods isolate the ripe fruit from the green and overripe fruit, compensating for machine- or strip-picking. Sun-drying is alternated with low-temperature machine-drying to reduce risk of exposure to mold-causing rain during the drying period. And a new (or revived) processing method, the pulped natural or semi-dry method, has produced impressive results both in terms of farm efficiency and cup quality and character.

As for repositioning Brazil as a specialty origin, the Brazil Specialty Coffee Association and its allies have pulled off an extraordinary publicity and marketing coup over the past three years. They have pioneered a structure that simultaneously selects and publicizes the finest specialty coffees of a given origin, while establishing an Internet-based system for selling those coffees directly to roasters and dealers worldwide.

The Cup of Excellence, originally the brainchild of the distinguished cupper and coffee pundit George Howell, leading Brazilian cupper Silvio Leite, and Brazilian grower and coffee leader Marcelo Vieira, now operates annual green coffee competitions in three countries-- Brazil, Guatemala, and Nicaragua -- but Brazil is the place where the idea and logistics of the program were first conceived, tested, and put into play.

The Cup of Excellence competitions import distinguished coffee cuppers from all over the world to assess the merits of an origin's finest green coffees. The best of these coffees as determined by the judges' ratings are then offered at auction to roasters and green dealers over the Internet on the Specialty Coffee Association of America's website. Winning lots of coffees always command substantial premiums over going prices for similar coffees.

But the most important contributions of the Cup of Excellence are to call attention to coffee as a legitimate arena for connoisseurship, to set new price benchmarks for the finest coffees of a given origin, and to dramatize to growers the potential upside of producing quality.

I participated in last year's semifinal cupping sessions designed to pick the 40 finalists for this year's Brazil Cup of Excellence competition. What was striking to me about these coffees was the apparent emergence of a different style of Brazil cup, a cup distinguished by a delicately bright acidity and a high-toned, floral and fruit character, rather than the low-toned, soft, round, often spicy or malty character of traditional Brazil "Santos"-style coffees.

It appears that this new Brazil cup derives in part from a new Brazilian processing method. Recall that "processing" is a clumsy word for a set of crucial, often colorful procedures: removal of the fruit residue from the coffee beans and the drying of those beans.

For the past hundred years or so the two basic methods for achieving this end were the wet or "washed" method and the dry or "natural" method. The wet method involves removing most of the fruit residue from the beans immediately after picking and before drying. There are several variations of the wet method, all involving water, hence the name. Wet-processing tends to intensify the bright, dry-yet-sweet sensation we call acidity, and tends to produce a high- toned cup with transparent, clearly articulated complexity. Most of the world's fine coffees are wet-processed.

Until recently almost none of Brazil's coffees were wet-processed. Instead, they were processed by the ancient dry or "natural" method, in which the fruit is simply picked and put out in the sun to dry, fruit and all. The dried, shriveled fruit residue is later removed from the beans by machine.

The dry method can produce splendidly fruity, complex, full-bodied coffee, but the problem is the long period of drying, during which the beans are held hostage, as it were, to the health and soundness of the drying fruit. If the fruit sugars ferment, for example, the coffee will acquire a fermented fruit flavor, which can be quite pleasant if the ferment is mild and sweet- toned, or horrific if it is intense, rotten and composty. Or the sugars can attract micro-organisms, which give the coffee a musty, mildewed flavor. Again, this flavor can be pleasant if it is mild and the coffee is sweet -- copy writers on coffee bags are wont to call an attractively musty flavor "spicy," "earthy," or even "chocolaty." My preferred term, if I am feeling positive about the sensation, is malty. But if this flavor complex is too intense and the coffee is not sweet, the result is a cup that tastes as though it were filtered through a pile of moldy rags sitting in a damp corner of a garage for six months.

Some years ago Brazilian growers and agricultural authorities began to experiment with a third processing method, one that has been used elsewhere, but not systematically & the semi-dry or "pulped natural" method. The coffee fruit is skinned as it is in the wet method, but the fruit mucilage or pulp, the sticky stuff that clings to the beans after the skin is removed, is allowed to dry on the beans rather than first being removed or "washed" off.

The pulped natural method has technical and economic advantages for farmers: It requires less drying patio space than the dry method (the beans dry faster with the skin removed), subjects the drying bean to less danger from fermentation and invasion by moulds, while requiring less investment in equipment than the wet method.

The pulped natural method also, it turns out, has an interesting impact on cup character. This week's review seems to confirm what Brazilian cuppers have observed (using different words perhaps) for several years now, and what I have observed in recent cuppings. The best Brazilian pulped natural cup seems to be high-toned but delicate, gently acidy, with fairly consistent appearance of sweet fruit (berry, pears), floral, and citrus notes. The fruit and floral notes are not nearly as intense as they are in Ethiopian coffees, and may resemble similar notes in wet-processed coffees elsewhere, parts of Central America, for example, but the combination of delicate, light-footed acidity and the tickle of floral and fruit notes point to a new Brazil cup and a subtle new pleasure for coffee aficionados.