By March 5, 2014 |Reviews Read Article
Map of Brazil

Subtle but Not Tame: Brazils 2014

The various cup profiles associated with the world’s coffee regions are the result of a complex interplay between nature and nurture, between the givens of nature – growing altitude, soil and rainfall patterns – and local traditions that for decades determined the varieties of coffee tree typically grown in a region and how the fruit was typically harvested and processed. The sum total of this interaction of nature and culture, plus the will of exporters, importers and buyers to maintain the cup profiles associated with growing regions, produced the sensory geography of coffee we all were raised on: Kenyas are expected to be sweetly bright and pungently berry-toned, Sumatras low-toned, full-bodied and earthy, etc. etc.

As insiders also know, the cultural side of this sensory geography has been splintering and changing, as traditional practices in coffee growing regions are transformed, on one hand by technology-driven simplifications aimed at reducing cost, and on the other by increasingly intense producer experimentation with tree variety and processing method aimed at creating coffees with cup profiles different enough and exciting enough to attract higher prices per pound than paid for typical coffees from the same origin.

The Brazil of Tradition

How does Brazil fit into the traditional sensory geography of specialty coffee? For decades Brazil has been associated with a type of coffee determined by relatively low growing elevations (less dense bean, softer acidity) and by dried-in-the-fruit “natural” processing which encouraged, at best, a sweet, chocolate-and-nut-toned character, at worst (when combined with careless harvesting and sorting) an uneven, taint-dominated production. Tree varieties in Brazil traditionally have been mixed, and chosen more for agricultural reasons than cup character.

In recent decades the best high-volume Brazil farmers have refined their basic coffee type by skillful use of innovative sorting technologies from harvest through milling, all aimed at eliminating beans that carry taints while maximizing the round, low-acid, chocolaty tendencies of their classic dried-in-the-fruit type. The result is a sweet, low-acid coffee with the valued chocolate tendency, which, together with the relatively low prices made possible by technified production, make the classic natural Brazil an ideal coffee for blending, particularly for espresso blending, where it supplies an unobtrusive, low-key (though not neutral) backup hum for more assertive coffee voices in front.

The Brazil of Tradition in the Cup

We did receive a handful of samples of this standard Brazil natural type for our article. Most were solid coffees, but none particularly stood out. They tended to come off the table at anywhere from 85 to 88. These are probably Brazils the roasters use (and probably use well) in their bread-and-butter blends, but which were not energetic or distinctive enough to make much of an impression on their own. In some cases, they may have been last year’s crop. We try to time our review articles to capture the best of an origin when it is freshest and just coming to market. Unfortunately, we were a bit premature in our timing in regard to the classic dried-in-the-fruit Brazils. This coffee style requires more time for drying and resting than the pulped-natural coffees that constitute most of the high-rated coffees reviewed here, and the best of them may still be waiting to be shipped or “on the water” as roasters like to say.

The New Specialty Brazils

However, we did receive a fine turnout of the pulped-natural type, which dries faster than full dried-in-the-fruit naturals. The majority were the sort of farm-specific, processing-method-specific, tree-variety-specific small-lot coffees that have come to characterize the latest movement in specialty coffee, and which represent farmers’ efforts to move up the value chain by making their production different and exciting through choice of variety and processing method. These high-end, small-lot Brazils tended to rate from 89 through 93, with an impressive average rating between 91 and 92. A typical Brazil from this group was produced from trees of a single tree variety (either the heirloom yellow-fruited Bourbon or the respected yellow-fruited Catuai) and processed by the pulped-natural method (skin removed but all or most of the fruit pulp left on the bean during drying) rather than by the traditional Brazilian natural method, in which the beans are dried encased in the entire fruit, including skin. The 93-rated Equator Coffee Brazil Bela Vista Micro-Lot, for example, produced entirely from trees of the Yellow Catuai variety and processed by the pulped-natural method, demonstrated particularly well the refinement and delicate originality of the best of these single-variety, pulped-natural samples.

We did, however, review one sample processed by the traditional Brazil natural, dried-in-the-whole-fruit method, although the Papa Lin’s Brazil Fazenda Furnas Natural (92), displayed more in common with dried-in-the-fruit coffees from Ethiopia than typical Brazil versions of the type. It displayed a slightly fermenty, richly sweet fruit attractive to those who enjoy this lush, edgy coffee type, quite different from the quiet refinement of most of the pulped natural samples we reviewed.

The Pay-Off for the Coffee Drinker

How does all of this technical detail pay off for the coffee drinker? None of this month’s fine Brazils demonstrated quite the senses-startling distinctiveness that characterized some of the very highest-rated coffees from other origins we have reported on over the last couple of years – the best Central America Geshas, Kenya SL28s, natural Yirgacheffes – but all did demonstrate an original and very engaging range of aromatics, doubtless the result of a complex interplay between the flavor-complicating impact of the distinguished Bourbon or Catuai varieties and well-executed processing variations.

Because most of the reviewed coffees were brought to a medium through light (in one case very light) roast, the chocolate tendencies came across as crisp and nut-like (“roasted cacao nib”) rather than heavy and deep (“dark chocolate”). In the Equator Brazil Bela Vista the chocolate sensation was remarkably delicate and sweet, reminiscent of very fine milk chocolate. Floral complications also were common in most of these samples, as were low-acid fruit notes we associated with fruit like apricot or raisin. In other words, these Brazils were subtle but definitely not tame or neutral.

The Low-Acid Appeal

I was also struck by how appealing many of the higher-rated among these coffees might be to consumers who don’t like assertive acidity, but who do enjoy complexity and distinctiveness. Although a couple of these samples were mildly assertive in their acidity, most displayed acidity we described as gentle, quiet, or delicate.

High-End Innovation

Although Brazil is probably best known for technical innovation aimed at improving industrialized coffee production (sophisticated machine harvesting, fruit sorting, bean sorting), it also has been an innovator at the high end of specialty coffee. The influential Cup of Excellence juried green coffee competition program originated in Brazil, for example. And the practice of drying coffee with skin removed but with all or some of the fruit flesh still adhering to the bean (pulped natural, honey, etc.) so prominent among the highest rated of this month’s samples, was first popularized in Brazil before its enthusiastic adoption in Central America and elsewhere.

The fact that small-scale, high-end innovation continues in Brazil is best demonstrated by one of this month’s two highest rated samples, the Brazil Leuven Santa Margarida Estate Lot 129 from Chromatic Coffee (93). One of three very distinctive lots from the apparently exuberantly innovating Santa Margarida farm sent by Chromatic Coffee, this lot was processed using the orthodox wet or washed method (fruit pulp is washed off after having been loosened through fermentation), but a special wine yeast developed by the Belgian laboratory Leuven was added to the vat during the fermentation step. The main sign of the influence of this experiment on the aromatic profile of the roasted coffee, at least as we read it, was to add a very mild, clean whisky-like note, whisky without the alcohol as it were. But it was a very fine coffee generally. The yeast ferment also seems to have changed the way the beans respond to roasting, since this coffee, based on our instrument reading of roast color, was by far the lightest roasted sample ever recorded at Coffee Review, yet it showed none of the woody or grainy characteristics of an under-roasted coffee. Unfortunately, Chromatic is only selling this unusual coffee in its café this year, given the lot was so small. However, the Chromatic roastmaster, Hiver van Geenhoven, promises a bigger lot of the same coffee next year with full Internet availability.

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About the Author:

Kenneth Davids, coffee expert, author, and co-founder of The Coffee Review, oversees all of our cuppings. He regularly contributes a feature called Cupping with Ken Davids, which reviews roasters' coffees and rates them using the Coffee Review proprietary 100-point rating system.

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