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Brazil Naturals: Tradition Meets Trend

Although Coffee Review has published a number of articles over the years focusing on coffees from Brazil, we have never specifically focused on the coffee type generally called “Brazil naturals”: Brazil coffees of the Arabica species that have been dried inside the fruit rather than after the fruit has been removed (as is the case with conventional “washed” or wet-processed coffees). Brazil natural Arabicas are one of the world’s most widely traded coffee types. Inexpensive yet dependable, crucial yet taken for granted, they anchor countless blends worldwide. But what do they offer to the enthusiast interested in exploring the nuances of fine high-end single-origin coffees? In an attempt to answer that question, we cupped 24 single-origin, single-farm natural-processed Brazils for this report. Nine of the finest, rated 92 to 94, are reviewed here.

Brazil produces considerably more coffee than any other country — about 34% of the world’s total in 2016. It produces many kinds and qualities of coffee: large volumes of natural or dried-in-the-fruit coffees of the Robusta species called conilons; even larger volumes of natural or dried-in-the-fruit coffees of the Arabica species of the type we focus on for this report; and a mix of relatively higher-end Arabica coffees processed by other methods, ranging from conventionally wet-processed or washed to “pulped natural.” Pulped naturals (or “honey coffees” as they’re called in Central America) are processed using an intermediate method situated between washed and natural, in which the skins of the fruit are removed, but all or part of the fruit pulp or mucilage is allowed to remain on the beans as they dry. In our past surveys of Brazil coffees, the top-scoring coffees were often fine pulped naturals.

But another category of fine specialty coffees is also produced in Brazil, a category that we focus on in this month’s report: old-fashioned natural dried-in-the-fruit Brazil coffees that are done particularly right.

Processing Variables: From Stripped to Coddled

Normal, decent-but-not-great Brazil natural Arabicas, the good-value kind that anchor the decent-but-not-great blends of the world, are mass-harvested, either by stripping the branches by hand or by machines that roll down the rows of coffee trees and shake the more or less ripe fruit off the trees. The resulting mix of ripe, overripe and underripe fruit is then subjected to sophisticated mechanical separation before being dried on patios in layers, hopefully not too thick, and hopefully relentlessly raked. Then comes an even more rigorous cleaning and sorting of the dried and hulled beans: by density, by bean size and shape, and by computerized electronic sorting machines. The result is a decent, solid coffee, a little uneven cup to cup, but by the luck of the draw and the relentless obstinacy of cuppers, a coffee that fills out the heart of many a “premium” all-Arabica blend cleanly and nicely, with considerable resonance, a little chocolate and a lot of nut, and not much acidy brightness because most Brazils are relatively low-grown.

The nine high-rated Brazil naturals we review this month are either exceptionally distinguished examples of that standard procedure for Brazil naturals, or special smaller lots of naturals apparently coddled right from the get-go. The cup profiles, plus the information we could dig up, suggest that many of this month’s top-rated samples may have been selectively picked rather than stripped or machine-picked. Certainly all were dried quite carefully, some in thin layers on raised African-style beds that facilitate air circulation under and through the drying fruit.

And the character of the acidity, at least, suggests that most were grown at higher elevations than typical for Brazil naturals. These high-rated Brazils did not challenge us with the intense, sweetly tart acidity characteristic of extremely high-grown coffees, but they did display a balanced, vibrant brightness we often found ourselves calling “round” or “juicy.”

Tradition and Trend

You could say that the Brazil naturals we review this month partake of two influences. First is the great tradition of Brazil naturals, a coffee-growing culture decades deep, steeped in knowledge and infrastructure peculiar to the production of naturals. On the other hand is something quite new, the example of the innovative new natural-processed coffees pioneered in the late 2000s in regions like southern Ethiopia and Central America, where fine coffees were traditionally wet-processed rather than natural-processed. This second, newly fashionable style of natural was generated by a restless specialty coffee culture that looked for, among other innovations, ways to add value to green coffee through creating distinctive cup profiles via variations in processing method. Unlike Brazil naturals, which have been produced for decades in a climate with relatively dry harvest seasons, or the even older traditional naturals produced in the semi-arid regions of Yemen and eastern Ethiopia that stretch back to the very beginnings of coffee history, these “new naturals” are produced in climates with often humid harvest seasons. Drying ripe fruit in humid conditions encourages the fermenty, fruit-forward character that epitomizes these coffees, a fruit-bomb effect that surprised and dazzled many aficionado consumers in the late 2000s.

The Brazil Difference

But while those newer natural-process coffees from Ethiopia and Central America remain popular among aficionados for their bright fruit-forwardness and lush but lively acidity, many coffee consumers aren’t familiar with the style and others simply don’t enjoy it. For those with more traditional coffee tastes, these high-end Brazil naturals may surprise and please. They offer dried-in the-fruit profiles with generally deeper, more nuanced fruit, a fundamental sweetness, and a vibrant though not assertive acidity. If the new naturals from Africa and Central America tend to bright berry notes and lush florals, the Brazil naturals we review here tend more toward the roundly sweet and less acidy stone fruits and simpler, less exotic flowers. Plus chocolate. Lots of nuts and chocolate.

If there is a through-line in the Brazil naturals we review here, it is the nut and chocolate tones that carry the cup profiles. From roasted cacao nib and rich, dark chocolate to a more austere, drier baker’s chocolate, and from classic almond notes to buttery hazelnuts to sweet, earthy pistachios — chocolate and nut tones rule.

The highest-rated of this month’s Brazil naturals include Willoughby’s Fazenda Passeio Natural, tied for the top rating at 94, a deeply sweet, complex and balanced coffee with a nectar-like mouthfeel, dried papaya notes, baker’s chocolate and almond. One of the prettiest nut- and chocolate-toned coffees we tested, Topeca’s Fazenda Sertão (93), makes its case around pistachio and baker’s chocolate. The Revel Estancia Telese, tied for top rating at 94, was less predictable, with a very slight fermenty edge that manifested as a faint hint of rye whisky complicating its deep, rich sweetness and lilac-toned florals.

Growing Regions

All of the coffees we received for this cupping were produced in three growing regions: Carmo de Minas, Mantiqueira de Minas and Cerrado Miniero, all in Minas Gerais State. Carmo de Minas and Mantiqueira de Minas are both traditional growing regions with a preponderance of smaller (by Brazilian standards) farms. Eight of the top-scoring coffees we review here were produced in Carmo de Minas and Mantiqueira de Minas. One, however, the 93-rated Fazenda Aurea from Taiwan roaster GIGA Coffee, was produced in the more technified Cerrado region, where flat terrain encourages machine-picking, and particularly dry harvest seasons encourage efficient large-scale patio-drying. Perhaps we can see the impact of a drier harvest reflected in the Fazenda Aurea’s crisply delicate profile and the fragrant way sandalwood notes complicate its melony sweetness.

Value Across the Board

In the global green coffee market, Brazil has long prospered by producing good value coffees, decent but not exceptional, with costs controlled mainly through volume efficiency and the sophisticated use of various sorting and grading technologies to compensate for relatively high labor costs. Perhaps owing to this value-first tradition, the fine Brazil coffees reviewed this month offer impressive price-to-rating ratios.

The two coffees that earned the highest scores, the Willoughby’s and the Revel (both 94 points), are priced at $13.99 for 16 ounces and $13.25 for 12 ounces, respectively. Typically, coffees that we rate at 93 or 94 hover around an average price of $17 or $18 for 12 ounces; others go for upwards of $25. On the other hand, the most expensive coffee we review this month is the 92-rated Victrola Carmo de Minas Canaan Estate, which at $16.00 for 12 ounces is still something of a bargain.

Of course, it might be best if consumers were asked to pay a higher quality premium for the best Brazil coffees, and that these quality premiums made it back to the producers and eventually to workers. But the Brazil industry continues to suffer from low expectations, particularly among North Americans. Perhaps Brazil needs its Gesha moment, some flashy break-out coffee that creates buzz and spectacular prices per pound, a moment that changes aficionado expectations about Brazil and sets off industry-wide experiments there with carefully coddled small lots. But for now, we should be grateful that these fine, subtly distinctive variations on a great traditional coffee type continue to come our way.

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About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is the co-founder and editor of Coffee Review, as well as its primary cupper and writer. Associate editors and co-cuppers contributing to this article and reviews include Jason Sarley, experienced coffee taster and certified Q-grader, and Kim Westerman, a widely published food writer and certified wine sommelier.

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