Brazil is not only the world’s largest coffee producer, it is also the most complex. It turns out everything from mass produced coffees that rank among the world’s cheapest to elegant coffees prized as the world’s finest origins for espresso brewing. In Brazil, fruit is removed from the bean using four different processing methods, and it is not uncommon for all four methods to be used on the same farm during the same harvest.
One thing Brazil coffee is not is high-grown. Growing elevations in Brazil range from about 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet, far short of the 5,000-plus elevations common for fine coffees produced in Central America, Colombia, and East Africa. Lower growing altitudes means that Brazil coffees are relatively low in acidity. At best they tend to be round, sweet and well-nuanced rather than big and bright.
Santos Brazils, Estate Brazils. The most traditional Brazil coffee, and the kind most likely to be seen in specialty stores, has been dried inside the fruit (dry-processed) so that some of the sweetness of the fruit carries into the cup. It also frequently comes from trees of the traditional Latin-American variety of arabica called bourbon. The best of these coffees are traded as Santos 2, or, if the coffee comes exclusively from trees of the bourbon variety, Bourbon Santos 2. Santos is a market name referring to the port through which these coffees are traditionally shipped, and 2 is the highest grade. On specialty coffee menus the 2 is usually dropped, so you will see the coffee simply described as Brazil Bourbon Santos or Brazil Santos.
Some years ago the Brazilian government deregulated the coffee industry, allowing large farms to market their coffees directly to consuming countries without regard to government-mandated grading structures. Consequently, coffees similar to Santos or Bourbon Santos also reach the American market directly from large farms, called fazendas. Names of very large fazendas that you may see on specialty menus include Ipanema, Monte Alegre, and Daterra, all of which produce excellent coffee. Respected smaller fazendas include Lagoa, Lambari, Fortaleza, and many others. The farms operated by Ottoni and Sons, particularly Fazenda Vereda, produce very fine coffees. Improving organic coffees are produced by Fazenda Cachoeira and a farm that markets its coffees as Blue de Brasil.
The premium coffees arriving in the United States from these farms are usually dry-processed or "natural" coffees. However, estate Brazils also may be wet-processed, which turns them a bit lighter and brighter in the cup, or they may be what Brazilians call pulped natural or semi-washed coffees, which have been dried without the skins but with the sticky fruit pulp still stuck to the beans. Typically these pulped natural coffees absorb sweetness from the fruit pulp and are full and sweet in the cup like their dry-processed brethren.
Risks and Rewards of Dry-Processing. When coffee is dried inside the fruit, as most classic Brazil coffees are, lots of things can go wrong. The seed or bean inside the fruit is held hostage, as it were, to the general health and soundness of the fruit surrounding it. If the fruit rots, the coffee will taste rotten or fermented. If microorganisms invade the fruit during that rotting, a hard or medicinal taste will carry into the cup. At the most extreme medicinal end of this taste spectrum are the notorious rio coffees of Brazil, which are saturated by an intense iodine-like sensation that American coffee buyers avoid, but which coffee drinkers in parts of Eastern Europe and the Near East seek out and enjoy. In fact, in some years these intensely medicinal-tasting coffees fetch higher prices in the world market than sound, clean-tasting Brazil coffees.
At any rate, harshness is the risk Brazilian farmers take in their attempt to achieve the round, sweet fruitiness of the best dry-processed coffees. One Brazilian farm, Fazenda Vista Alegre, has made a name in the United States for allowing its dry-processed coffees, in part at least, to dry directly on the trees rather than after picking. These interesting coffees, unfortunately, often tend to reflect the downside of dry-processing rather than the up. The Vista Alegre coffees I have cupped frequently display the slightly hard edge of compromised drying.
Brazilian Growing Regions. Three main growing areas provide most of the top-end Brazil coffees. The oldest, Mogiana, lies along the border of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais states north of Sao Paulo, and is famous for its deep, richly red soil and its sweet, full, rounded coffees. The rugged, rolling hills of Sul Minas, in the southern part of Minas Gerais state northeast of Sao Paulo, is the heart of Brazil coffee country and home of two of the largest and best-known fazendas, Ipanema and Monte Alegre. The Cerrado, a high, semi-arid plateau surrounding the city of Patrocinio, midway between Sao Paulo and Brasilia, is a newer growing area. It is the least picturesque of the three regions with its new towns and high plains, but arguably the most promising in terms of coffee quality, since its dependably clear, dry weather during harvest promotes a more thorough, even drying of the coffee fruit.