Ahead of her performance in the World Brewers Cup at the International Coffee Week in Brazil, Veronika found time to visit our friends from Carmo Coffees, to discover the rigor and ambition behind their new experimental lots.
Given that Brazil has one of the most developed economies and coffee sectors throughout all of the coffee producing origins, its coffee producers and exporters are relatively "wealthy" in terms of resources and knowledge, placing them ahead of the curve when it comes to having the capacity to innovate in coffee production. About 80% of Brazilian coffee is natural processed. This is due to a few different factors, not least because labour is relatively expensive in Brazil. In general, labour costs combined with the fact that many farms have good infrastructure, coffee production in Brazil is more mechanized than it is in other producing origins. One potential paradox to this, when it comes to specialty coffee, is the value that is often placed on specialty coffee being handcrafted or otherwise produced in a special way.
What we've found, over the years, is that it is not always the case that labour or time intensiveness equals coffee quality. Especially in Brazil, where we are continually impressed by the strides its specialty coffee community is making by using its relative wealth and resources to produce ever more interesting and more tasty coffees.
Over the past few years in particular, we've noticed innovations in three areas: picking, processing and fermentation.
In Brazil, coffee tends to be planted at "lower" elevations in comparison to other origins. This, in combination with the lack of manual labour, means that mechanical pickers are very commonly used to strip coffee cherries off of the trees. If undertaken only once in a season, farmers are left with a vast number of over- and under-ripe cherries, so in order to optimize the picking of ripe cherries, producers have come up with three levels of stripping: first from the top, then the middle, and finally the bottom of the tree. These pickings are further sorted into micro-lot and commodity grades.
Interesting to note is that the middle of the tree tends to produce the best quality since it has the most balanced sun-exposure and the leaves protect the cherries from the elements (e.g. wind and frost). As well, while handpicking isn’t common, higher altitude farms or farms within mountainous areas require handpicking since machines aren't able to operate at these angles.
Since Brazil is best known and equipped for producing naturals and pulped naturals, these processes are naturally the first to undergo experimentation and development.
At higher elevation/small production farms, farmers are innovating the way they dry coffee since there is not a lot of room for drying beds or patios. Small huts with fermentation tank-like tanks with mesh floors are being built and solar panels are installed, which powers a turbine that creates warm or cold airflow based on drying needs. The drying method within these huts consists of first filling up the tank with five tons of cherries and then injecting a controlled amount of air flow upward through the mesh and on to the cherries. This whole process takes about 30 days to complete. According to Alex, who last travelled to Brazil for our August 2017 buying trip, while this process is slower than others, it provides a stable drying environment and temperatures. In terms of cup quality, he experienced that the coffee is quite fresh and fruit-forward.
Carmo Coffees is both our longest-standing and most trusted partner in Brazil. They're also conducting some of the most forward-looking experiments in Brazilian specialty coffee. Within the area of processing, they are one of the few producers doing washed processing and for the first time, we are offering a washed Brazilian coffee that has been produced by them. We chose this lot not because it is a washed coffee, necessarily, but because it is really, really good.
Carmo is also experimenting with yeast fermentation. Brazilian coffee producers in general haven’t had the energy or desire to ferment the coffee due to it being time and resource intensive. Brazil's coffee producing tradition has been focused on volume and uniformity. The times are changing and Carmo is at the forefront.
While the Carmo team is choosing to be proprietary about the protocol of their fermentation experiments, the fact that they’re starting to experiment is itself significant. And already proving to be rewarding: one of the experimental lots last year was scored 93-points by no less than Kentaro Maruyama.
What they were willing to share is that at one of the experimental farms, they had employed a yeast expert from France that had been traveling all over the world to teach producers how to use yeast in coffee fermentation. The basic concept is to utilize a single yeast bacterial culture within a stable tank/environment. This bacterial culture then lives in the tank and impacts the cherries in a way that is replicable year after year (since it's a single culture). The biggest upside is having replicable profiles year after year. Some downsides are that it pollutes water and is time consuming.
Brazil is unique as a coffee origin because it has the land, infrastructure and capital to be freer in focusing on innovating, while most other origins are working just to make coffee a sustainable enterprise. In other words, Brazilian producers have the resources to carry out experiments and not just invest in disease prevention and other practical investments. Hopefully over time, as coffee markets and consumers become more educated about the costs involved in producing coffee and prices subsequently rise to meet these realities, the Brazilian approach to coffee innovation will become a model for other coffee origins to follow.
Back in 2012, Robert wrote about how the changing Brazilian economy was impacting the business of making specialty coffee from labour availability and minimum wage, to pondering the impacts of strip picking vs. hand picking, to differences in topographic and climatic conditions between microregions and how they potentially affect cup quality. This past August during our regular post-harvest visit, David and I were met with a Carmo de Minas that had been dealing with La Niña early on in this year’s main harvest season. This weather event brought extremely heavy rain, which led to a lot of challenges, including surprises at the cupping table. For the first time, we were faced with defects, which we never would have imagined experiencing at these particular cupping tables. This base assumption alone, of expecting not to come across a single defect in the hundreds of cups that were presented to us, speaks to the incredible reputation that Carmo Coffees has built over the years. And why we continue to work proudly alongside this team.
La Niña and the 2016 Harvest
There’s no getting around the fact that in comparison to previous years, finding this year’s offerings proved to be an unexpected challenge. Great coffees were there for the taking but we’re used to dealing with the luxury problem of getting to pick and choose amongst dozens of great lots. This year, there were quite a few phenolic defects to contend with, which Luiz Paulo (co-founder of Carmo Coffees, coffee farmer and researcher) hypothesized had developed as a result of the severely increased volume of rain, which leads to an environment ripe for bacteria growth. In Brazil, coffee cherries dry on the trees (due to the common practice of strip picking), so when the rains come, the cherry skin stretches and tears a bit allowing some outside water in as the fruit swells. As the cherry shrinks back down and the skin of the fruit heals over, there is a higher chance of phenol forming inside the coffee.
One of the many frustrating things about the phenol defect is that it is not something one can physically see on the surface of the bean. It is a cup character flaw that makes a coffee taste medicinal, metallic and astringent.
To be clear, the Carmo team does an outstanding job cupping, sorting and milling every single lot they work with. But this year the team was faced with the battling: 1. Cupping through and finding the best lots possible amongst an overall disappointing harvest and 2. Dealing with an elusive defect, since phenol is not something that can visually be detected.
Curiosity as an Indicator of a Quality Mindset
There are many reasons we have confidently worked with the Carmo team over the years, above and beyond the awards and accolades their coffees and partners’ coffees have received throughout various cupping competitions year after year. Despite the fact that their reach (with the number of famer partners they work with) and the volume they export has grown exponentially, the team remains resolutely committed to being amongst the most innovative coffee exporters in the world. One example is their continued collaboration with Dr. Flávio Borém of Lavras University, a coffee scientist who studies everything from how microclimates impact cup quality to how different types of packaging (e.g. vacuum vs. grain pro) best contribute (or not) to a green coffee’s shelf life. He even recently published a very well-received book about the research he’s done on packaging, along with other findings on how post-harvest activities contribute to green coffee quality.
Actively engaging with, along with supporting, this kind of research is a marker of at least a savvy specialty coffee exporter. But actually contributing to specialty coffee development is a different category altogether and is an even bigger draw for us.
Luiz Paulo: Coffee Exporter, Experimenter, Maverick
One thing is supporting research efforts and using evidence-based knowledge in forming best coffee farming, milling and export practices. If an exporter were to stop here, it’d be safe to say that you’re working with a reliable and trustworthy partner. When that partner goes further and has ambitions to disruptand challenge basic assumptions about what a coffee sector can do, well, now we’re getting into straight-up maverick territory.
Brazil is known for being an efficient coffee producing country, but it’s no secret that it’s also perceived as being a bit of a boring origin with good but uninteresting coffees. Its well-developed infrastructure, professionally managed farms and high yielding trees are a double-edged sword within the specialty coffee community, which favours the most innovative, boutique and most unique. Perhaps there’s a way to achieve both?
Without giving too much away, since things are very much in the development stage, Luiz Paulo introduced us to some very promising and exciting experiments he’s conducting at his mother’s farm. He labels this series of projects “New Flavors” and it encompasses the latest innovations in processing and varieties. We’ve already selected and offered (based on blind cupping) two lots based on green/unripe coffee cherries that underwent special fermentation techniques to draw out more sugar content. These coffees cupped as well as many other pulped natural we’ve chosen and the fact that this technique can potentially add value to coffee that is normally discarded is an enticing prospect. Especially when the industry is faced with declining worldwide Arabica production due to the ever increasing consequences of climate change.
In two years, Luiz Paulo will be harvesting the first of the new varieties he’s been cultivating under New Flavors. Very much looking forward to cupping and sharing those with you in the near future!
Climate Change & Its Impacts on Coffee Production
Most of us are well aware that coffee is highly susceptible to climate change. During visits to pretty well all coffee producing countries, the evidence - signs and stories - are there for all of us to see and hear.During our recent travels to both Colombia and Brazil, the impacts of climate change were all around us. From Colombian producer stories of little to no (yes, zero) production during peak harvest, to decreased sugar content in cherries due to plants being impacted by severe rains in Brazil, it becomes increasingly obvious that in addition to having strong agronomic practices and great cup profiles, being a great coffee producer now also means being adaptable to climate change.
El Niño vs. La Niña
First a brief background to the two weather phenomena we observed the effects of during our recent trip.
Whereas El Niño is referring to the warming of tropical Pacific surface waters from near the International Date Line to the west coast of South America from November to March once every 3 to 7 years, La Niña is the cooling of sea surface temperatures and takes place roughly half as often as El Niño.
(For an in-depth intro to the connections between climate change and these two weather phenomena, please see the links (below) under "Further Reading".)
El Niño & Colombia's Coffee Harvest
While travelling throughout the countryside in Huila, Colombia our team learned that while there was a net increase in coffee production between July 2015 to July 2016, this figure says nothing of the devastation El Niño wreaked earlier this year. Many of the country's departments, in particular Huila, experienced both the worst drought conditions and some of the highest recorded temperatures in over 130 years.
As described earlier, many farmers suffered through zero production moving into the peak of harvest. The lack of a harvest was caused by cherries not producing seeds due to the lack of rain and lead to a further serious consequence that many cherry picking labourers, who are paid by weight, simply refused to pick whatever was produced on the trees. For affected coffee farmers, the lack of picking causes even more future harm because the trees are then not prepared for the next harvest cycle.
La Niña & Brazil
While El Niño causes dry and even drought like conditions, like the ones our Colombian partners faced, La Niña produces the opposite: excessively rainy/wet conditions. In the case of our partners in the Carmo de Minas region of Brazil, La Niña brought three times the amount of rain at the beginning of the season than normal and this caused not only damage to many of the cherries, but also a disproportionate number of defects due to the increased opportunities for bacteria to infect drying cherries on the branches of coffee trees. In Brazil, the heat is often so intense during the dry season, when coffee is harvested, that fruit begins to parch while its still on the branches.
The results of all of this is evident in the cup, as many of the coffees we tasted had less sweetness and complexity than in previous years. The good news is that we were able to find and pick out the best of what was on offer. It just took more concentration during our screening and more samples to find these gems. From a farm perspective, our partners are fortunately well organized and have great practices and infrastructure in place. They can rely on some of their other farm activities to make up for coffee deficits from this harvest and are able to plan, adapt to and mitigate possible long-term effects from the weather conditions this year.
It wasn't all bad news during the course of this trip. We are delighted to report that in Colombia, production has picked up due to increased and steady rain over the past couple of months. We have begun working with a new partner in the Acevedo, Huila region in Colombia that we will elaborate further on in the near future.
In Brazil, our partners at Carmo Coffees are working on some incredibly interesting and potentially ground-breaking work on varieties and processing. We hope to offer some early showcases from this work in the coming arrivals and will keep you posted on how the coffees cup when we receive samples.