Frank Sinatra probably said it best: They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil—roughly 55 to 60 million 60-kilo bags of it, as a matter of fact. However, Frank never happened to address what has been a very controversial topic in specialty coffee since, oh, the dawn of the industry: Just how much of that lot of coffee is actually “awful.”
That old notion, that Brazilian coffee is by definition “standard” quality, has been repeated so often it’s amazing that the track doesn’t skip, though it’s certainly pretty worn out. That means it’s probably time to flip the record over and change our tune—something that Cafe Imports has sought to do from the very beginning.
Cafe Imports CEO and senior vice president of coffee sourcing Jason Long describes buying his first Brazilian container in the early 2000s, either out of naivete or with nearly supernatural foresight for the quality of the coffees to come (we’ll let you decide). “I had been working in coffee for five months,” he admits with a smirk and a shrug. “I got this coffee sample from Bourbon Specialty, and it tasted like chocolate-covered orange peel. I said, ‘Oh, this is great.’ Now, when I say the best Brazil I’d ever tasted—mind you, I had been in coffee for five months—there just wasn’t good stuff out there in general, and I was either confident enough or dumb enough to be like, ‘These are just great.’ I bought 80 bags, and it took me eight months to sell them, 10 bags at a time.”
He laughs a little as he calculates the then-versus-now. “Now we do, with [exporter] Carmo Coffees, 25 containers of that type of coffee and probably another 10 containers with Bourbon Specialty. So, I mean it’s gone from 80 bags up to that. I think our two partners, Carmo and Bourbon, are the best of what’s going on there. They are changing mindsets.”
“My perception of Brazilian coffee has changed a lot, and I think the world is now realizing how good they are,” says green-coffee buyer Luis Arocha, who handles most of Cafe Imports’ sourcing efforts in the country. “My personal opinion? Three years ago or four years ago the thought was Brazilian coffees were flat coffees, they didn’t have any flavors at all. Nowadays we see acidic coffees, fruity coffees, and coffees that can stand up next to Colombia for example. I think a good Brazilian coffee is a coffee that has nothing to be jealous of any other coffees in the world.”
Despite the fact that roughly 30–35 percent of the world’s coffee comes from Brazil—that’s an awful lot of coffee—most of the country’s output has not been put on the kind of flavor pedestal that washed Africans and fine Colombians have been, with their complex fruity acidity and floral sweetness. Actually, the sheer volume is one of the things that has perhaps ironically held Brazil back from achieving that reputation of quality, which is praise often reserved for the tiniest microlots.
Brazil’s massive production capacity, however, grants producers unmatched access to technological advancements, creating an unrivaled level of capability in husbandry, harvesting, processing, exporting, and marketing. With “small” farms at around 100 hectares, it’s no wonder Brazilian producers tend to value consistency and efficiency: Coffee planted in neat rows, harvested and sorted mechanically, and cupped and sold quickly allows producers to capitalize on their crops in ways that most smallholders around the world can only really dream of.
“It’s a bit faster and easier sometimes [to do business in Brazil],” Luis says. “For example, dealing with the Aguilera Brothers [one of our micromill partners in Costa Rica], closing a deal, it will probably take me two or three days, and it represents 300 bags. With Brazilians, you can speak 10 minutes and you’ve bought 10 containers. The magnitude of dealing is different.”
Can something produced and sold at such an enormous scale ever really be special? That’s the question that nags at Jason and Luis, and what pushes them to constantly pursue another level of coffee perfection. Instead of stopping at simply, How much?, they continue to ask, How much better?
“Brazils were shunned by the early specialty roasters—the high-end guys in the ‘old days’ didn’t do them, because they weren’t thought of as exciting,” Jason says, specifically referring to the lower-altitude, lower-acidity coffees that the country has been long known for, with their nutty profiles and heavy mouthfeel. “They make nice espresso, they’re chocolaty, people use them for blends,” Jason continues, but he has also long known that there’s something else out there.
Luis agrees, and he and Jason have found a particular cup of “something else” in the southeastern coastal state of Espirito Santo, north of the state of Rio de Janeiro. “Espirito Santo keeps me intrigued. It’s a beautiful region, with small producers—it seems like Central America, so it’s completely opposite to the huge estates,” Luis says. “That’s why we try to explore different regions—Brazil is like a continent itself. It’s a different world.”
Jason goes almost misty when he talks about the lots he’s tasted from Espirito Santo, most of which come from a close-knit group of smallholder farmers who are family, extended family, and friends: “I think Espirito Santos, southern Colombias, Kenyas, and Ethiopias are the four best coffees on the planet,” he says. “They’ve been unstable and we’ve lost money trying to bring them in in the past, but that’s where we’re going to try to continue to develop.”
Luis also says that producers on larger estates are beginning to experiment with small sections of their land or small selections of their harvest, planting new (or new-old) varieties, and exploring different processing methods than the typical Brazilian Naturals and Pulped Naturals. “Most of our Brazil coffees have been Yellow Bourbon, because that’s the traditional variety, but some producers are going back to Maragogype, which is cupping really nice. We can also see some Catuai, Mundo Novo, and there are some specific Brazilian varieties nowadays,” he continues. “And different processes! Producers are experimenting now with Washed, it’s like the new trend in Brazil, everybody is doing Washed. That, for me, I consider an innovation.”
One of the other innovations Cafe Imports is celebrating is the debut of Carmo Best Cup—the first Brazilian installment of our Best Cup cupping competition and auction. After several thrilling auctions in Colombia with our partners at Banexport, we have teamed up with Carmo Coffees to host a similar extravaganza in Carmo de Minas, where more than 700 samples were submitted in hopes of making it to the auction’s top 30. A group of more than 20 roasters will bid on these highest-cupping lots, and the bid money goes straight to the farmer—a way of discovering, rewarding, and encouraging continued excellence. “Carmo works with around 3,000 small producers,” Luis says, “and the quality is there. The goal is to get to know these producers, and to repeat these buys next year.”
While we might not buy quite as much as the “zillion tons of coffee” that Ol’ Blue Eyes sings about, everyone at Cafe Imports is excited for another year of top-quality lots that continue to change mindsets, push innovation, and, hopefully finally break Brazil out of the reputation of “staple, bulk coffees,” and into the front-and-center spotlight where its best offerings belong.