Over the many months of planning that went into putting on the first-ever Carmo Best Cup this past September, the phrase, “If you build it, they will come,” became much more than just a line from a movie—it became a kind of mantra. For us at Cafe Imports, who have organized and executed several Best Cup cupping competitions and live auctions in Colombia, it was a daily reminder of the power of simply showing up and being engaged.
For our Brazilian export partners at Carmo Coffees, it was the promise of a literal field of dreams: After all, that company’s tagline isn’t “The dream coffees” for nothing—Carmo founders Jacques Carneiro and Luiz Paulo Pereira both dream of discovering, developing, and bringing to market the types of rarified offerings that have hardly been seen (and certainly are not often expected) from the country’s coffee fields.
“We had people on the trip who didn’t believe that the coffee would be good,” says Cafe Imports Europe sales representative Stuart Ritson, who helped lead the trip and offer a European perspective on the lots available in the auction. “They had been on trips to the Best Cup in Colombia; they trusted us and they trusted that we wouldn’t put together something pointless, but they were suspicious about how good the coffee would be in Carmo simply because it was Brazil.”
Quick backstory: Best Cup is a cupping competition and live auction presented by Café Imports as part of our Resource program, designed as one of the ways we aim to directly connect our roaster customers with microlot-producing farmers, as well as a means of incentivizing top-quality production and lot separation. After putting several Best Cup competitions on with our friends and partners at Banexport in Colombia, focused in the departments of Huila and Cauca, we decided to take the show on the road, traveling east to Brazil for a blow-out cupping extravaganza in Carmo de Minas.
Better-known for volume coffees and inexpensive blend-builders, Brazil has not really been too much in the spotlight during the microlot revolution of the past decade, and the reasons are somewhat complicated. It’s not necessarily a question of the potential there, and certainly many farmers are turning up exceptionally high-quality coffees, but the scale, the vibe, everything about Brazil is just different than what we expect when we hear or think of the term microlot.
“These lots are relatively large for something like a Cup of Excellence competition—there were lots that were around 10–15 bags, which is relatively large in an auction. But within the context of the production of some of these farms, it’s actually incredibly small,” Stuart explains, raising the question of how to define the prefix micro- in a case of a producing country like Brazil, where even the small farmers own 10–30 hectares of land. “One of the producers, we went to visit his farm—it’s a beautiful place, but he has a million trees, so a 15-bag lot is almost nothing.”
“Of the top 15 or 16 coffees, I’d say it was about half small producers and half large. However, the interesting thing is that if you think about the impact just in terms of specialty coffee that a large producer can have by being like, ‘Oh, I can actually produce really amazing coffee and do it on a scale that is container-plus load,’ it’s kind of interesting,” says Noah Namowicz, Cafe Imports senior vice president and resident Brazil country-matter expert. “A lot of these producers that we worked with are definitely specialty-leaning, and specialty-coffee producers, but understanding that their coffees are some of the best coffees that someone has ever tasted, period? My impression is that it left an impact that is really motivating to do more of that. In theory, these farmers could produce containers of 90-point coffee.”
Fazenda Alta Vista
Before anybody tasted the first of these cups, however, there was some building to do. While the possibility of super-special smaller lots of coffee has been shown in Brazil for years—the first Cup of Excellence competition was held here in 1999 (called “Best of Brazil”)—there has tended to be widespread skepticism about the greater development opportunities there, and a feeling that maybe the incentives created by these high-profile competitions simply weren’t strong enough to move the needle.
Carmo Coffees had the dream, however, and they were determined to see it come to life.
Noah says, “Whatever Carmo did was magical, to get people to believe in the competition and submit samples to it. The amount of samples that they got dwarfed what CoE gets.” After putting out a call for submissions to the more than 2,000 small and medium-size producers they work with, Carmo Coffees received over 700 samples for the competition, which were then narrowed down to the Top 30, along with a smattering of special processes (such as Washed and Honeys).
All of the samples were solid, but scores of them were jaw-dropping: “I’ve been to Brazil every year for the last six or seven years, and I have never tasted coffees like this before,” Noah says. “I mean, they were just some of the most complex coffees: very, very sweet and pleasant coffees where that balance is there, but the amount of different types of fruit—from different kinds of bananas and strawberry and cherry. Perfect Naturals, and some amazing Washed coffees that we weren’t expecting to see, where they tasted more like African coffees,” says Noah.
Andrew Phillips, owner of Rose Park Roasters in Long Beach, Calif.
“The highest scoring ones tasted like peach pie, papaya, creamy, floral fruit, melon, strawberry jam,” says Andrew Phillips, owner of Rose Park Roasters in Long Beach, Calif. “And there’s this really fun one that just tasted like jasmine and chocolate—a really cool mix of sweet delicate florals mixed with this deep, dark, bittersweet chocolate taste. The really fun experience for me was that I did taste the very best coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life there, and I scored it a 95. This is just the best coffee I’ve ever had, hands down. It’s just so wonderful and intense, every flavor of juice and every flavor of floral, every bit of body—everything in there.”
This was Andrew’s first Best Cup, though he’d sent someone else from Rose Park to cup and bid at the Cauca competition—and yes, he did consider the possibility of being swept off his feet by the thrill and emotion: “I was aware of the phenomenon where in-country you tend to score a point or two higher. I was also aware of my subjectivity, that I was in Brazil and really excited. But the thing that I was telling myself is that I would take a point or a point and a half off of some of my scores because of those external factors, but even then—even if I do that to every single score, the majority of my scores are still 90 or 89,” he says. “I have full confidence that these were 90, 92 coffees, and I don’t care who you put in the room.”
Stuart agrees: “Everyone roundly admitted that their opinion was completely changed.”
Cafe Imports senior vice president, Noah Namowicz, and competition judges, Carmo Best Cup Cupping day 1
Well—you might be wondering—where have these coffees been this whole time, then? “Blended away, probably!” Noah shrugs a little and laughs. “There have been a lot of advancements with variety, so they’re doing a lot of new varieties in Brazil—Rume Sudan, Geisha—but I think when they’re not separated out, they kind of get lost in the mix with everything else.” That mix is part of what has contributed to Brazil’s long and strong reputation as a budget origin—which certainly has its value in the marketplace, as well as on the cupping table and in some of the best blends in the world—but building a new idea and perception of Brazilian coffee was exactly what Carmo and Cafe Imports had in mind with this particular field of dreams, and why it was important to convince a few adventuresome skeptics along for the ride.
It was also the first Best Cup for Norio Sano, president of DCS, one of Japan’s largest full-service coffee-equipment and green-coffee resellers. Sano decided to join the group because, he says via e-mail, “We had an stereotype image against [Brazil’s] coffee which emphasizing on ‘body’ for blend coffee use. Indeed such coffee did not suit to our business field you may know. However, this now reversed our image.” DCS successfully bid on Lot #123 in the competition, a coffee grown by producer Luciano José Braga, on his 10.8-hectare farm called Sítio de Pedra.
“The coffee is super fantastic and wonderful coffee we had ever!! The coffee has such a tropical fruit flavor, creamy mouth feel, and clean cup. This is just a typical coffee in regards to Japanese favorite, and we received an impression as, ‘We finally find it in Brazil!’” Sano-san says, “This experience drastically reversed our Brazilian concept. This will change our mind of purchasing coffee in the future. This is also innovative for us as well!”
Cafe Imports Green Buyer Luis Arocha and CarmoCoffees team
For those skeptics still left out there in the bleachers, don’t worry: We held a few paddles high during the live auction at the end of the week, as well, and we’ll be bringing in a few of the choice lots for our customers to buy SPOT—knowing full well that as soon as you taste this coffee you might ask yourself, “Is this heaven?”
Well, it’s not Iowa, but it is the future of Brazil.
For more information about the Best Cup competitions—including how you can register to attend the next one—visit our webpage for Resource: Coffee Auctions.
If you are interested in any of the lots Cafe Imports bid on in the Carmo Best Cup competition, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or speak with your sales representative: You don’t want to sleep on these dreamy coffees.
Scenes from Carmo Best Cup auction
Scenes from Carmo Best Cup cupping competition