Brazil Trip Report: August 20108-30-10
Coffee from Brazil has always been an anomaly at Counter Culture. Since I started here, we have never featured a coffee from Brazil as a traditional brewed offering. Only twice have we featured a Brazilian coffee as a Single-Origin Espresso. While we know great coffees can come out of Brazil, it has always been a rare find. The lackluster growing altitude, averaging probably around 1,000 meters, combined with a greater focus on a rustic natural or pulp natural process, has for the most part made these coffees more appropriate for a mild, sweet espresso base. Over the last year or so though, I have tasted some very impressive naturals and a few pulp natural offerings that have made us wonder exactly what is possible. If you remember, in particular, the last Brazil single-origin espresso offering from Fazenda Santa Rita, the sweetness and clarity it had for natural processed Brazil really made us to visit to try to figure out these coffees a little bit more.
When I arrived in Belo Horizonte, I immediately hit the road Northwest to Patrocinio, where the majority of the producers we work with are located. Within a short distance of driving (and seeing the rows and rows of coffee along the hillsides), I realized that Brazil is not only an anomaly for the origins that Counter Cultures sources from, it is an anomaly in the way coffee is done altogether. While certain areas have similarities to how coffee is picked and processed in other parts of South and Central America, much of Brazilian coffee is produced in a highly organized and mechanized fashion. Farms here can often times produce more than 100,000 pounds of coffee – and some produce well into the multi-millions of pounds. Coffee many times is picked by machine, and the real art of quality is in the separation. The green cherry needs to be separated from the ripe, the ripe needs to be separated from the already dry, and all the levels in between.
When I actually arrived In Patrocinio, I was greeted by a bunch of producers whom I knew of from tasting coffees this past year and realized that they were all friends. I also got to meet Ernesto and Edinelson Fornaro, the producers of Fazenda Santa Rita. Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time at farms and realized that, although Brazil is like no other producing country, the producers here are just as passionate about quality and farming practices as anywhere else in the world. I tasted great microlots and talked about advanced processing techniques with many of the producers. The producers here are very receptive, and, in certain cases, even more willing to try something new. Overall, as I bounced around the country my eyes were constantly opened, and I learned a ton about the coffee here. I could go on and on about how this place shattered my concept of coffee production and how great the people I met were, but like my last report, I will let the photos tell the rest of the story. Visit the Counter Culture flickr site for the full set of photos from this trip.
Check out our other flickr sets for photos from coffee-related events, farm visits, and more.
From the Road: Saludos Peruanos!8-25-10
When I was naught but a wee coffee-driven person, I made my first foray into the world of coffee-producer relationships with a trip to Peru in September of 2006. In those heady days, Counter Culture Coffee had one satellite regional training center, the commodity market price for coffee hovered somewhere around $1.10, the US housing market was strong, and I had bleached blond hair. Ahhh, memories. Since then, I have spent more time here than in most other coffee-producing countries, and both Peter and Rich have made trips to Peru within the past year, as well.
Our attention owes, in large part, to the unparalleled relationship we have built with the Cenfrocafe co-operative and the five communities of coffee growers behind our Valle del Santuario, and in part to the great mystery and potential of Peruvian coffee. It takes time to explore Peru, especially when you’re bumping over dirt roads in a white Toyota station wagon, the unofficial national vehicle, but you always discover something amazing. This year, for the first time, I am visiting the growers of Valle del Santuario during the dry season and what a difference it makes! Slogs up muddy mountain paths that seemed interminable on my last trip are transformed into pleasant, if challenging, hikes, and the chilly nights contrast nicely with warm, sunny days.
Seeing the differences between the rainy season and the dry season reminds me how dramatic weather can be. In North Carolina, we certainly know heat (especially in August), and in other parts of our country, we know a breed of cold that most Peruvians couldn’t fathom. Rain and drought, though, are another story. Even in the dry season, the valleys of tiny farms around the Tabaconas Namballe National Sanctuary (to which our coffee owes its name) are lush with vegetation. Shade trees cover the hillsides, and you would be hard-pressed to walk from one farm to another without crossing at least one small stream. On the other hand, the areas below San Ignacio like the city of Jaén, home to the Cenfrocafe co-operative, feel like deserts at this time of year.
On one of this week’s many long, winding drives through the Andes, I commented on the apparent drought to the co-op manager, Teodomiro. He pointed to blackened patches of hillside and explained that when it gets too dry for people to bear, they begin to burn their land because they believe (and have believed for who knows how many generations) that their sacrifice will bring the rain. And when the rainy season finally does arrive, it settles in for weeks or months and washes chunks of the hillside away in landslides. Last year’s rainy season was especially fierce and the mountains are striped with bare earth, but every year, growers tell me, the rain carries some part of their mountains away. I can’t help but think of the Appalachian Mountains, which I remember learning in grade school were once taller than the Andes. Whether time and rain could ever make Appalachians out of the Andes probably depends on geological factors that I don’t understand at all, and, meanwhile, I realize that climate change could alter this environment just as dramatically and within our lifetimes.
Growers know better than anyone that weather patterns are changing. They want to plan for the future of their farms just as we try to project into the future for the benefit of our businesses, and, unfortunately, I can’t assuage their fears or answer their questions. I am conscious of how often I say, “I don’t know” and “It depends” in response to questions that are too big for me, Counter Culture, or the relationship we have forged over the past four years to answer with any level of honesty. What if the climate does get warmer and I can’t grow coffee on my land? I don’t know. Or, by far the most commonly-asked question: is the commodity market price going to go up or down? I don’t know.
Even those questions that don’t depend on worldwide climatic or economic shifts aren’t simple, so when my answer isn’t, “I don’t know,” it’s probably “It depends.” What is the best variety of coffee to grow? It depends. How can I produce a microlot and get a higher price for my coffee? It depends. I could give short or easy answers to these growers but they wouldn’t be true, and these growers would figure me out after a year or two. And I doubt I would get invited back. The more time I spend doing this work, and the longer we work with the same growers, the more I understand that the truth – and gratification – lies precisely in that maddening complexity that it’s so tempting to simplify.
On that Peru trip of 2006, I was awed by eating guinea pig for breakfast, by the long drives, and by the party that the coffee-growing community threw upon our arrival. Four years later, I revel in strategic discussions that remind me as much of the way Counter Culture works with our customers as they do of the first-year, getting-to-know-you celebrations that take place every year for coffee buyers across Peru and the rest of the world. I guess you could say our producer relationship is growing up (and so fast! sniff). I am proud, obviously, that we’ve gotten here. But, at the same time, in the spirit of keeping the romance alive, I freely admit that I still love a community-wide party and that fried guinea pig in the morning still makes for a heck of a wake-up call.