Breaking the Crust on Brazil (November 2006)

by Trish Skeie, Zoka’s Director of Coffee

Hard to believe that after three days lost in red tape at the Brazilian consulate, on countless 1-800 customer service calls, and pleading my case at various airport check in desks, I was finally standing at a table in Brazil readying myself for tasting. I don’t want to bore you with too many details – just that an accidental stroke of a pen had kept me from keeping an appointment to cup coffees from the Minas Gerais region in southern Brazil. And now, here I stood, before two long tables set with 40 samples of the sweet brew. To make the moment even sweeter, our host had just whispered in my ear, “Patricia, your fellow cuppers have decided that you will break ALL crusts this time.”

Breaking the crust is a once-in-a-cup’s-lifetime moment, where a cupper’s spoon breaks through a crust of wet coffee grounds to release its volatile aromas. With noses poised as close as we dare to the rim, we inhale the warm fresh coffee perfumes all in one go. Etiquette dictates that no single cupper should hog this experience. Cuppers typically break a cup and step away from the table in a timely manner, allowing another in for the next telling break. But since I had missed out on nearly all of the week’s cups, my fellow tasters had decided the entire room would be mine…ALL MINE!! After the 10 seconds of sheer delight had passed, I realized that I had my work cut out for me. Eighty cups needed to be broken in under a minute and a half. I took a deep breath and dove into what seemed like an ocean of coffee.

Getting to Minas Gerais, Brazil does feel like diving into an ocean of coffee, in a way. The country is a vast landscape of rolling hills and open pastures. Much of the land is dedicated to cattle, and coffee is only 2% of its overall agricultural exports. But Brazil has always been on the short list of trips for a coffee buyer. If not only to find the best coffee possible, then at least to get a sense of the incredible volume of coffee that Brazil produces.

Brazil is the largest Arabica coffee producer in the world. Arabica was introduced to Brazil at the beginning of the 17th century, but only became an export about a hundred years later due to high world prices. North America began its love affair with coffee about that time, and so Brazil stepped up to supply the demand.

In fact, Brazil was a mirror for North America’s economic growth, during the first part of the 19th century. Brazil experienced an influx of immigrant labor, an expansion of light industries, and even a depression as a result of WWI. The coffee industry came to settle in the southeast…right around Rio de Janeiro, Saul Paulo, and Santos. Coffee was (and still is) exported out of the port city of Santos, as a rule. Consequently, Brazilian coffee traditionally sports “Santos” as its subtitle. Blending many lots and farms into a Santos standard coffee is the way to go for most coffee producers in Brazil.

This coffee competition in the town of Lavras, however, was set up to highlight the small farmers in the state of Minas Gerais. The Minas Gerais contest is fairly new to the world of auction coffees. The Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply asked us to score the best coffees from the region – previously screened by a group of National Cuppers. Three days of preliminary cuppings resulted in a ranking by score, with a live auction scheduled for the final day.

And how were the coffees? As I dove into the crusts (four tables worth!) I detected lots of chocolate and spice, and every once in a while some dried fruit notes. For me, coffees from Brazil should have a good preponderance of toasted nutty flavors with a good cocoa or chocolate base. These coffees showed me toasted walnut, hazelnut, almond and… umm… yes, Brazil nut nuances on the theme, (not too many undesirable peanuts were found, thank goodness). These coffees were smooth and supple in body – another great characteristic of Brazilian coffee- and had a very good sweetness to them. The work the producers put into these lots was obvious. All cupped very cleanly, which is a testament to processing.
Just before the brokers and exporters filed into the room for the auction, the judging panel cupped the lots one more time. We tried some of them as single origin espresso shots, as well. Many buyers want these Brazils for high-end espresso blends, so it makes sense to try them as espresso. With an espresso extraction, the sweetness and body are really put to the test.

The names of the winning farms were not revealed to the cuppers at the end of the day, but the lots went to immediate auction that afternoon with only code number to identify them. The organizers wanted to make the producers aware of their position and pricing at a ceremony to be held later. (All I know is that I liked the #009). A partnership was created among cuppers to buy some of our favorite lots en masse. Some of this coffee could be on its way to the Zoka roastery soon…I’ll keep you posted!

When all was said and done, the only thing left for the cuppers to do was tour a Cachaca, (the much-loved, locally made, distilled beverage made from sugar cane – tastes a bit like tequila) brewery, have a nice dinner party, and collect our certificates. That evening we parted ways…some of us headed for the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, and some of us back out into the countryside to see farms. I was one of the latter. Check back here at the Zoka blog for the second and third part of the Brazil story…

Drink it up!