In November, I was fortunate to be able to lead a group of coffee professionals from around the world on a trip to the Cerrado Mineiro region of Brazil, one of the largest growing areas in the world’s largest coffee producing country. Our trip was sponsored by the Coffee Roasters Guild, the Specialty Coffee Association, and hosted by Gustavo Guimaraes from Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation, a collection of farmers, cooperatives, and support organizations that represent just over 12% of all coffee produced in Brazil.
Our eclectic group of 21 travelers came from Greece, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Switzerland, England, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Kenya, and the continental US (Houston, Denver, New York City, Ann Arbor). Also represented were various roles in the industry such as producers, baristas, equipment service technicians, and roasters.
We began our time in the town of Belo Horizonte where the International Coffee Week festival was held. This is a large regional trade show which also coincided with the world championships for coffee competitions (latte art, brewers cup, and mixology). The competition for the best coffees in Brazil was also going on and we had the opportunity to sample the top 25 coffees entered into this year’s competition.
After a few days at the trade show, we headed to the town of Petrocinio, a 6 hour bus ride into the heart of the Minas Gerais growing region. This area is home to several cooperatives and farms growing arguably the best coffees in all of Brazil. Gustavo had arranged a high paced tour of the region over 5 packed days which started with us enjoying coffee at dusk atop a hill overlooking Petrocinio, underneath a large statue of Christ.
The next morning, we toured the Coffee Center for Excellence, a regional experimental farm which showcases a range of coffee varietals and again were served coffees expressing the wide range of flavor profiles the region is able to produce. We sampled some of the robusta coffees that are starting to make their way into specialty coffee shops in Brazil and beyond.
We then headed to visit Gabriel Nunes, the winner of the 2017 Cup of Excellence for Brazil in 2017. Winning this prize is a big honor for a coffee producer. Usually this is a very small lot of coffee, maybe only 1-2 60k bags which brings in a very high price at a coffee auction. Gabriel used his winnings to build a fabulous new tasting room, coffee lab, and entertainment space for his farm visitors. After a tour and tasting, we feasted on Brazilian BBQ late into the evening.
The next morning took us to visit Marcos Antonio de Oliveira, a small family farm of 12 hectares. Marcos has also won several prizes in regional coffee competitions and is part of a small collective of growers that work together cooperatively. In addition to coffee, he raises dairy cattle and produces an excellent cheese that accounts for 30% of their family income. Winnings from different competitions have afforded the family to send their children to university - and they all still come home to help on the weekends.
From there, we stopped to see Gabriela Baracat Sanchez, whose 200 hectare farm is more typical of the Brazilian coffee landscape. Gabriela took over operations of the farm from her father over a decade ago, while her other siblings took on management of the family’s other ventures. This stop included coffee and a festive lunch party. The main dish was entire rib racks of fresh beef cooked over an open fire. It was on this stop that I began to see how these coffee families create multi-generational legacies on a scale I have not seen on visits to other coffee producing countries.
After a long lunch, we headed to Cafebras one of the co-ops in the region that also has an excellent lab facility complete with espresso bar. It’s never too late it seems to drink coffee in Brazil. Again, the tasting provided a view into the broad variety of regional coffees available.
For our last day of farm visits, we drove almost 2 hours east to Sao Luiz Estate Coffee, another of the larger family producers in the region. Here the parents have largely turned the operation of the estate over to their children, Ana and Miguel. Over the past three years, they have been transforming this 300 hectare operation into a showcase for specialty grade coffee which now accounts for up to 30% of their overall harvest. While we didn’t taste coffee at the farm, they made arrangements for us to try it at their co-op the next day.
From there, we visited the Carmocer cooperative which represents several coffee farmers along with other agricultural products grown in the area. Carmocer represents the “Mulheres de Chaves”, a group of women-owned and operated agri-businesses in the area. While there, we met Ismael Andrade, whose micro lots of coffee garnered the Cup of Excellence for Brazil for this year. Among the coffees we tasted at Carmocer, his were among the tastiest. While the COE lot had long since been auctioned off, several other small lots are still available. He easily quoted us prices in Euros per kilo and offered us logistical help to get them into the US.
Our last morning arrived too soon it seemed. Having already sampled hundreds of coffees up to then, there were still a few more to enjoy at the offices of Expocaccer, the second largest (by volume) coffee co-op in Brazil. Looking to us more like a grain harvester in the Iowa corn fields, this is an amazing operation. Tracking vast amounts of coffee from macro lots to micro in meticulous detail, they’re entrusted by their members to make sure their coffees reach their intended destinations around the world. Their offices include a state of the art coffee lab as well as a coffee bar / roastery that’s open to the public. By lunchtime, we had tasted another thirty coffees, including several from farms and farmers we met during out trip.
En route to the airport for the 20 hour journey back to Ann Arbor, I had plenty of time to reflect on the great variety of products Brazil has to offer, from coffee to cheese, to grilled meat and regional pastries, to sweet treats.
I also met people who are so dedicated to preserving and improving their family farms, and helping their neighbors do the same.
And, some of my conceptions of Brazilian coffee production were changed. While I often think of coffee from this region as having a uniform profile, it’s clear now that there are many more options available to further define our offerings. And having the chance to share this experience with such a diverse group of fellow travelers only made the trip that much sweeter.