By Lance Belville
November 3, 2008
Way down among the Brazilians,
Coffee beans grow by the millions,
So they’ve got to find those extra cups to fill,
They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil. “
— Frank Sinatra
(Header photo: Author Belville tries his hand at the arcane ritual of coffee cupping. Photo by L. Lohr)
A few days ago, a unique combination of hard work and hard cash made Brazil’s First International Fair Trade Certified Coffee Cupping Competition in Minas Gerais what Hollywood would call a boffo success. It brought to the small coffee-growing town of Machado an international panel of roasters, importers, exporters and coffee-judging (called cupping) superstars from the USA and South America to meet hard-working Brazilian Fair Trade Certified coffee producers to sniff, slurp and spit the black brew.
By all accounts, it was a taster’s paradise. And the dash for the title of best of Brazil’s Fair Trade Certified brews was decided by the 11 International judges who savored their way through 69 samples from seven Brazilian production regions on their way to picking six winners and 14 runners up.
The competition was a co-production (to continue the Hollywood metaphors) between TransFair USA, an American NGO which certifies and promotes Fair Trade (FT) products in the American market; Brazilian Fair Trade Certified coffee producer groups; Brazilian coffee roaster, marketer and exporter Bom Dia; American marketing giants Wal-Mart and its Sam’s Club subsidiary; Brazil’s Sebrae Minas Gerais(a government agency which helps develop small businesses) and USAID.
The cupping competition came about as part of a project pulling together a US$1.9 million budget to improve Brazilian Fair Trade Certified (FTC) coffee production and project it deeper into the US and world markets.
Coffee is the world’s second most widely traded commodity, behind only petroleum, and Brazil produces from a quarter to a third of it. Three million 60-pound-sacks of world coffee are Fair Trade Certified (FTC), about 10% of that Brazilian grown.
Brazil has a long and lumpy love affair with the beautiful bean whose fragrant origins stretch back through the mists of myth and memory to an Ethiopian goat herder.
The French had a strangle hold on its production and export from South America in the 18th Century. Along about 1727, in need of better sources of income than taxing the grumbling locals, Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro I had the bright idea of sending Francisco de Mello Palheta to French Guinea to beg, borrow or bargain away a few coffee seeds to propel Brazil into the profitable trade. Palheta was able to do none of the three. Instead, employing an early example of Brazilian jeito, he “charmed,” the French governor’s wife into sending him seeds and shoots, thereby starting the Brazilian coffee trade. With favorable coffee land and climate and a reasonably efficient slave labor system, Brazil rapidly developed a near-monopoly on the bodacious berry that lasted well into the 20th Century.
However, as the 20th Century progressed Brazil’s policy of production and marketing snuggly bundled in government red tape pushed up prices and opened the way for competition, especially from Colombia, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Although a major part of Brazil’s production is in the high quality Arabica coffee, in recent years Vietnam has grown and washed its way into second place among world coffee exporters – some sources put Vietnam in first place – producing the less valuable, rougher-tasting robusta coffee.
Brazil now produces about twice as much Arabica as Robusta. U.S. Government statistics for Marketing Year 2008/09 forecast Brazilian coffee production at 51.1 million 60-kg bags. Like Frank Sinatra used to croon, “They got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”
Meanwhile, coffee taste – and the willingness to pay for it – has gone on an upward quality rampage along with consumption in the major world markets. The concept of gourmet coffee poured into America in the 1960’s and 70’s, a European transplant, propelled by newly popular beat generation coffeehouses and the guitar strumming and poetry reciting – among other things – that went on inside them.
In the mid 1990’s FTC arose in the United States and Europe to meet the exploding demand for higher quality coffee and alerted consumers to the wisdom of drinking coffee produced under humane working conditions and by ecologically friendly techniques.
In a nutshell, FTC is a two-way street of rights and responsibilities between producers and certifier. Certification assures farmers and farm workers of better working conditions, a fair price, more direct access to credit and foreign markets, resources for community development and support for ecologically friendly coffee growing – organically if possible, all for production that meets the highest international quality standards. FTC fetches the producer a 10% to 15% higher price and a ten-cents-a-pound added social premium paid to the participating cooperatives for use in their communities.
The cupping competition judges spent three days executing the intricate ritual of coffee tasting in the southern Minas coffee-producing town of Machado under the watchful eye of Silvio Leite of AgriCafe, BRAZIL, a respected coffee judge with an international reputation.
Coffee “cupping,” as the java judging is called, is a multiple-step process that makes wine tasting look like fun and games in comparison.
World-class cupping is around an eleven-step process (aficionados disagree slightly on details) involving the grinding of exactly 12 grams of coffee and carefully sniffing the grind while heating 6.5 ounces of water (fresh filtered please!) to the boiling point. After waiting 25 seconds to get as close to 202 degrees Fahrenheit as patience and equipment permit, the water is judiciously spilled over the grind.
Following another 3 to 4 minutes (pros demand 4 minutes on the nose) a thick crust will have formed in the cup. Now the judge will get down and dirty. Sticking his nose as close to the crust as dignity and myopia allow, the judge punctures the crust with a tiny tasting spoon and deeply inhales the aromatic fumes that will be wafting up. After that, the tasting goes on with tiny slurped spoonfuls. There is some swallowing going on, but not a whole lot.
Judges are checking aromas, flavor, body and acidity. Grading is done on a 100-point system. Scores in the upper 80’s, which the winners achieved, indicate world-class quality.
Coffee cupping is a pretty serious business. Judge wrangler Silvio Leite is an affable gentleman but a no-nonsense coffee maven. The panel of esteemed internationals sat down each morning to a breakfast of bread and water, lest too much taste over breakfast confuse the internationally-esteemed taste buds. Rumor has it, however, that the bread and water edict was honored more in the breech than on the plate.
Another culinary prohibition for the judges was scrupulously observed. No strong condiments were used in the preparation of judge’s meals, no onion, garlic, hot peppers and no alcohol, the enemy of finely tuned taste buds for the duration of the cupping competition.
The judging was done at the Centro de Excellencia do Caf, a pleasant, new building located 15 minutes outside Machado, on a small plateau overlooking the lush farmland of southern Minas from which the red coffee berries pour forth. During the year, it serves as an educational and technical training center, constructed last year through federal and municipal funding to support quality in this major Brazilian coffee-producing area.
After the 3 days of judging, the succulent shindig moved on to Belo Horizonte for the awards ceremony and the auction that climaxed the event. And what a climax it was. Producers, their family and friends attended, rolling up in packed buses bulging with coffee compatriots from Nova Rezende, Boa Esperana, Poo Fundo, and as far away as Espirito Santo state. The atmosphere was electric and cheers went up as each winner was announced.
There were two categories, Naturally Processed and Semi-Washed coffees. The best grade coffee, when handled well – and the coffees in this competition were processed well – is Naturally Processed coffee, produced only in Brazil and Africa. In this process, the red coffee “berry” is allowed to dry and then is de-hulled to remove parchment-like skin. The bean carries a unique, “fruity,” taste. Organic Natural Processed coffee fetched the highest auction prices and took first place in the judging. High quality natural coffee is much sought after and, as the auction demonstrated, can command prices far above going international levels. (Photo: Francisco Braga is carried on stage by fellow coffee farmers on winning 1st place in the Semi-washed coffee category at Brazil’s First Fair Trade Coffee Cupping Competition. Photo by Clay Enos)
Semi-Washed coffee is processed in a de-pulping machine to get most of the fruit off and then washed to remove the residue.
Ten finalists in each category were chosen with prizes in each: R$500 for 3rd Place, R$750 for 2nd Place and R$1,000 for first place. Winners were cheered like football stars. Francisco Braga, winner of the Semi Washed category was paraded around the auction auditorium on the shoulders of fellow men of coffee.
The auction part of the proceedings provided human drama and commercial excitement. Bids were a combination of both open and closed bidding.
International and domestic buyers bid on all of the top ten lots in each category. When Brazilian Roaster Bom Dia bid Naturals Category winner Luiz Adalto’s beans up to the auction’s top price, a dazzling US$7.20 per pound, farmer and roaster received a standing ovation. (Photo right: Luiz Adalto de Oliveira of COOPFAM receives his R$1,000 check for taking 1st place in the Naturals category at the First International Fair Trade Coffee Cupping Competition award ceremony in Belo Horizonte. Photo by Clay Enos)
Semi-washed winner Francisco Braga’s lot went for US$3.00 at the auction, a strong price for that category of joe.
While Caf Bom Dia was a sponsor of the event and a leading purchaser at the auction, other purchasers for lots included Tony’s Coffee & Teas of Bellingham, WA; Caf Imports of Minneapolis and The Roasterie of Kansas City, MO, all of whom were represented on the panel of judges and so very familiar with the coffees at auction.
One of the human highlights of the competition came when Wendy de Jong of Tony’s Coffee announced that she was so stoked by the Naturals category 8th-placer winner, Andre Luiz Reis’ beans, that Tony’s would buy them and bring out a special reserve with Reis’ choice of a picture on package along with the story of his co-op, the Associaão Costas. The amazed Reis could only mumble, “Eighth place? Come on, we won! This is all we could ever want!” His choice of the picture will likely be that of a local bird sitting on a coffee plant to show his association’s dedication to coffee and nature.
In some measure, Reis’ feelings were shared by all the Brazilian coffee farmers involved in the groundbreaking competition. There is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil and with FTC it is getting better and better!
This article was prepared with the assistance of international coffee specialists, Demian Luper and Julia Delafield.
Previous articles by Lance:
Brazil: Then And Now Rondonia
Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play
Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films