By: Ollie Sears 23 July 2018
As most of our followers and customers know, I have just returned back from an enlightening trip to Brazil to visit farms that we work with in Patrocinio, Minas Gerais. Minas is well known for its coffee production as it is the largest commercial crop in this region. However, as with all coffee producing countries, that does not necessarily have any bearing on whether it is known for specialty grade production. For those that are unclear on the boundaries for quality grading, specialty coffee must reach a score of 80 or higher through the process of Q grading and it makes up just 4 per cent of the total coffee produced globally. Commercial grade (often called commodity grade) coffee scores below this mark. As most know by now, we solely use and sell coffee of specialty grade. It shows a true dedication to coffee quality all the way through the supply chain, and does not happen by some happy accident. Arduous quality control and a good deal of proactive, insightful work must be done for such quality levels to be maintained year on year, particularly without detriment to ethical trading principles that we embody involving socio-economic and environmental performance of our supply chain.
So, having returned from the trip which involved me taking a close look at and ‘auditing’ this tricky supply chain with all its inherent complexities, we thought we’d let you in to exactly what we find when we visit our producers and their land, to see the coffee ‘in action’ during growing, harvesting and processing phases. A real highlight of the trip for me was meeting the fantastic Marcelo Montanari, our wonderful Brazilian coffee producer.
We were drawn to Marcelo’s coffees firstly through our close friends (and former colleagues) at Falcon Specialty. Hols actually first visited in 2014 and identified Marcelo as being an innovative and young producer passionate about the environment and the challenges faced through climate change. Falcon know our needs well and understand our motivations for working with producers. We look for likeminded coffee professionals focused on bettering the industry and the quality they produce whilst also ensuring they are doing so in a manner that is responsible to the land they are working with and to the people they employ. In a country such as Brazil whereby the production of coffee is so impactful, it is particularly important we look for people that are going above and beyond their obligations environmentally.
From the start of our relationship, Marcelo and his family have shown a clear willingness to promote biodiversity, to work proactively towards a better situation for their labour force, to maintain and improve the ecosystem on the land they own and farm, and of course because Marcelo’s instinct and curiosity has led him to investigate (and invest) his time and effort into producing specialty grade coffees of excellent cup profile!
Marcelo owns 300 hectares of land and grows coffee in 200 hectares of it. This is a monstrous amount of land when compared with the smallholder producers we work with in Africa for example (who often have half a hectare in their back garden), but in Minas Gerais this is relatively small! Marcelo’s specialty coffee production will meet the quantities we need entirely, and through his land allocated as conservation areas (now between 72 and 75 hectares – the team are continuing to expand it) he more than meets the local thresholds for certifying his farm with the Rainforest Alliance. By law in Brazil, 20 per cent of all arable land must be set aside as a natural reserve – biodiversity and conservation of ecology are not only important for meeting their obligations legally or for certifications though, Marcelo is confident that maintaining the biodiversity on his farmland is key to the success of his crop. He also knows that wildlife and its presence on the farm can be a less scientific but equally valuable indicator of farm health and therefore the success of his agronomy in action.
On Fazenda Rainha da Paz, Marcello currently only processes coffees as ‘naturals’. Anything else he takes to his wet mill on Fazenda Sao Paulo, his other farm which we also visited. He will also be producing fully washed coffees as he starting to become familiar with the logistics and timings of the process, and understands more about how to manage it correctly. He tests methods and processes prior to launching full scale to avoid error and large-scale waste, and knows the value of learning from the micro level when attempting to replicate his work on a macro scale with a full lot of coffee. The same way that when we profile a coffee for roasting, we don’t risk wasting 12 kilos of it in our Giesen coffee roaster for production. We sample it on a very small scale to learn more about its characteristics (the nuances of it that will affect how we ought to roast it) and only scale production up when we feel ready to do so.
What was great to see was Marcelo’s approach to collaboration and the sharing of knowledge in his innovation and work to improve farming and agronomy in the microclimates of Minas Gerais. He works tirelessly on his experimental coffee growing projects and presents on his findings with university researchers, enlightens postgraduate agronomy students and even teaches other farmers in the Expocaccer cooperative (the dry mill responsible for export). All to improve the level of quality, and farmers’ abilities to overcome the typical obstacles to successful cultivation of coffee varieties. This is absolutely key for the coffee industry on a long term basis as we need to start looking to other varieties better suited to the rising temperatures brought about by climate change and that are more resistant to the associated diseases.
We buy Marcelo’s ‘Rubi’ variety coffee. When visiting, Marcelo told me it is his most successful varietal with regards to quality and yield – when we purchased it last year, we loved how it felt and tasted upon cupping, but had little idea of the scale of experimentation that had been done by Marcelo in his own pursuit of quality to find that Rubi was the most suitable variety for Rainha da Paz. Year on year now though, it scores highly in cuppings, and produces a great specialty yield. This isn’t by accident, it is Marcelo’s work on farming in the microclimate specifically affecting Rainha da Paz – he has over 140 varieties in experimental plots to test viability.
As a result of the trip, we’re able to see the output of that work for real and have confidence in our Rubi produce for the upcoming harvest. Seeing for yourself that a producer not only has the knowledge, skill set and infrastructure to fulfill our needs, but also the pro-activity, drive and work ethic is so important – we know as buyers what can happen if somebody cuts corners. With Marcelo Montanari and his family, we’re not spending time worrying about that, nor their coffee quality over time, instead, we can spend time working with them on how they can become more resilient and sustainable year on year.
Sustainability for our supply chain is more than a vague term describing a minor effort towards an unidentified greater good, but instead a clear vision of the following:
• Environmental impact – here via biodiversity and agronomy improvements;
• Economic growth and long term viability – Marcelo’s workshops and research with universities and coffee scientists from major traders, firms and research institutes works for this monumental benefit to the country’s coffee economy;
• Social Impact – workshops and research being shared with the other Expocaccer cooperative members contributes to the overall health of coffee trading and quality in the Patrocinio and Minas Gerais growing region. When it comes to farm workers in Brazil, you will often find there are few due to the mechanisation of nearly every element of the coffee harvesting process. For the small team that do work on Fazenda Rainha da Paz, Marcelo ensures they are looked after in line with international labour law as covered by RFA certification. This ensures there is a minimum age and wage in place, any accommodation provided is separate for men and women and if they are entitled to meals, there must be first class protein provided at all times.
It was clear to me that when it comes to Brazil, we have a partner that is absolutely aligned with the principles we hold so dear. I was excited by the work being done by Marcelo and totally impressed by his professionalism and expertise. There is so much to be learnt when undertaking these visits that gives us crucial insight into the coffee we roast and sell. Now back in Leeds, we’re looking forward to tasting the longevity and continual development of quality in Fazenda Rainha da Paz as a backbone of our Brazilian offering. Knowing the great results of the Rubi variety so far on the farm and having seen, touched, assessed, graded (and even eaten) it ourselves, it’s clear that the continually improving health of ‘our’ plants within Rainha da Paz’s microclimate are leaving us with positive things for the future. We look forward to sharing more from the harvests we take from our lovely hosts in Brazil, and for now rest assured that by purchasing this coffee, you are helping to support a grower that is working to change the future of the Brazilian coffee industry – it also tastes pretty good too!