Coffee Adventures in Brazil

Coffee Adventures in Brazil

Earlier this month Glen Lyon Coffee’s Jamie travelled to Brazil to visit our biggest direct trade partners the Foresti family and their farm Fazenda do Lobo in Minas Gerais. This is the fourth harvest in a row that we have bought coffee from Lobo and we hope that we can continue to buy from this farm for many long years to come. Lobo’s beans make up the super consistent base to our Red Stag espresso blend. 

Rather than source our Brazilian coffee from a huge and nameless farm we chose to work with a smaller outfit that is still very much family owned and run. The Foresti family are fifth generation coffee farmers, and husband-and-wife team Marcus and Andrea have recently handed over the day-to-day management of Fazenda do Lobo to their son Guilherme (nicknamed Gui). 

Although only in his mid-twenties, Gui has been preparing for this step all of his life and has brought fresh energy and vision to Fazenda do Lobo. He is so connected to the family business that he told me that as a kid he once slept in the enormous storage silos in a bed of coffee beans as a dare with his two brothers.

As well as supporting the Foresti family we also love the fact that Fazenda do Lobo means ‘farm of the wolf’ and is named after the wolves that are still occasionally seen roaming the coffee plantations early in the morning. Only these are no ordinary wolves. Called maned wolves, they look more like leggy foxes and to confuse things further they are neither wolf nor fox but their own unique canine species. 

The farm supports wild animals like the maned wolf because it is Rainforest Alliance Certified and one third of the land is left uncultivated. Sitting almost 1,000 metres above sea level, the region of Minas Gerais is high compared to much of the rest of Brazil and covers an equivalent land area to France. Its altitude and distance from the equator makes it perfect for coffee and the state is responsible for growing 55% of Brazil’s entire crop. 

To get coffee from Lobo we work with our export partner on the ground in Brazil, Vini da Silva, owner of United Producers of Coffee (UPC). UPC is the crucial link that allows us to get green coffee from the farm gate at Lobo to our roastery in the Scottish Highlands. Vini handles everything from final processing and warehousing in Brazil, shipping from the port of Santos to storing the bags for us in the UK. 

Here is Jamie’s account of his adventure:

Vini met me at Sao Paulo airport and took me on a hair-raising drive through Sao Paulo traffic and on to his hometown of Varginha which is just down the road from Lobo. Although a relatively small town with a population of only 9,000, Varginha is a major regional centre for coffee trade and transport. The main offices outside the city centre are home to the big brokers and coffee co-operatives. Walk to the outskirts of town and the coffee plants spring out of the red dirt. 

As well as coffee the town is famed for the Varginha UFO incident, a series of events in 1996 when residents of the town claimed to see one or more strange creatures and at least one UFO. The story of the alleged encounters has taken such hold that most of the bus stops and the town’s water tower are shaped like flying saucers and a small industry of alien related merchandise is booming in the souvenir shops.

When I arrived at Fazenda do Lobo the harvest was in full swing and the farm was buzzing with constant activity. The coffee bushes were laden with red and yellow fruit, waiting to be harvested before they over-ripen and turn to a mouldy black. A coffee harvester manned by a driver known only as ‘The Cowboy’ trundled relentlessly down narrow lanes between high rows of green leaves, shaking off the fruit and dropping it from a chute into a waiting tractor-drawn trailer. 

On the patio men worked in rotation to spread and turn the coffee cherry before loading it into slow driers, fed by wood furnaces that smoke night and day. The noise of production drifted up to the colonial-style farmhouse with wide verandas, an old billiard table, and a swimming pool that overlooks the coffee patio. Late on my first evening on the farm a flock of parakeets flew in to roost next to the house as I watched the sun set behind a row of palm trees in the garden. 

Brazil’s three month harvest ends in August and this year should yield as much as 3,000 bags of green coffee beans for Lobo. The majority of these beans are destined for the domestic commodity coffee market where the volumes of trade are staggering and the margins for farmers often vanishingly small. Much of their crop is pre-sold on the futures market for prices that often hover close to or below their costs of production. 

But change is afoot at Lobo and it is being driven by the young Guilherme. Gui is at the forefront of a new generation of Brazilian farmers who are producing speciality coffees for the international market. In doing so they are reaching for a new customer base more interested in quality and sustainability than quantity. 

Gui illustrated this shift by taking me into the agroforestry project that he has started on his farm. He has taken a small eucalyptus woodland planted by his father Marcos many years ago and planted a mix of Cedar trees, banana trees and the Arara variety of arabica coffee. “This practice is to reduce fertilisers, restore the soil and increase biodiversity,” Gui told me.

He pointed to a banana tree and explained that they provide shade and the leaves that they shed act as a natural compost for the soil. Banana trees are also a great source of moisture as they hold onto water and help the coffee plants in times of drought. As a result the three-year-old coffee plants are much healthier than those on the rest of the farm and are already producing a bumper first crop which will be picked by hand rather than harvested by machine. This, together with the multi storied canopy above us, also contributes to a lower carbon footprint on the farm.

Gui’s experimental approach to coffee farming doesn’t end at the limits of his agroforest project. He is also working on a variety of different processing methods to improve the cup quality of his beans. Most Brazilian coffees are dried without removing their skin in a ‘natural’ process to add body, sweetness and complexity to the flavour. Gui is one of a growing number of younger Brazilian farmers who are taking this one step further by fermenting lots under tarpaulins, or storing them in big tanks with added yeast before drying them. 

As an example of how complex these processes can be, Gui showed me lot P12 of yellow catuai beans that had been harvested and immediately put out under a tarp for 50 hours of ‘volcanic fermentation,’ before being spread on the patio for two days. From there they were transferred into a slow drier that blew warm air through the beans until they reached a humidity of 18%. They were then moved into a rotating mechanical drier that finished the process in 12 to 18 hours, bringing the moisture content down to 12%. From here the dried pulp was stripped from the beans which were then rested for up to 40 days before being transferred to the speciality J.Kim warehouse in Varginha for export. A paper record is kept to track every step the beans take in this journey.

Gui invited Vini and I to join him at a lookout on his farm to cup some of these freshly harvested speciality coffees samples. As well as the chocolate and caramel you would expect from a speciality Brazilian bean I picked up more subtle notes of lime, orange peel and pineapple in his fermented lots. Nothing beats sipping a coffee while looking over the same farm it has come from!

The problem for Gui is scale. Compared to mono-cropping coffee for high yields with low production costs, speciality lots such as his agroforestry coffee plantation will produce fewer beans at a higher cost. We’re looking forward to the possibility of bringing this coffee to Scotland, paying a premium and in doing so perhaps help encourage farming techniques that are less impactful on the planet.

Here at Glen Lyon we are proud to be involved with such a forward-thinking farm and family and wish Gui and the Foresti family every success for the future. A huge thanks also to Vini and the team at UPC for all of their amazing hospitality and coffee knowledge. As well as visiting Lobo I was treated to a full moon bike ride, a horseback trip through coffee plantations at the lovely Fazenda Colombia and sunset in the hippy village of Sao Tome. Not to mention numerous stops at roadside cafes to sample the Sul de Minas delicacies Pan de queso and Coxinha. Muita bom!