Landing in Saõ Paulo after the 9 hour flight from the States, I didn’t know what to expect. Actually, in all my years in coffee, I have never been to Brazil. My assumption was that the world of coffee in Brazil could not be that significantly different from coffee grown in other parts of the world.
It is fair to say that I came to Brazil with a number of prejudices about the quality of the coffees produced there and, if others were being honest, they would admit this too. When I was first starting out in cupping, some of the more experienced cuppers dismissed any Brazilians that were on the table with “ oh, it’s a Brazilian, its an ‘80’.” With hindsight, I realize that this is remarkably unfair and totally against the ethic of the ‘Q’ but nonetheless, there it is. In truth, when I have participated in blind cuppings, such as the Rainforest Alliance competition, the Brazilians often scored 85’s or higher.
Then there is that whole “Brazilian” thing. Vast farms; machine harvesting; rows of trees laid out by satellite; 25% of the total world production of coffee; Corporate Agro-business detachment; it seemed contrary to a world that I would perceive as producing coffees of high quality.
To counteract these prejudices was our friend and world-renowned key figure in the global coffee world – Edgard Bressani, the newly appointed CEO of O’Coffee Brazilian Estates, the cornerstone of Octavio Café that recently purchased Dallis Coffee, the fabled specialty coffee company founded in 1913 and based in New York City. It seemed highly unlikely that Bressani would settle for second-rate coffee.
So, as you might imagine, I jumped at the chance to travel to Brazil at the invitation of Dallis Coffee, and their parent company Octavio.
Octavio Café, a principally agricultural based company in Brazil owns Fazenda Nossa Sehora Aparecida located in Pedregulho, Saõ Paulo. 6000 acres of what was once vast single estate from the coffee baron days, Octavio has 1200 acres under cultivation for coffee and the remainder is given over to livestock, timber, and other crops.
Coffee was introduced in Brazil by Francisco de Mello Palheta in 1727 from Cayenne, French Guiana. Legend has it that Francisco de Mello had an affair with the wife of the Governor of French Guiana, persuading her to gift him a simple coffee plant. This was a simple gift of enormous international political import. The Spanish and the French carefully kept the ability to produce coffee in the New World from the Portuguese, thus protecting an enormous source of wealth.
The Portuguese were cut out of the lucrative European market for coffee cheaply imported from South America and had to sit by and watch the Spanish monarchy become increasingly wealthy politically and militarily. Once coffee was smuggled into Brazil, the cartel was broken. Brazil took to coffee like a duck to water. The rich volcanic soil of the high altitude inland plains, the humid sub-tropical weather, and the proximity to numerous deep-water harbors led to the explosive expansion of coffee in Brazil. Coffee in the 18th and 19th centuries was the leading product of Brazil and the primary source of wealth. Coffee fueled the industrial revolution in Saõ Paulo and is responsible for that city becoming the 7th largest in the world.
Today, Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer and is a significant player in the specialty coffee industry. Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, and Mundo Novo coffee varietals are grown in the states of Paraná, Espirito Santos, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Bahia.
What I found at Octavio was an extraordinary commitment to quality and consistency at all levels of the organization. This commitment is not founded on modern Quality Control Management systems but instead on the profound vision and impact of Octavio Quércia who in the 1940’s dreamed of producing high quality coffee. Now in the fifth generation as a coffee cultivating family, the impact of seventy years of laser tight focus on quality in all things shows in the care and maintenance of old buildings, cleanliness in the mill, near pristine conditions in the roastery, to the planning and layout of the patios, and their commitment to self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Dispelling one of my assumptions – that mechanical harvesting of coffee is not as good, or as quality focused, as picking by hand – Bressani demonstrated that by changing the tension on the beaters and moving the level of the beaters so that different parts of the trees are harvested at different times. The incidence of stripping the trees and taking too many unripe cherries in a pass is dramatically reduced, to the point that the machines have become as effective as hand picking. Also, the trees are pruned to be tapered, wider at the bottom than at the top so that the cherries on the top ripen earlier.
The design of the planting rows is done to maximize the efficiency of the gigantic pickers as well as to optimize airflow, moisture, soil retention, and sunlight so that a more consistent ripening schedule can be achieved. Several passes are made by the machines during the picking season to gather the ripening fruit using the gentler picking style of the modified Jacto pickers. At the end of season, the remaining fruit is handpicked, stripping by hand.
The culture of Fazenda Nossa Senhora Aparecida is far removed from the cold Agro-business environment I expected. This is a family operation, albeit a huge enterprise.
One example of this is Chapadao, a small village that until recently was in ruins and abandoned but now has been purchased by the Quércia family and lovingly restored. This town once was the center of the original Coffee Baron’s operation having a train station to send his coffee to Saõ Paulo and receive the thousands of Italian immigrants as well as other nationalities coming to work the coffee fields in Saõ Paulo, Minas Gerais, and on into Brazil. (This railway had only 11 stops and was built by the government to support the 11 coffee growers who controlled this vast area) These immigrates replaced the slavery system that persisted into the late 1800’s. (Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, primarily because of coffee and the power of the shockingly wealthy Coffee Barons.
To this frontier train station came a young poor Italian immigrant woman who would become Octavio Quércia’s grandmother. The house in which Vincente Quércia , Octavio’s father, was born to lowly conditions was in this village. Today this village is a reminder to the Quércia family of their humble beginnings and their good fortune.
This connection to family is also reflected in the way the family embraces their employees. Through high wages, benefits, opportunities to have small family farms subsidized by the family, education benefits and support of the local town, the workers of the farms are surprisingly prosperous.
To the family, coffee is everything and reflected in their logo (the “O” is a bean), their café in Saõ Paulo (which looks like a picker’s basket, is surrounded by coffee trees, is filled with coffee information, and from the air is the shape of a bean), their corporate headquarters building (more of the same), to the little village of Chapadao.
The farm has a timbering operation of Eucalyptus trees that replenishes every seven years through systematic harvesting. This wood is used to fire their dryers in the mill. The farm produces naturals and pulped naturals, as well as some wet milling. In order to conserve water and energy, centrifuges are used to extract much of the water used in milling and then recovered back into the wet mill.
But the proof ultimately is in the cupping. Octavio and Dallis have hit a homerun with their almost obsessive focus on quality through agricultural and processing practices. We cupped a wide array of products from the farm as well as premium products from other farms. The Octavio/Dallis Brazilians, both natural and pulped natural were far superior, rating easily into the mid to high eighties to ninety.
Octavio does indeed achieve the 8 elements of quality that are the focus of the International Coffee Organization.
Congratulations to O’Coffee, Octavio Café, and Dallis Coffee as well as thank you to Edgard Bressani, John Moore – VP of Sales and Marketing for Dallis Coffee, and Marcelo Cresente – CEO of Dallis Coffee.