Brazil has, and always will be, the land of commodity coffee. With over 60 million bags of coffee grown in 2018, it’s also the largest coffee-producing country on the planet. Though much of the country’s production falls into the mechanically-harvested, commercial-grade category, a new generation of pioneering coffee producers is out to shift the conversation and produce some truly excellent specialty coffee.
A little knowledge of the situation on the ground goes a long way. Coffee in Brazil is a good business; producers are part of a sophisticated market system that provides agronomic assistance, market education, and a ton of selling opportunities. Producers of every size have a working knowledge of the “C” market, how the Brazilian Real is performing against the US dollar and the Euro, and the changing prices of internal differentials. It’s not uncommon to see producers hold onto their coffee until they can sell at the most advantageous time, knowing full well that they can sell to any number of buyers that want their coffees. All the producer needs to do is walk into one of the buyers or exporters lining the streets, submit a sample for quick evaluation, and get a price. After shopping around a bit, they then sell to the highest bidder.
Producing coffee in Brazil is an exercise in efficiency. A comparably flat topography relative to its coffee-producing neighbors allows for speedy mechanical harvesting that minimizes the labor required for a harvest. Strict labor laws make harvesting expensive, so mechanical harvesting allows producers to keep their coffee prices competitive. On larger farms, or fazendas, these mechanical harvesters drive up and down manicured rows of coffee trees stripping coffee as they go along with as few as 3 workers per machine. Smaller farms called sitios may rely on individual workers to use handheld machines to strip individual branches from a tree at as time. Drying is done on large patios in thick layers, with a mechanical dryer used to bring the final moisture to the desired 10%-12%. Density tables and screens allow for post-harvest sorting, an important step in quality control given the less-selective picking process. While coffees are generally well prepared, the process doesn’t exactly speak to elevated quality. That’s where the change comes in.
In 2014, Royal New York began working with an inventive, specialty-focused exporter named Legender Coffees. Legender is owned and operated by a Brazilian native, Demilson Batista, and opened its doors in 2013 with a focus on smaller farms at a higher-than-normal altitude with the potential to produce an above-average product. While certainly not the first of its kind, Legender’s choice of region and dedication to the idea of paying a higher premium for high quality has separated them from other specialty-focused exporters.
Legender works predominantly in the towns of Machado and Poço Fundo with a number of storefront offices staffed with agronomists, sample roasters, and expert cuppers. These regions have a higher altitude (usually around 1,100-1,400 meters) than the norm, which can be as low as 700 meters. Legender staff evaluates samples as they arrive from producers, roasting and cupping them the same day. While the QA process is going on, Legender agronomists talk with the producers about their farms, production methods, and harvesting techniques. If a lot stands out, the coffee is purchased, a premium above the market is paid, and Legender’s chief agronomist is dispatched to the farm for further connection and info gathering.
This system and our common drive to source the best coffees possible are what drew Royal New York to Legender and provided the basis for our partnership. Our partnership gives us the benefit of right of first refusal for all top-quality lots, allowing us to bring on only the best of the best year after year. Numerous visits from Royal New York to Brazil and from Legender meeting us here in New Jersey have allowed us to build up an inventory of small Sitio offerings for producers with an impressive farm pedigree and excellent preparation methods. Current and upcoming lots include:
The work doesn’t stop here. During our latest visit this past October, we selected 5 individual producers to pilot a quality-focused specialty coffee project. Our goal is to provide a 100% ripe cherry offering with drying done on raised, screened beds as opposed to the more common densely-packed patios. These lots won’t be reaching us until the 2019 harvest, but we’ll be keeping you up to date with farm data, photos, and videos of these new micro lot offerings.
Until then, we encourage you to contact your trader so we can discuss the offering that’s best suited to you. We’ve found quality in the land of commodity and couldn’t be more excited to share these new specialty coffees from Brazil. Prices for these current lots may be a little higher than the conventional Brazilian offerings (as you’d expect), but they’re certainly a bargain for what they bring to the table.