Being There: A Sensory Diary of a Trip to Brazil

By Christopher Schooley, Coffee Design & Experience Coordinator, SCAA, and Lily Kubota, Content & Communications Manager, SCAA

Traveling to a coffee producing country is an experience like no other. Seeing coffee production first-hand and learning about coffee farming and processing are essential to understanding the supply chain and being able to communicate about our coffees in an educated way. Coffee industry professionals travel to origin for a number of reasons, including visits to check on the quality and conditions of the year’s crops, provide technical training, further their own education on coffee production, and participate in special events and competitions aimed at identifying quality. Often these travels carry the benefit of seeing old friends and associates and making new ones, in turn building the relationships that produce some of the world’s finest coffees year after year. This experience takes coffee professionals into parts of countries far away from any area you might visit on a tourist trip or a vacation. And while these areas are exotic, there is also a strong sense of the commonality of professionals meeting others who are as passionate and dedicated to coffee as they are. We may be in new and distant places, but we share similar ambitions.

There are a number of narratives surrounding the origin experience. Many articles, trip reports, blog posts, and videos have told the stories of these trips. We wanted to deliver something a little bit different from the straight narrative of a journey, and instead focus on what it’s like to go through this experience. While you’re traveling, you’re not necessarily thinking about a chronological sequence of events. You’re hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting, and looking everywhere around you. It is a complete sensory adventure.

On the Roasters Guild Origin Trip to Brazil this past July, we visited coffee growing regions in the states of São Paulo and southern Minas Gerais. Before embarking on this trip, we decided we would take a sensory diary of the what we saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt as we made our way through small farms, some producing truly intriguing and surprising coffees, to other farming groups producing incredibly large volumes of coffee, with their Mondo Novos and Yellow Bourbons and endless other coffee cultivars stretching out as far as the eye could see. We invite you to take in the images of a trip to origin, but we also want to take you on a different kind of journey. Not the story of a trip from one place to another, but a catalogue of the senses; from the scents and tastes of a coffee journey, to the sounds of gears and rushing water, to a cool and wet clump of living organic soil that seems to breathe and grow and continue to change right in the palm of your hand.

The Farm

Water and soil. Passive organic, with numerous species of trees. Cool moist dirt and material, made up from the decomposition of this diversity, damp and cool and alive and fresh earth aromas. A startled rustle from the tree tops, a burst of toucans rapidly beating wings, making a croaking commotion. Brush past grabbing branches. Leathery skin on the ripe coffee fruit, sticky honey mucilage, sweet almost like mango but without the tang. Work to ply the parchment from slippery little seeds with your teeth. The parchment removed from the seeds is flimsy and pliable, like a shrimp tail. Making teeth marks in the softened surface of the seeds, the mucilage an ultra fine or thin nectar covering the seeds, but more a part of the seeds themselves instead of just a layer. All sounds seem slightly muffled by the shade, the everything growing everywhere. A sharp contrast to the dramatic sweep of nothing but coffee shrubs in meticulous rows stretching towards the wide open sky of the larger farms, with everything exposed. So much more activity on these larger farms, more dust, more soft clatter from coffee fruits being separated from debris by tossing it in the air from large round platters. When the machines are here, shaking the branches or trimming them down, I’m sure their rumble and grunts fill this whole expanse.

Video - Click to Watch

The Mill 

Pulp and ferment. The clatter and wash of pulpers, the slap of the belts and wobble of crooked shafts into grinding gears. Pulped coffee in soft shell parchment, slimy yet not quite sticky. A cool spray and woosh as channels move the coffee in parchment from place to place. A purposeful system of steel streams and concrete tributaries. Pungent pulp breaking down in the sun, a feral sweetness. Pods on the patios and beds. Raisined full fruit, with no pulp removed, the dry process. Makes a dull rattle as you shake a handful, compared to the pulped coffee drying in parchment, which has a bright and brittle rattle. Various clouds from the smoke and dust from the mechanical driers. Roar of the fans blowing heat from burning old parchment. The hiss and shush of the parchment coffee rolling in the large perforated drums. The cool damp pine of the resting silos.

The Cupping Table

Cups and grounds. Cool clay of the walls. Newly refreshed paint, just a slight odor right up against the clay. Grinders gnawing beans to itty-bitty particles. Giant kettles squeal with steam and the hiss and gurgle of a boiling gallon. Dry aromas of cinnamon, malt sweets, ripe fruits, honey. “If the side of the cup is too hot to touch, then the coffee is too hot to drink.” Wet and break, fragrances and softer sweetness, biscuits and cocoa. Scalded impatient tongues. The slurp and ding of silver spoons in cups, on lips, in cups, and tapped to clear the concavity of the spoons. Young coffees, tastes green, a bit of a sharpness, not quite fully developed sweetness, needs more rest, more time to stabilize moisture. The session goes in circles, sippers going around the tables again and again. The sweetness begins to open up as the cups cool: bright, mild fruit through the finish, honey sweet, sweet bread, sweet malts, fig and vanilla, plum and apricot, melon, slight floral, lavender, aromatic sandalwood, caramel, cinnamon, cereal oats, grass, pine, candy sweetness, thin, watery, front loaded, thick, viscous, juicy, syrupy, dry finish, bright finish, clove aftertaste, spice. “What did you think of this coffee?”

Video - Click to Watch

The Trip

Bounce and jostle. Shifting in the seat, finding the right position, passing time playing cards. Chilly feet, plastic blankets, recycled air. Hours pass slowly as anticipation builds. Metal clanking cart whizzes by, the Captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign, announced just barely audibly. The plane turns into a bed, then into a bus. From one compartment to another, more terrestrial one. Visitors from a number of continents, some from tiny islands in the corner of the world. A glimpse of sunshine warms our huddled bodies as we thaw from a freezing morning bus ride. Another night, another bed, one that’s cozy and warm. Home cooked meal, such great care in every bite. Every dish made from ingredients straight from the farm or from a neighbor. Someone has a guitar, sweet sounds fill the night air. Whisked off, more sitting, more driving, then… singing. A microphone, a song, and hearty laughter fills the bus. Pizza. More pizza. Steak. More steak. Every place the smell is different, but similarly unfamiliar. The smell of a farm, the smell of growing. The bus driver has no idea where he’s going. We stop to ask for directions on every corner in every town, turn at the park, at the church, at the giant green spaceship (did we land here in this?). Visitors to Varginha, the Roswell of Brazil. Then the waters of San Lorenzo, a water park hotel with teenage discotheque and a grandmother who thinks the party has gone on long enough. In Poços de Caldas, roasting with roasters in Brazil. Brazil is rich with café culture, a common language around a drum over a flame. To Santos, the beach. A slight breeze wafts through the night air and we welcome the warm wind on our faces. Cool sand under exhausted feet, small waves roll in and we run towards them. Shedding hesitance at each stop, now we’re a tribe. Last day, walks along the boulevards of one of the world’s largest cities. We are all here, in it together. Sharing stories, shared exhaustion, comfortable silence. Abraços for all our friends from Brazil, from all over the world. Abraços.

Christopher Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Shrub and is the Immediate Past Chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council. He has recently joined the SCAA team as the Coffee Design and Experience Coordinator. Schooley believes that the surest path towards a deeper understanding of one’s craft is through the sharing of knowledge and open conversation, as well as challenging yourself to work outside of your immediate experience.

Lily Kubota began her career in coffee at age 15 with her first job as a barista and became increasingly interested in coffee and café culture over the years. As Content &
Communications Manager for the SCAA, she has been privileged to observe and reflect on the intricacies and nuances of the coffee industry on both the consuming and producing side of the supply chain and gain a deeper understanding of this exciting community.