SCAA Coffee Science Origin Trip: Reflections of a Facilitator of Learning

By Emma Sage, Coffee Science Manager, Specialty Coffee Association of America

As the Coffee Science Manager I am constantly brainstorming the differing ways I can use my skill set to communicate the science of coffee to SCAA membership. When I began daydreaming about an origin trip that merged science and technological advances with specialty coffee, I saw great potential for an intense trip filled with sustained learning and inspiration. I saw a group of passionate and sharp professionals who came prepared with questions and a love of learning. Through all of my dreaming, I never could have imagined the diverse, talented, and skilled group that I met in Brazil just a couple of short weeks ago. Our hosts, the Brazil Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA) were fantastic and worked with me to craft an exciting and science-themed itinerary for us. The trip exceeded my expectations and I believe represented the best potential of the specialty coffee industry.

We had a wonderful group! Everyone from roasters to business owners, a barista, coffee buyers, a producer, consultants, and q-graders attended. Almost the complete coffee supply chain was represented! All had an interest in furthering their knowledge of science at origin. All made meaningful and strong connections with each other on the trip. A good trip is one where the leader can walk away at the end and know the learning will continue without them. I truly feel blessed to have been in the company of 10 inquisitive, passionate specialty coffee professionals for an exciting and full week. Although I love being the educator I also had the opportunity to learn many things myself on this trip.

The group with our hosts at ProCafé experimental farm

I cannot possibly give the whole amazing play-by-play of the trip, but I can try to describe some of my personal reflections on key moments. It was humid, hot, and beautiful. The countryside in Minas Gerais State was green and rolling. On the first day, it was already clear to me that 1) I had my work cut out for me to keep up with the level of questions coming from the group and 2) we were on a lucky streak meant for greatness. It was on our first day that we saw the coffee trees: dark green, tall, full, and covered with small white blossoms. What a sight it was. From the road, it looked as if the trees were dusted with a delicate snow. At that moment I could not believe our luck. It was truly the moment that I knew the trip was going to work out. I had produced coffee flowers! I mean, we had nice timing.

Coffee clones in flower at the Fundação Procafé, Experimental Farm near Varginha

At The Federal University of Lavras (UFLA), we had an unforgettable day hosted by the world-renowned coffee researcher Dr. Flávio de Meira Borém. First we learned about work he is starting with colleagues in the plant physiology department investigating the effect of the environment on coffee plant gene expression. That day, we learned that coffee genes, environment, and processing may be the most fundamental factors that influence flavor. Throughout the day we continued to be impressed by the importance of Dr. Borem’s work, including studies on mechanical drying and drying kinetics, coffee protein synthesis, packaging, the special distribution of specialty coffee, and perhaps most notably (because we were able to cup coffee from this experiment) the effect of altitude and cherry color on coffee flavor. This cupping was truly a highlight of the trip and we all felt extremely privileged to have Dr. Borém at our disposal for the entire day. We made sure to ask many questions!

The group with the gracious Dr. Borém

We visited a couple of very special farms on our trip. The first was the family farm of Liuz Paulo Dias Pereira Filho, Director of CarmoCoffees. The farm is Fazenda do Serrado, and it graced us with a valley covered with white coffee blossoms. We walked through a few different cultivars and basked in the healthy, tall, and full coffee trees. We examined two types of soil found on the property and discussed their relative suitability for growing coffee. We also visited the warehouse and cupping lab of the Cocarive coop, where we cupped a large quantity of delicious specialty coffees. It was clear that the Carmo de Minas region is producing some diverse and high quality coffees and we were a bit sad to have to move on with the itinerary. Lucky for us, we had the opportunity to visit another very beautiful and unique coffee farm in Brazil, Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF). This farm is now widely known within the specialty coffee industry for its environmentally-based philosophy and progressive experimentation with processing techniques. We met Marcos and Silvia Croce, who operate an organic farm with their sons Daniel and Filipe. They work with numerous partner farms in the region to elevate the level of quality in coffee through sustainable practices and improved processing techniques. We cupped a lot of coffee at FAF and I personally tasted some interesting commonalities and striking differences between different cultivars. This farm has recently gained the attention of some of the most prominent voices in specialty coffee and it was our privilege to spend time there.

Felipe Croce explaining drying experiments conducted at FAF

Over the course of the trip, we came to know Brazil as a progressive force in specialty coffee. We visited Pinhalense in Espírito Santo do Pinhal, the largest coffee equipment manufacturer in the world. This was the day that it became clear to us that technology was key to specialty coffee in Brazil. We met João Staut, director of Qualicafex, who gave us a private tour of the Pinhalense factory, as well as an informative presentation on the equipment that can be used during each step of natural, wet, and pulped natural processing. We were able get very clear explanations as to the distinct differences between processing techniques as well as learn about the importance of dry processing and sorting.

Insiders look at the toy box/factory at Pinhalense

Like the old song goes, they’ve got a zillion tons of coffee in Brazil. We definitely verified this on our trip, but also found tons of evidence of unique and progressive practices only possible due to the size of the coffee business in Brazil. There is something to be said for a country where there is enough money to tackle the science of breeding, growing, sorting, tracking, processing, and all other advances necessary to preserve the quality of special coffees. Ultimately, in Brazil labor costs are too high for most farms to support hand picking. You can certainly find farms that do this, but we learned that hand picking alone is not the indicator of specialty coffee in Brazil. With many specialty coffees being harvested mechanically, post-drying steps are especially critical to preserving quality. On the other hand, we learned that if mechanical advancements are used incorrectly, or without proper training, their advantages are lost. The improvements in equipment and education, commitment to scientific research, and a new domestic specialty market have pushed the definition of specialty in Brazil. This trip demonstrated to each of us the true power that science, research, and infrastructure has on supporting, differentiating, and preserving the quality of specialty coffee.

Special thanks to the BSCA for sponsoring this fantastic trip!

Coffea arabica blossoms after a short rain shower