Brazilian Specialty Coffee Culture

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By Felipe Croce

Although I spent my holidays on our coffee farm in Mococa, Brazil when I was growing up, I didn’t begin to enjoy drinking coffee until much later in life. I didn’t like the coffee that was served at the farm, as it was dark, bitter, and flat. It wasn’t until I interned at a local coffee roaster called Kaldi’s, during my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, that I had a beautifully roasted and brewed cup. This is the first and principal reason behind the lack of a coffee scene in origin countries—the lack of people properly trained in roasting and brewing. However, although we may be lagging behind in roasting and barista culture, it is on its way, and with a certain uniqueness that can only come from total immersion in the complete process of making coffee.

There is a global movement towards all things artisanal, although it is happening at different paces and scopes throughout the world. This movement is very much a quality-oriented undertaking; however, there also exists a strong emotional association with small, intimate experiences. What is it about the exclusive offering that makes us so enamored? Perhaps it is the way we feel special, well-treated, and therefore loved, when something is made especially for us.

Small-scale artisans feel an attachment to their product, often beyond the industrial. It is the participation that creates this passion, and it is this passion that makes them the best seller of their own product. The more we share with our customers about the process, the more likely they are to share our passion for the product and hence raise its perceived value.

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Specialty coffee is a luxury item, and thus—at its essence—is of an emotional nature. Why do my customers go for the twelve reais (U.S. $3.30) cup of pourover at my shop when they could drink a cup for three reais (U.S. $0.80) at innumerable other shops in town? I believe they want to treat themselves, they want to taste something good, and they want to feel good. Moreover, specialty coffee is also a luxury good because of its higher price tag and higher culture. The consumer of a specialty product has a greater affinity for quality, environment,service, and discourse involving the desired good.

It is no secret that luxury items have more market share in developed nations. According to a study released at the 2015 SCAA Symposium, specialty coffee comprises 54% of the coffee market in the USA. In Brazil, my estimates are that we are somewhere between 1-2%.

Allow me to take a step back. In 2009, I returned from St. Louis, Missouri to the family farm on the border of São Paulo and Minas Gerais in Brazil. Spurred on by a newfound love for coffee, a drive to turn our farm around, and of course the fact that I graduated at the worst economic moment since the Great Depression, I moved to one of the most traditional and well-established coffee growing regions in Brazil. Visiting farmers, coffee shops, and exporters during that time, I found out that even cuppers did not know how to roast, brew, or taste coffee. Countless times I asked professionals what their roast profile was, and the response, no joke, was often, “When the machine is heating up, 12 minutes, and when it’s nice and hot about three minutes.”

Nowadays, I often have delicious and surprising sensory experiences in the very homes of the farmers. There are young and motivated farmers, such as Jhone Lacerda from Sitio Santa Rita and Vagner Uliana from Heimen Coffee, who have set up fantastic coffee shops only meters away from their drying patios. Imagine a coffee shop where the farmer literally walks you through the seed-to-cup experience. It is this level of engagement that adds an extra element to coffee consumption in Brazil. It is the passion that customers can feel when talking to Jhone or Vagner that captivates them and turns a great number of them into coffee lovers. A dedicated chef can assimilate this and turn coffee into a gastronomical experience. Food journalist Michael Pollan, in his book Cooked, describes the phenomenon that fuels the success of food and cooking channels, which can be closely associated to coffee: “Cooking is an act of generosity and love and that is very powerful.”

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One of the most rewarding experiences for me is working a shift behind the bar of our café, which I enjoy immensely. Being able to provide the customer with a story that we began to craft more than eight years ago feels very rewarding. Perhaps it’s not the best cup of coffee that someone might drink in his or her entire life, but we do try to make it unique. To be able to serve a brunch combo with all elements grown together at the farm, which symbolizes the diversity of life on the farm by the diversity of flavors on the table, is what it is all about for me.

All in all, it seems that we may have just begun to spur a change. Although we in Brazil are in the middle of a devastating economic crisis that many believe is far from over, we have seen the rise of coffee shops with new and unique quality-oriented value proposals. All these shops have one common denominator that separates them from other regular coffee shops in our country: they are run by passionate and engaged individuals. These coffee shop owners are successfully building the basis of what will soon become a serious specialty-coffee-drinking nation.

felipe2Felipe Barretto Croce spearheads the Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF) project in Brazil. FAF is a farm, a network of farms, a small family-owned coffee exporting company that is concerned with developing high quality specialty coffees along with environmental and social projects. Today FAFCoffees includes an importing branch in the United States and a retail store in São Paulo, Brazil called Isso é Café. Felipe studied International Studies and Business at Washington University in St. Louis before falling in love with coffee.