Wake up and smell the coffee

PARANÁ, Brazil — “When people think of Brazilian coffee, they think of a dark-roasted drink but the truth is, that heavy roasting covers up a lot of defects, starting with the fact that unripe beans are being used. We’re trying to change that perception, microlot by microlot.”

Renato the coffee-picker shows how to select Obatã beans. Ph: Sorrel Moseley-Williams.

Former diplomat Edgard Bressani, a co-founder from boutique exporter Capricornio Coffees, is intent on telling caffeine-fuelled stories through one of Brazil’s biggest commodities. Similar to wine, in the fact that there are certain species, numerous varieties and multiple ways to enhance them, coffee goes much further than dividing it up into arabica or robusta plants, as I discovered in Paraná and São Paulo states last week.

The story, in Argentina at least, starts in your kitchen, when you prepare then knock back one, maybe two, cups of black gold every morning. Maybe it comes straight from a jar, maybe you pop a capsule into a machine, perhaps you use a French press. But you make it without thinking much beyond “this caffeine had better wake me up.”

A decade ago, however, Argentine journalist Sabrina Cuculianksy wanted more from her daily intake. “It’s selfish really, but I just wanted to drink good coffee,” she says.

Sabrina set up the annual Exigí Buen Café coffee fair and barista contest five years ago, and is also the author of El libro del café (2016); she and the best barista then get up close to the industry, learning the art of cupping (tasting), roasting and of course the chance to see those baby beans — nurtured inside the bright red cherry berries — on the bush.

This year has taken her and 2016 winner Daniel Calderón from Buenos Aires’ Casa Cavia to visit Capricornio Coffees’ projects that concentrate on sourcing speciality coffees from around latitude 23º south, the Tropic of Capricorn, which forms part of the southern hemisphere’s coffee belt.

Edgard, along with agronomist co-founders Luiz Saldanha Rodrigues and José António Resende, aren’t only determined to put Brazilian coffee back on the map and show off speciality beans but are forging strong, real, relationships with producers whose farms cover between 0.5 hectares and 1,000 hectares of speciality plantations around Paraná and São Paulo states.

Let’s start with the plant itself. The arabica, rather than robusta, species is mainly grown in Brazil and is known for high acidity and fruity flavours — that’s right, fruit such as lemon, peach and green apple! — elements that are important when it comes to creating quality, or specialty, products. Arabica then divides up into varieties such as Catuaí, Bourbon, Mondo Novo and Obatã, that are grown in this part of Brazil’s coffee belt, both north and south of the Tropic of Capricorn.

After learning that, I wondered why, as consumers, we don’t require more information about our morning cup. We’re far more specific when it comes to ordering wine; it goes beyond red and white to Malbec, Chardonnay or Merlot. Surely we should be doing the same when it comes to coffee?

Naturally each variety has its own characteristics, and quality is measured by cherry size in millimetres, and colour; deep red is ideal. But here’s the twist with coffee plants: the same branch can hold black berries (floaters) that have dried naturally, those perfect red ripe cherries, yellow guys but also green berries. Not like vines where the right sugar levels are found in all bunches.

Mass production strips the branch of every berry — and also uses every last bean that goes into processed instant granules and that dark-roasted blend that covers up a multitude of sins. This is where Capricornio comes in: teaching growers how to nurture and harvest a better product, encouraging them to form cooperatives to hand harvest microlots together, showing them about to roast and even how to cup (taste) the final product.

When it comes to my own cupping experience, I’ll be honest: I’ve never tried coffee this great before. When you add milk, cream, sugar, sweetener, chocolate, syrups and god knows what else, you’re covering up the coffee’s aromas and flavours (a habit developed no doubt from a lifetime of drinking shitty coffee but that’s not your fault; Brazilian coffee is a commodity and quality has, for the most part, been relegated to the bench).

My challenge to you, ahead of part two, is this: try your morning cup, at least once this week, without any added extras. Drink it at normal temperature, let it cool, then try it again. Let the beans speak out. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Buenos Aires Herald, 7 July 2017

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