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2020 Brazil Harvest Update

Micro-lots make it through an uncertain harvest

“If a producer goes after quality coffee they will always go after quality coffees – no matter – it’s a mindset.” – Yuki Minami, Aequitas.

Here, the term ‘no-matter’ actually refers to the many matters that add up to incredible uncertainty for Brazilian coffee farmers this year. Matters that include climate, politics, pandemic, warehouse shortages, as well as local currency and international commodity markets.

With so much unknown, farmers are seeking assurance from customers, and are looking to specialty for price stability. In a year where most farmers in Brazil find it hard to invest in quality, Aequitas top producers are communicating often and continuing their commitment to quality, pushing up again the limit of what is possible for premiums out of Brazil.

This is the argument for relationship-focused sourcing.  Despite the grim intro, and everything that follows, we will be bringing in more, higher scoring specialty micro-lots from Brazil than ever before. Read on to learn more.

HARVEST OUTLOOK

Timing

Brazil’s 2020 harvest came on 2-3 weeks later than last year, but it came on in force with an estimated production of 61.6 million bags, according to CONAB* (National Company of Supplying, an organization from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock). This is Brazil’s second largest harvest ever! This also means that it’s the highest production for any country ever. Uniform rains during the flowering period (September to October) and fruit formation (November to April) led to a uniform harvest and higher qualities this year.

On the export side, CECAFE* (Brazilian Coffee Exporters Council) report of August 2020 shows that there was a 3% fall in Arabica green coffee exports compared to August 2019, even though harvest yields are 25% up in relation to last year. Comparing the accrued data from January to August 2020 and 2019, the decrease of Arabica green exports is of 5.2%. From the producer perspective, this means more marketing for their specialty coffees, selling specialty at commodity prices and downgrading investment in top-end micro-lots.

In August, a bubble in prices led to a rush on commodity buying, which filled up local warehouses early so that now, in peak harvest, producers are having to agree with traders to keep their sold coffee longer in co-op and private warehouses. Traders then have a hard time finding space to store or containers for export. With these factors in motion, producers are compelled to sell quickly for less than they expected.

By the time September rolls in, temperatures reach above the average time of year and a severe drought due to La Niña occurs in most of the producing areas. This comes at a time when rains are needed to trigger flowering for next season’s harvest.

Peak Harvest Shipments Arrivals
June – August October – November December

 

 

Quality

Overall, quality is up within Aequitas. The producer engagement was high from last year’s harvest and the momentum continued through the off-season into high-quality deliveries so far this season. These factors make for a tight export window and a more efficient way to evaluate more high-quality samples. And this is only possible because of Aequitas’ off-season investments in planning, producer outreach, training, and QC staff. Cherries started arriving the first and second week of August through end of September.

Pre-harvest planning includes a flavor mapping exercise, which take samples from throughout the farm to establish ‘flavor zones’. These zones are used to inform harvest scheduling, processing, lot separation and processing. This, combined with improved traceability within individual farms, allow lot tracking from the farm to warehouse and through each stage of post-harvest processing. More data gives producers more options for separating lots, conducting experiments and learning. The result has been more differentiated lots from within each individual farm—not to mention sharing best practices within the Aequitas network.

For example, old friends Marcelo Assis and Maria Soraia just learned that their coffees are finalists for the Cerrado Minero regional quality competition. Both farmers focus purely on coffee – with a fully dedicated coffee team – and are planting new varietals; Marcelo is planting Paraiso, and Maria is cultivating Arara, both of which are receiving recognition for their cup quality. This has encouraged other members of Aequitas to dedicate more of their team to coffee, and more of their coffee fields to these new varietals.

We see the promise of the Aequitas network. As individuals experiment and improve upon quality their lessons are shared within the network. Every small success is leveraged for larger, more informed efforts year over year.

 

IN THE NEWS

Covid hit Brazil a lot later than the rest of the world. Lock-down came on March 18th , before the first death on March 24th. However, responses were localized; lock-downs impacted major cities, but those like Sao Gortardo (pop. 30,500) never saw mandatory quarantine, even though the city has logged over 1,100 Covid cases (of which over 200 are active right now).

Or so it is thought. Information is not good. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is widely considered to be even more divisive than Trump. During the pandemic, he fired the Health Minister, and prohibited the publication of Covid cases or related deaths. Without official statistics, the country is relying on local news source and don’t know when the next lock-down will come.

From drought to market uncertainty to Covid – Yuki and hers are avoiding the news. They’ve chosen to focus, instead, on their farms. And on a few tasty experiments.

 

EXPERIMENTS

Many Aequitas farmers are participating in a fermentation project called Artisans, sponsored by NuCoffee, an unconventional buyer who trades coffee for agricultural inputs. Farmers sell them commercial coffees to finance their farm inputs. In addition to the coffee, NuCoffee gets data – farmers are given bonuses for submitting details on farm management. This year NuCoffee is trialing a program to encourage experimentation in anaerobic fermentation.

Farmers were supplied with 10L of yeast – the same yeast, so as to act as a control.  They were also given an overview on fermentation and training (via zoom) by a federal university. Farmers were then asked to buy the barrels and contribute 10 bags of coffee to the experiment; 9 of which they could sell themselves, 1 of which could go back to the university for evaluation. The Aequitas team heard from the Artisans technical assistant that Nucoffee cupped a dozen of these experiments from members, and found some of the lower-scoring lots (below 80) improved on score (to 83, for example) with a different profile (more, and more complex fruits). However, among Aequitas partner producers where coffees come in 83 and above normally saw little change from their controls (those which did not undergo fermentation). As with many fermentation experiments, the results were inconclusive. It tended to teach that fermentation can bring up the bottom of a bad tasting coffee but isn’t as impactful on raising the ceiling for those which are already scoring well. Over 400 producers participated and results are expected to be shared prior to next year’s harvest.

Fruit Trials

Independently, Yuki and some of her colleagues decided to have their own fun with fruity fermentation. That’s literally combining coffee cherry with macerated fruit for 48 hours of anaerobic fermentation.

Steps:

1-Flavor mapping was used to identify areas that produce higher quality coffees.

2-These areas were scheduled for hand-picking instead of mechanical harvest.

3-Cherries were floated to remove debris and lighter beans.

4-Cherries were then soaked in cold water (15C, anaerobic) for 48 hours.

5-After 48 hours, next came the fruit mixture: intensively prepared by slicing fruit, blending, and adding a little water. This they did with two different concoctions (which were in turn put next to a control).

– Citrus: 50KG of lemon-orange fruit mix put across 10 barrels (5KG per barrel, each of which contains 200L of coffee).

– Pineapple: 30 KG of pineapple pulp put across 5 barrel, (6KG per200L of coffee cherry)

– A control was established using 5 barrels of the same coffee, undergoing the same process except without the fruit mixtures.

6- After 72 hours they opened the barrels, cherries were then placed on raised beds and they washed the coffee with a water solution used in food  sanitization to stop the fermentation process.

7-Cherries were then left to dry as a natural. First round, full sun, two weeks. Second round, partial shade, 30 days.

It’s a lot of fruit, a lot of work. And it burned out a blender. But the results were fun on the tongue. The citrus batch gave off big spicy lemon-mint gingerbread aromatics which held through in the cup, and cooled tropical. The pineapple experiment tasted like, surprise, pineapple wine with watermelon / green apple schnapps on the aroma, a sweet brown bread body, and some mint on the finish.

Lot are listed on offers, but have not yet been milled – so availability for this year is uncertain. However, experiments will be replicated in the off-season so that they are ready to scale come next harvest.

 

LOOKING FORWARD

If last year was about information, education and experimentation – then next year is about outreach. Most coffee in Cerrado comes from larger farms. For reference, Aequitas member farms range from 40 – 250 hectares (averaging closer to 150 hectares per). Large farms are 1000+ hectares, but there are smaller farms in the area as well. These small producers don’t have information, infrastructure or technical assistance.

While most of Brazil’s coffee comes from larger farms, most of Brazil’s coffee farmers are small – an estimated 88% grown on less than 50 hectares, according to the IBGE* – Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Without capital or storage, these farmers have to immediately sell. Their lots will likely get blended into large stock lots without them ever knowing what kind of quality they are producing.

For next year, Aequitas plans on reaching out to these small producers in Cerrado. The plan is to solicit samples and provide free feedback as an entry to trainings on post-harvest processing.

In 2021 we can expect a new lineup of micro-lots as well as a few smallholder blends.

One of which is a producer named Maria Soraia who was new to the Aequitas network in 2019. Experimentation since then led to one of the most unique collections of the harvest; one lot is described as ‘chai milk-tea with figs, ginger and cardamom’.

To us, this demonstrates the diversity that can be found even within the same region and has us looking forward to all that’s to come.