By Kyle Humphries, Veneziano Coffee Roaster
Brazil is a fascinating and diverse coffee origin given its sheer size and variety of growing conditions. This past November, I travelled to four of the main regions in which are made up of their own distinct micro-regions. The range of environmental factors and unique terroir of each micro-region allow for a tremendous number of producers to follow a wide array of farming practices. Every combination of these factors makes Brazil a microcosm of flavour profiles. Let’s hone in on a few of these practices and look at the possible reasoning behind the decision making of farmers in these regions.
What drives these differences in farming practices?
First, a brief history on coffee production in Brazil:
Coffee production in Brazil began in the mid-1700’s. Since then, farmers have had to adopt certain practices to adapt to their own terrains and climates. Techniques evolved over time with the introduction of improved infrastructure and technology. However, coffee was continually treated as an interchangeable commodity, and very few paid attention to where and how coffee was grown. With the very first Cup of Excellence program in 1999, it became evident the market was willing to pay in excess of the commodity price for high quality coffee. As a result, farmers increasingly began experimenting with different farming practices, striving for improved quality and consistency.
In the Cerrado region, the farmers rely heavily on irrigation. Given that Cerrado is a semi-arid plateau at altitude (950masl), irrigation was essential for crop quality due to the region’s low annual rainfall. If you head south towards Paraná, which experiences cooler climates and increased rainfall, farmers rely less on irrigation to water their crops. Poços de Caldes is a region with a unique micro-climate due to its highly fertile volcanic soil and abundance of rainfall. Most of its farms are dependent on direct rainfall.
Even farms that are in relatively close proximity to each other can vary in water supply to coffee crops. In the Mogiana region, O’Coffee and Fazenda Nossa Senhora Rosaria (FNSR) are located only a short 30-minute drive from each other. Going from O’Coffee, a farm known for their advanced irrigation systems to FNSR, the change in landscape and climate was outstanding. The micro-region of Alto Porã within Mogiana is incredibly lush and green due to increased runoff provided by the surrounding mountains and river. Therefore, Carlos (FNSR) depends on the rainfall and organic fertilizer to nourish his crops. On the other hand, O’Coffee has a highly sophisticated irrigation system that is programmed to distribute a regular interval of a fertilizer-charged water to their crops. It is clear their unique climates have lead the producers to adopt varied farming practices despite their close proximity. While coffees from both farms tasted delicious, their flavour profiles varied greatly.
At Fazenda GA Agricola, Albino Moreira Alves is measuring moisture levels at several locations on his farm and using this data to design the optimal irrigation strategy. He hypothesizes he can improve the quality and consistency of his coffee by manipulating the trees into flowering at the optimal time and strategically controlling the maturation phase of his cherries.
Nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen are essential to the life of the coffee tree. Although producers usually need to add these nutrients to the soil via irrigation, another proven way to build nutrient levels in the soil is to introduce companion plants.
Across most of the growing regions of Brazil, coffee trees are planted in rows making it quite easy to plant these companion plants in between the rows of coffee. As to which companion plant is best, the responses vary. Some choose grass, others maize but the most intriguing is the crotalaria.
The crotalaria (often known as rattlepod) is a legume known to build soil fertility. Its roots support nitrogen-fixing bacteria helping to naturally increase the overall nitrogen levels in the soil. Not only do these plants assist in soil fertility, but their bright yellow flowers attract pollinators and flies that help deter coffee damaging insects. Crotalaria is also believed to fight the notorious root-eating nematodes. The addition of these companion plants allows the producer to limit its overall use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Another example of strategic companion planting was seen around the boarder of São Paulo and Paranã. Producers like Carolina of Fazenda Bananal are choosing to plant a single row of pine trees for every 10 rows of new coffee trees to protect the coffee from the strong, cold winds that this region is known to face, particularly in the winter months.
Technology and Experimentation
With quality specialty coffee in greater demand, producers are going the extra mile and approaching coffee production progressively. Brazil has some of the most advanced infrastructural technology in the coffee-producing world. We can see increased research and experimentation in recent years – and the results have been outstanding. Many farms host qualified agronomists undertaking soil analyses and coffee cherry sugar analyses. New varietals are being created and there is an increased focus on showcasing individual varietals and microlots.
The team at O’Coffee is conducting research where they plant about 10 different varietals (50 trees each) side by side. By planting each variety at the same location they are effectively reducing the variables of terroir. This is in hope to learn more about the individual characteristics of each varietal.
The progression and sheer variety of coffee production around the world makes it an extremely exciting time to be a part of the industry. Farmers are working more diligently than ever to adapt to challenging and unpredictable weather conditions to bring us tasty coffee.
So the next time you order a Brazilian coffee and find yourself experiencing a completely different flavour profile from the last Brazilian coffee, chances are, a combination of the aforementioned techniques and practices are playing a critical role in the flavour and overall characteristics of the coffee in your cup.