Carmo de Minas, Brazil

Feature

O Gigante, specialty coffee, Brazil

O Gigante, “The Sleeping Giant,” looms over Mantiqueira de Minas (Photo: Sean Harwin/Caffe Lusso.)

“It’s amazing what you can do in a small town in Brazil. With a good program you’ll be competing with the very best in five, ten years,” says Sergio Dias as we return from photographing O Gigante Durmido or “The Sleeping Giant.” O Gigante is an emblematic and unmistakable mountaintop which separates the state of Minas Gerais from the state of São Paulo and is visible from any number of the high coffee farms nestled atop the Mantiqueira de Minas microregion.

Momentarily, however, Sergio is speaking not of coffee. He is reminiscing on Ubiratan, the valiant Carmo de Minas soccer team of his youth. In the seventies he and his hometown friends trained, traveled, and successfully battled against giants like Flamengo. Several Ubiratan boys were recruited by professional programs as a result of this exposure; one would go all the way.

The small but mighty Carmo de Minas soccer team eventually succumbed to the pressures of time. Typical youth sports snafus like parental meddling and underfunding proved insurmountable against the more profound social and economic challenges facing Brazil amidst a twenty-year military dictatorship that began in the sixties. The boys of Carmo grew into men—most were conscripted—and today many are found working in or around coffee in their hometown. Sergio chose a different path.

From Brazil to Seattle

May 7 of 1961 brought two important births for Carmo de Minas. First, the Cocarive Cooperative leapt from the minds of a small group of Mantiqueira de Minas farmers and into reality. Hours later the co-op’s figurative fraternal twin, Sergio Junqueira Dias, was brought into the world. Due to his atypical pallor, Sergio was immediately dubbed O Russo, or “The Russian,” a moniker that follows him in Carmo to this day.

(Photos: Scott Tupper.)

In this town of several thousand, Sergio grew up in a manner typical for the area: splitting time between farm and town living, going to school, and playing soccer. He tasted triumph on the soccer field, as well as the power wielded by an organized few acting as one. In the Brazil of his young adulthood, however, he saw little opportunity, and Sergio eventually bolted to Seattle with a cousin to learn English.

There, O Russo learned accounting, opened a screen-printing company, and started a family, while his cousin learned to fly in the booming aviation town. He watched intently while another industry—one closer to his heart—took flight in Seattle: the coffee industry.

Ever thinking of Carmo de Minas, after years of hard work Sergio managed to buy a coffee farm that once belonged to his grandfather. Though Seattle would remain his home base, this investment marked the homecoming of Carmo’s prodigal entrepreneurial son.

Working to Improve Brazilian Coffee

Old Blue Eyes once sang, “There’s an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil,” and so will Sergio, after a beer. It’s true: Brazil grows approximately 30 percent of the world’s coffee. The country’s infrastructure, vast lands, agreeable climate, and machine-friendly landscapes have all enabled it to crank out unparalleled volumes of coffee for over 150 years. But quality? A reputation in consumer markets as producers of filler and commodity coffees has long plagued the Brazilian specialty coffee grower.

Consumers demand exotics, cupping scores be damned. And, after all, who hasn’t tried Brazilian coffee? That said, paradigm shifts are seldom realized by one person—or in this case, both person and product. Sure, there are transcendent examples: Elon Musk and his Teslas, Steve Jobs and his i-devices. By and large, however, changing people’s minds about what something ought to be takes time, dialogue, and—most frequently overlooked—work.

At Cocarive, the “work” part of achieving a paradigm shift in Brazilian coffee has been a two-front war: within, they must eternally increase quality among their members, and outwardly they must battle old stereotypes while delivering consistently.

Perhaps cognizance of this reality led to the motto for Cocarive Co-op, “Working together to produce the best coffees.” In the eighties they expanded their headquarters and moved into the building where they handle cupping and administrative tasks today.

In 2001 the farmers again rallied and sprung for the development of a top-of-the-line sorting and warehousing facility, shifting focus exclusively to quality. Coffee quality in Mantiqueira de Minas skyrocketed as they stuck to their motto more than ever and the third wave hit its stride. A renewed focus on time helped bring about these improvements: planting at the right time, picking at the right time, and allowing coffee to dry for the right amount of time; don’t grow so much you overextend and spend inadequate time on each lot.

In the Mantiqueira de Minas, many coffee farms are shrinking. Are producers jaded by popular opinion regarding Brazilian coffee and departing to try something new? Not hardly. Rather, they’ve quite literally tasted the possibility. At Cocarive, growers bringing in samples will often stop to cup coffees and chat alongside “Baba,” the co-op’s resident Q Grader and Brazil’s champion cupper. Like Sergio is to the North American markets, he’s also Cocarive’s conduit to Eurasian markets. The learning, however, doesn’t stop with Baba.

Free-flowing information exchange between the farmers is perhaps the greatest testament to the “working together” part of the Cocarive mantra. This pervades not only at the cupping table, but on farm visits, at the gas station, and in all places between. (The number of car window conversations witnessed during a week in Carmo eclipsed this observer’s driving career tally.)

These exchanges are not necessarily birthed from benevolence. More likely, I’d venture, these business owners’ senses of curiosity are born of self-interest. What is remarkable, though, is that open mouths accompany these open ears. Intended or not, the upshot of this rapid information turnover is a collective betterment for Cocarive’s 700 farmers. By investing in their own specialty coffee knowledge, members are empowering themselves and one another to identify, test for, and pursue the world’s most coveted markets from the ground up.

Mantiqueira de Minas Advantages

Down the road it’s cool and orderly in the co-op’s big warehouse. All activity stems from a blue and yellow mechanical sorter located smack-dab in the center of the building. It’s four stories tall, and its labyrinth of shiny pipes would confound the most adept Super Mario champion. The employees of the co-op, however, are calm and focused as they start, stop, clean, and restart entire channels of the equipment.

Fragmented in this way, these processes guarantee traceability while ensuring quality control, a solace not offered in many growing communities. In most cases, farmers with superb microlots will choose to retain individual ownership of their coffees as they wait for export. The hope: direct access to the lucrative specialty coffee markets where people like Baba and Sergio are pounding the pavement.

The ability to control and process one’s own coffee so far up the supply chain is one of several advantages enjoyed by farmers in the Mantiqueira de Minas microregion of which producers worldwide can only dream. Most will dry and bag their own coffee before bringing it to Cocarive for final sorting and bagging for export. Many will sell directly to roasters in Seattle, Portland, and beyond into channels opened through Sergio. These producers are regularly hitting third-party cupping scores in the high eighties and popping into the nineties with their best microlots.

These Mantiqueira de Minas advantages highlight the upside of the Brazilian specialty coffee paradox: the infrastructure, organization, and diversity of lands which enabled the proliferation of low-grade industrial-ag coffees and the subsequent reputation for subpar coffees are the same mechanisms enabling quality-focused growers with the right land to develop and deliver sensational specialty coffees with unmatched efficiency. As for their subsequent reputation. . . well, that’s still being shaped. This is where visionaries like Sergio are making perhaps the greatest impact.

An Apolitical System

Screen-printing is not Sergio’s first business; he always had an entrepreneurial bent. In the neighboring town of São Lourenço, he shows me the site where, as young men, he and his business partner Ibraim introduced the Mantiqueira de Minas region to air-popped popcorn. “Ibraim used to dance and throw it in the street when business was slow. It worked, we sold out many nights,” Sergio says.

This fateful popper would find life anew as a sample roaster in the planning phase of J.C. Coffees, Sergio and Ibraim’s importing business. Ten years ago, with Sergio in Seattle and Ibraim in Carmo, the old partners built a business based on holistically changing mindsets and prices for their coffees. Vertical integration was theirs, but the two men knew their strategic placement meant a far greater opportunity than the capacities of their own farms could hope to yield. As co-op farmers and community members of Carmo, their pitch to team with their neighbors for direct trade has been well received. In Seattle, their go-to-market methodology hearkened back to those popper days as well: be present, give plenty of samples, assess what people like, and repeat.

“Where else in the world do you have this? We can do anything!”

To cash in on the progress achieved by their peers and the co-op in the years between Sergio’s departure and the launch of their import business would have been all too easy; after all, both men own coffee farms and have friends and family who do too. But they adopted a unique approach of retaining ownership by producers.

Rather than asking growers to impropriate their best coffees to them at origin and then resell them in the customary method, J.C. integrates with the co-op’s existing infrastructure, enabling each farmer to make the final call on the lot prices they’ve shipped. As such, great coffees are making it to great roasters in an apolitical system which serves to do one thing: push the needle ever forward for Brazilian specialty coffees from the Mantiqueira de Minas.

“Once people start using our coffees instead of whatever Brazilian they had, they never go back,” Sergio says matter-of-factly. And by outward appearances, it seems to be true.

Sergio’s nephew Pedro excitedly speaks with me about his uncle. “Stay beside O Russo and you will learn everything. He has a great heart, and a great mind,” he says three times before I’m able to understand with my remedial Portuguese. Pedro’s not alone; Carmo’s younger generation visibly perks up when Sergio speaks.

An interruption at the dinner table highlights this truth. Sergio’s been telling his old teammate, Kiko Ribeiro, about the results he’s seen from raised drying beds when Kiko’s twenty-seven-year-old son, Angelo, breaks rank with an interjection. “Pa, I’ll buy them if you’ll just build them!”

Angelo wasn’t the one being spoken to, but is too excited to care. The prospect of innovating for prosperity in coffee is enticing, and in a world which loses young farmers to urban centers every day, it’s important too.

A Paradigm Shift in the Industry

Angelo’s interest in investing in coffee is a healthy indicator for the future of Brazil’s coffee industry. Kiko was among the very best in Carmo’s legendary youth soccer program, and was even invited to join Flamengo, one of the continent’s premier clubs. Obligated to family and farm, a young and heartbroken Kiko had to decline the invitation. Growing up around a story like that—and seeing how unpredictable coffee was for his father—Angelo opted to specialize in Carmo’s other industry, dairy. He pursued a university education and currently works as a salaried zoo technician.

Now, he’s thinking long and hard about coffee. On their forested farm, Kiko’s hard work is churning out coffees that cup around eighty-seven points each, and he’s begun selling direct. Sergio is an entrepreneur and a role model whose success and community approach allures as much as it inspires. A life growing coffee is being eschewed the world over for the perceived limits it places upon one’s future, but could we be witnessing a turning point where perceived limits are supplanted by opportunity? Is the paradigm shift afoot?

In Seattle, Sergio describes a life of an automaton: T-shirts! Coffee! T-shirts! Coffee! Eat something! Rinse, Repeat. In Brazil, O Russo gets to be a little more dynamic. His extensive network of friends and family embraces him, demanding a social calendar only possible in a town where blocks, rather than miles, separate the majority of people.

Specialty markets move beneath his fingertips, as specialty coffee grows beneath his feet. Is this what fourth wave looks like—independence and fluidity in both marketplaces?

Sergio is most in his element, however, on his farm. There, the creative instincts that gave rise to multiple business ventures play out all over the place—they’re in the myriad experiments being conducted on the white canvas of his drying patio, and the old dairy farming infrastructure for which he knows he can find a new purpose. They’re in that secret microlot he’s pointing to on that middle hill over there, and the planning that led to the survival of those ventures is evident when he starts describing what we can expect in three, five, and ten years.

Back on his balcony, the vanishing light steals our view of Sergio’s farm. It’s winter, and the inky night soon reveals the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. With the disappearance of the foreground, talk of coffee experiments gives way to a more ambling conversation of the town and general state of affairs in Minas. The mood is positive, and as an end-of-the-day ritual Sergio checks up on any coffee orders for the next morning in the US.

For five minutes the farmer-preneur is in two places at once; specialty markets move beneath his fingertips, as specialty coffee grows beneath his feet. Is this what fourth wave looks like—independence and fluidity in both marketplaces? Satisfied, Sergio closes his laptop and stares out the open balcony doors and into the hilled void where so much coffee hangs, waiting to be picked.

A hometown boy at heart, O Russo takes a moment to enjoy the development of specialty in the Mantiqueira de Minas microregion. “Where else in the world do you have this? We can do anything!” he says. My eyes track his gaze, and in the darkness, I can no longer confirm that O Gigante is sleeping.

Scott Tupper is co-founder of Onda Exchange Company.