On the Shoulders of a Coffee Giant

Feature

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If you’ve ever wondered how Brazil came to produce a third of the world’s coffee, the answer in a word is: sweat. The vast majority of the perspiration went unrecognized, but Candido Portinari’s Café, a 1935 oil-on-canvas masterpiece housed at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, is drenched in it. A large, well-kept farm in the Alta Mogiana region is deep in harvest, and a massive production effort is underway. Hulking limbs of laborers haul cumbersome cherry-filled sacks to a central depot. Their feet are as big as their shins; hands mirror forearms. Everyone handling the coffee is exhausted.

Though injustice and infrastructural shortcomings remain, Brazil is now by and large a great place to be a coffee harvester. Fair wages and the widespread use of tractors and heavy-duty processing machinery all make a day’s work easier to stomach. What has inspired Brazil to ultimately wrest itself from Portinari’s backbreaking depiction? Innovation. The coffee production in the regions of Mogiana and Sul de Minas is an agricultural wonder, and, in direct contrast to the images of the nation’s past as illustrated by one of its most talented artists, it’s full of friendly faces and pao de queijo, the region’s popular cheese roll. All of this has made the region the foundation of the Brazilian coffee industry, maybe even a synecdoche for high-volume agriculture across the globe.

John Moore and Byron Holcomb at FAL Coffee's wet mill in Brazil. (Photos: Cinthia Sandoval.)
John Moore and Byron Holcomb at FAL Coffee’s wet mill in Brazil. (Photos: Cinthia Sandoval.)

John Moore is leading a nascent farming operation trying to join a small cohort of growers devoted to high-grade coffee in the region. Speaking in mellow but sure tones, he’s a seasoned coffee pro who has for two decades ridden the second and third waves in a methodical fashion. Now he’s the managing partner and CEO of FAL Coffee, a vertical coffee company that’s part of the Saudi investment group FAL Holdings, a massive global conglomerate of industrial, financial, medical, and agricultural companies.

In search of greater quality control, FAL Coffee bought two farms, Santa Izabel and Monte Verde, in the springs of 2013 and 2014 respectively and outfitted them with cutting-edge agricultural and processing technology. Moore and company are getting acquainted with the Brazilian soil in order to wean fine coffees from an agricultural giant with as much quality potential as it has volume. Through their roasting brand Nobletree, FAL aims to source beans from origins across the globe, beginning with Brazil, much of it from its own farms. A roastery build-out is underway in New York City and the first café is set to open this fall in the World Trade Center complex.

At the wet mill of Monte Verde, FAL Coffee’s newest farm near Carmo de Minas, Moore talks about his longstanding desire to get closer to origin, since the nineties, when he first began to roast coffee in his twenties. A member of the taste-making group of small home roasters, he had to work at night to avoid encroachment on neighbors’ olfactory senses. “I’d be sitting in there cupping in the dark alone reading Ted Lingle’s Coffee Cupper’s Handbook,” John explains, holding his palms skyward. “I remember dreaming about the people that taste coffee . . . and that’s their job. And there are these farms in god-knows-where. That definitely planted the seed for me.”

Such a head start on coffee appreciation put him in a good position to be a second-wave mogul. But he’s turned down one or two of the more meteoric opportunities, opting for some pay cuts along the way. Whether his moves have been dictated by foresight or happenstance, one gets the sense his current role overseeing a highly integrated operation is no accident. He recalls the crossroads he faced fresh out of college in 1994—job offers from two separate up-and-coming companies—the choice was New World Coffee or Starbucks. “I was going to do the Starbucks gig, because they were still fun,” he says. “Their parting words in the interview were: ‘We’re going to be the McDonald’s of coffee some day.’ I’m coming out of school where I designed my own major: half philosophy, half classical studies. I was like, hell no.”

New World Coffee grew at an alarming rate until the bubble burst, and Moore found himself in Germany for seven years running two cafés and a wine and spirits importer. Upon his return, he acclimated himself to the new state of coffee stateside as a member of the Counter Culture Coffee team from 2006–2007*. Eventually, Moore joined Dallis Bros. where he gained an initial familiarity with Brazil and met Byron Holcomb and Matt Swenson, who would become his first two hires after founding FAL Coffees.

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At Monte Verde’s cabin in Carmo de Minas, Moore, Holcomb, and Swenson are poring over a series of maps colored in a bright spectrum not unlike the typical Brazilian lot of mechanically picked cherries. The maps show soil readings and the necessary nutrients to feed trees at each section of the farm. Though much of Brazil’s landscape lends itself to mechanical harvesting in which tractors comb through fields and shake cherries loose, the hills at both Monte Verde and Santa Izabel can get pretty steep. At the moment, tractor use at Monte Verde is limited to hauling cherries from fields to the wet mill. Moore plans to terrace the farms, and that work has begun, but slowly. “It’s literally bull-dozing a flat surface into mountain sides,” explains Moore. “And you’re like, that’s insane, until you think for every year going forward pickers will have much more immediate access to the trees. They won’t be falling or slipping.”

For now, in lieu of tractors, workers manually strip each branch bare with one swift motion onto a circular-framed screen that winnows out twigs and leaves. In contrast to selective handpicking, this strip-picking results in varying stages of ripeness, from green to bright red to an obscure purple, which need to be sorted in the processing stage.

DryingBedsThis picking method, which would be abhorrent to specialty-focused growers in many countries, is an economic necessity in Brazil. Because laborers receive five times the average wages of Central American workers, it is not feasible to harvest the lots one ripe cherry at a time. “Labor is between fifty to sixty percent of your cost of production,” Holcomb says. “You either have to decrease your labor or produce a whole lot of coffee.”

The wages are a sign of Brazil’s long, sometimes faltering development. “The more Brazil advances socially, the higher the costs for coffee production,” says Edgard Bressani, the CEO of O’Coffee. His business is a leading quality producer and exporter and the distribution arm of one of Brazil’s most storied coffee families, the Quercias.

O’Coffee also runs Octavio Café in Sao Paulo, making it analog to FAL Coffee and Nobletree. While Bressani is now Moore’s counterpart, he was once his main supplier when O’Coffee and Dallis Bros. were different pieces within the same vertical company from 2007–2013. During this time Moore, Holcomb, and Swenson gained experience working with each other and they learned about micro-lots in the land of macro. “O’Coffee was able to show John and Byron what a specialty coffee farm devoted to quality could do to differ from the others,” Bressani says. “The attention to detail and teamwork was also something we shared.”

At most farms, once the cherries are milled they are hauled to large mechanical driers to bring the parchment coffee to the necessary eleven percent moisture. A specialty-oriented farm will use these tools, but the quality of the equipment and processes are leagues away from commodity growers. Where some farms dry their coffee so quickly it requires quenching, those concerned with maintaining a bean’s integrity take care not to bake it. Blending a harvest for the sake of efficiency is the status quo, but FAL and other quality producers spend the time and resources to separate different ripeness levels into uniform micro-lots, which gain a higher price.

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Jose Angelo, the foreman at Santa Izabel farm. “What we’re doing is revolutionizing coffee for the region of Ouro Fino.”

At Monte Verde’s lab, the result of this atomized process yielded a surprising range of profiles. A single round of FAL coffees on the cupping tables held a coffee tasting of light, pillowy Greek yogurt with a hint of lemon and another with notes of creamy, balsamic vinegar. “It will blow your mind these coffees were grown an acre apart,” Matt Swenson says. “That’s the fun and challenging part because you’re finding profiles that will make blends that can match that complexity of the farm.”

The best of FAL’s microlots will go to their Nobletree cafés. Since Nobletree promises to curate a line of premium coffee—all clearing a bar of eighty-five points—not all of FAL’s coffee will make it to Manhattan. Given the different gradations of quality inevitable in high-volume, strip-picked production, Swenson, director of sourcing, is in charge of herding many different coffees up and down a sliding scale of value.

Fifty percent of the coffee that is hauled up to mill at both farms throughout harvest months will receive the Nobletree label, be it in the café or by wholesale. FAL estimates that thirty to forty percent will remain in Brazil’s domestic market. The remaining ten percent or so will go to private label roasting for brands such as Fika, a Manhattan chain of high-end Swedish coffee bistros.

That so much effort and money is being place into a dynamic farm in a country with a reputation for one-dimensional coffee provides hope for producers, like Felipe Barretto Croce, who want to spend time and money on lot separation and quality processing.

After growing up in Chicago, Croce returned to work at his mother’s farm, Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza. “When I got into coffee in 2007, everyone’s thought about Brazil is that it’s always the same basic flavor,” Croce says. “How is that possible when you can fit fifty Costa Ricas into one country? Perhaps good coffees just weren’t getting to roasters. Maybe these coffees weren’t being developed?”

holdingCherriesAfter touring Brazil and working with neighboring farms to improve quality he has collaborated with US roasters such as 1000 Faces Coffee and Blue Bottle Coffee to produce innovative craft sampler boxes, elucidating the characteristics of different varietals, locations, and processing methods.

FAL has similar hopes to better understand the terroir of the land, though it’s decidedly next level. “I think one of the projects might be cupping to the precision ag map.” Swenson says, referring to the multi-colored maps of the farms. “This is what a potassium deficiency tastes like, low magnesium, aluminum surplus. That sort of stuff takes years. If you do it once its not conclusive enough to say this is fact. We take more of a scientific approach where you need two or three years of data to make statements like that happen.” This living experiment aspect makes Santa Izabel and Monte Verde feel like a museum exhibit or a test-farm similar to Starbucks’ venture in Costa Rica.

Under a dome-like blue sky, Holcomb is jostling his truck up to Santa Izabel’s apex while Moore and Jose Angelo, the farm’s foreman, plant their feet in the truck’s bed, shoulders echoing the shift of the rollbar. Angelo has produced innumerable volumes from this farm in the twenty-three years he’s been working it. He says area producers have scoffed at the unconventional or quality-minded practices taking place at Santa Izabel for some time now.

“Ten, twelve years ago,” Angelo recalls, “when we started to produce quality with the past owner, people said, ‘It’s crazy; you guys are going to lose money.’ Now people are saying the same things again, but really what we’re doing is revolutionizing coffee for the region of Ouro Fino.”

—Jimmy Sherfey is a writer based in Orlando who runs the blog Abeja de Café.

*The original version of this story said that John Moore worked at Counter Culture Coffee from 2005–2009. Return to story