Author's note: In early June, I attended the coffee harvest in Pedregulho, Brazil, with leading specialty coffee producer Octavio Café and Dallis Coffee, the highly respected New York coffee roaster Octavio recently acquired. Down at Octavio's Nossa Senhora Aparecida farm, I leaned how coffee goes from the plant to your French press—as millions of coffee trees are picked, sifted, seeded, dried, roasted, and brewed into the coffee that wakes you up every morning. Here's Phase 1: all about the coffee plant itself. —CJ
Close your eyes and picture a coffee plant.
Not this beautiful cappuccino, not the dark dust in your Folger's jar, not those brittle, toasty-smelling beans—a coffee plant.
I'm willing to bet that, unless you're from a tropical area or have taken some effort to educate yourself, you had trouble envisioning just where coffee comes from. It's funny: no matter how little time we've spent on farms, we know that corn grows on stalks, wheat in amber fields, grapes on a vine. Coffee, on the other hand? A mystery to most of us. And I include myself, as of a few years ago, in that category: downing mugs of the stuff each morning with only the vaguest notion that it came from warmer regions in sacks of dry green beans.
So I jumped at the chance to spend a few days in the heart of this year's coffee harvest, with Octavio Café and Dallis Coffee, down in the endless coffee fields of Nossa Senhora Aparecida in Pedregulho, Brazil—picking coffee fruit, pulling out the beans, seeing how they're sorted and dried and milled and roasted and, ultimately, brewed up into the black stuff that wakes you up in the morning.
It's a long journey, so we'll start at the beginning.
Where Does Coffee Come From?
First things first: that coffee bean? It's the seed of a fruit called a "coffee cherry." It's about the size of a blueberry, say, or a Jelly Belly, growing in clusters on short, shrubby trees. Those trees thrive in many tropical and sub-tropical patches of the world—Colombia, El Salvador, Indonesia, Ethiopia. Though coffee demands a warm climate, conditions vary greatly; some coffee terrain is nearly flat, some mountainous; some wetter, some drier.
The Alta Mogiana region of Brazil, where I found myself last week, is a place of rolling green hills and ghostly morning fog and rich red soil—the sort of arresting beauty that can have you gazing out over the landscape for hours on end. It looks something like Napa Valley; well, if Napa were swept with sugarcane fields and palm trees. It's a verdant plain at an elevation of about 1000 meters, whose seasonal shifts are prime for coffee. Warm, rainy summers; cooler, sunny winters; no risk of frost. ("One touch of frost and you're done for," said John Moore, VP of Dallis Coffee and my expert tour guide through the harvest.)
Coffee fruit grown here, depending on the cultivar, can be either red or yellow. The yellow ones move through a color life cycle like that of a banana: first hard and green, then soft and yellow, finally withered and black. During the harvest, you'll find fruit at all stages—red, yellow, orange, green, black; the clusters are striking, bundles of vibrant hue.
Those coffee cherries are, in fact, edible—roaming through the coffee fields, tasting along the way, you'll find distinct flavors in each fruit. The mature yellow cherries have the fresh vegetal tang of a green bell pepper. As they darken with age, the sugars concentrate and turn raisiny, wrinkly and sweet on the tongue. (At either stage, they're tasty—though there's too little fruit clinging to each seed to be used commercially for much more than fertilizer.)
On the farms of Octavio Café's Nossa Senhora Aparecida—a Brazilian specialty coffee farm, but hardly a large-scale one, by the nation's standards—5 million trees, standing between six and ten feet high, sweep the landscape in long, elegantly curving rows that seem to frame the town of Pedregulho.
About Octavio and Dallis
Brazil is the world's largest coffee producer and exporter, but not all Brazilian coffee is created equal. Octavio Café, whose harvest I crashed, is a well-regarded producer of specialty coffee, the highest classification of beans in the coffee world. Started by Italian immigrants Giusepe and Vincente Quércia, who crossed the seas in 1890, the company is now in its fourth generation of family ownership. (This generation's Quércia, Orestes—a former São Paulo state governor, a current senatorial candidate—may be a busy fellow, but keeps in active involvement in all its operations. "He seems most at home on the farm," Moore told me.) Octavio's coffees are highly ranked by the International Coffee Organization; it employs champion Brazilian baristas in quality control and coffee blend development; it operates an award-winning café in São Paulo and a coffee training program.
Octavio recently acquired the century-old Dallis Coffee, a Queens-based roaster and supplier orchestrating coffee programs across America—from small cafés to restaurants including Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café. It's a two-way street of a deal: Dallis gets a top-end Brazilian product, of course; Octavio secures not only an American market, but earns access to Dallis's other imports. Brazil levies strict protectionist tariffs on green coffee, so only through Dallis's international reach can Octavio serve coffee from Papua New Guinea and Colombia and Ethiopia.
Octavio and Dallis take shared pride in Nossa Senhora Aparecida, a place where quality control tends toward the obsessive and the reward, as Moore is fond of saying, "is in the cup."
Listening to Moore detail each phase of coffee production recalls listening to a vintner lovingly describe each grape that ends up in the bottle. There's science, but there's a sense of artistry and history, too. At Octavio's farm, beans are bred for quality, not volume; at every conceivable stage of the process, inferior fruits or beans are siphoned off from the final batch. Every micro-lot of coffee, units as small as 320 bags, is separately "cupped," or tasted, to guard the final blend against imperfections. And quality control measures range from infared color sorting to soil sampling and chemical analysis.
As such, the processes we'll see here aren't necessarily practiced across the coffee industry. But for a look at the care and rigorous attention that a specialty coffee farm is capable of, it's a fascinating education.
Check back tomorrow for Part II: The Coffee Harvest.