The Mercanta team embarked on a wondrous adventure through Brazil, visiting coffee farms and meeting with various partners. Stephen Hurst, founder, and CEO of Mercanta recounts his trip:
More than 2500km travelled, eight coffee farms, and 100 coffees cupped later, the first Coffeehunter Field Trip in two and half post Covid years ended in Sao Paulo.
Seven roaster clients from all over the world joined us for the adventure, and Dondu from the Dubai office tagged along for the nine-day journey around Minas Gerais.
The trip began the day after the Brazilian presidential election, making it an inauspicious time. The hotly contested election between Bolsonaro and Lula pitted some a far-right populist against a controversial semi folk hero character of Luis Ignacio da Silva (Lula) – an ex-President from the socialist left. Supporters of both sides harboured strong opinions, which was evident throughout the coffee-producing areas. We encountered numerous road blockades in the days after the election; though we were never fully stopped or blocked in our route.
The weather was also unusually cold and wet, particularly on the first and last days of the trip; such were the extremes of the weather at times, that a couple of farm visits were dropped or disrupted, unfortunately.
I wanted to surprise the group with a visit to a coffee farm for lunch on the first day as we set out from Guarulhos Airport for the coffee areas of Minas Gerais. Except it was not really a coffee farm (it used to be and still had a small part devoted to coffee production). Our first stop was the winery of Guaspari in Espirito Santo do Pinhal. This was not a gimmick novelty stop. Brazilian wines are quite unknown but deserve a much wider hearing. Award winning Guaspari has some excellent red and white wines and is one of a growing number of vineyards that is located in the coffee areas of Minas Gerais, as well as much further south on the Brazil Argentina border in the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina.
We moved on to Pocos de Caldas, a charming city with the history of a lot of domestic Brazilian tourism, mineral waters, and significant coffee production in the area. Fazenda Cachoeira da Grama for me is the original, the classic, the ‘’first’’ Brazil specialty coffee farm. Mercanta has been buying Cachoeira da Grama for more than twenty years! It convinced more than a few roaster customers back in the day, that Brazil could produce a genuine top quality specialty coffee when a lot of people did not take that idea seriously.
We cupped more than 30 coffees at Bourbon Specialty Coffee’s excellent lab, getting an excellent review of the new Brazil crops with coffees from all over Brazil, not just the immediate Pocos de Caldas area. No Brazil trip is complete without a stop at Fazenda Inglaterra, my own farm. One of our UK clients has been buying the coffee for decades, and it remains my dream to get the farm’s top lot into the Cup of Excellence finals (we have come so close on a few occasions). Nonetheless, it was a lovely visit to see my trees and team.
Next stop Fazenda Monte Alegre, another farm I have known for decades. A large farm in the style of Da Terra, Ipanema, etc. Monte Alegre is a family business with a rich tradition in quality exports and processing innovation.
Fazenda Passeio is next, another farm with whom Mercanta has an enviable history – dozens of visits and years of working together delivering Fazenda Passeio to roaster clients all over the world. Our group loved the Passeio visit, with warm hospitality and a farm lunch in the new cafeteria, school, office area that had been built in the last couple of ‘’Covid’’ years, and I had not seen before. The Passeio Experimental Plot is interesting, with dozens of known and lesser known (and even unknown) varietals growing in a particular plot, and those successful ones are often taken into mainstream production at the farm.
One innovation I noticed since my last trip to Brazil in 2019, is the widespread adoption of added yeast to the fermentation process – every farm we visited had its own unique process and all had different yeast sources, but this new development had really unfolded in the past five years or so, and because of the ‘’Covid Gap’’ I had really noticed this new innovation on this trip.
On to Fazenda Caxambu, where we were warmly welcomed by Ucha at her enchanting, and almost mystical, coffee farm which is full of gardens and trails and also has a very large experimental plot area. I had not been to Fazenda Caxambu but I was pleased to be able to finally visit, and see a nice ‘’coffee shop’’ which Ucha had built to welcome visitors and for workers and staff to use.
After Caxambu, we had the chance to stay at Ipanema’s Fazenda Conquista guest house near Alfenas, the only drawback being we were only there for an overnight stay and not a weeklong visit deserving of such a beautiful house and gardens.
I love Ipanema’s Fazenda Rio Verde, and that was our next stop. The super modern mill at Rio Verde does not look like any other coffee processing facility, having been built for specialty coffee production from scratch recently. The farm itself has nature trails, picture perfect waterfalls, beehives, indigenous tree nursery, a film theatre, original farmhouse from 100+ years ago, modern lab, lakes, and just about everything you can think of in a specialty coffee wonderland. Rio Verde produces not only a high quality estate grade Brazil, but also the exceptional Premier Cru coffees that come from specific higher altitude ‘’glebes’’ / farm sections. This year will be the fifth season of the Premier Cru programme, with which Mercanta has been involved since the outset.
After our visit to Fazenda Rio Verde, we stayed overnight in a smallish town called Tres Coracoes, which I did not know was Pele’s birthplace.
The next stop included a highly unexpected visit to a private museum full of vintage cars from all over the world, all in working condition. The collection was owned by the family that owns Fazenda Vila Boa who Mercanta has been working with for the second season now. This lovely farm in Carmo da Mata is a relatively new one for us, the first arrival was last year, and the success of that first business is leading to a follow on this year. Mercanta UK will see another arrival of Fazenda Vila Boa by mid-December.
Our final stop was Fazenda Samambaia, loyal suppliers and friends for many years. The lovely farmhouse at Engeniero was our base, a place I have stayed many times. Fazenda Samambaia / San Coffee are a co-op of twenty farms from the Vertentes Region. We have been shipping Fazenda Samambaia to UK, Germany, Dubai, and Singapore – it is a highly popular estate grade Brazil as well as also providing a wealth of special process and special varietal, award winning microlots as well
The weather deteriorated again at the end of the journey, as at the start, and the tour of Samambaia, Campo Alegre was disrupted by terrible weather, which continued into the return journey to Sao Paulo on the following day.
After well over two years of COVID induced restrictions, it was really great to be back ‘’on the road’’ with a fabulous group of customers touring many old and new Brazil suppliers, in person, live, up front and personal. This, after all, is what the business is all about in the end.
Clients, some of whom had not visited Brazil at all before, came away fully impressed with the farm and national hospitality element that comes hand in hand with the Brazil growers. We were so well received at every stop, we cupped close to 100 coffees ranging from good to exceptional with maybe 1 defective cup in 100, foretelling a positive story in general for the quality of the Brazil new crop that is arriving now in our consumer markets.
Some new innovations, in particular yeast fermenting, had really come on board since my last Brazil trip. Some of the ‘’same old’’ problems (no pickers, high production costs, etc.) were worse than ever. Alarmingly the breakeven production cost for ‘’efficient’’ larger farms, including ever more expensive financing, had risen dramatically since I last did the rounds in Brazil a few years ago.
The 2023 Brazil crop, harvest beginning April/May 2023 has the potential to be huge, the biggest ever. The commodity coffee market, following two years of global supply deficit, could well swing back to surplus.
Whatever the Big View, Brazil specialty coffee producers continue to invest, adapt, and innovate and I am sure we will continue to see Brazil specialty coffee a core ingredient and single origin offering for virtually all our roaster customers in 50+ countries worldwide.
Döndü Ocak, head of Logistics and Sales in Dubai, also joined for this grand Brazil adventure, and recounts her trip below:
Well well well, my first origin trip!
Despite arriving at a politically confusing time in Brazil, we were ready to embark on our journey! 10 days and 12 farms.
Heavy rain might have ruined a farm or two however, overall, the weather was great!
We kick started our trip at a vineyard with some wine tasting. Must say, best way to break the ice for a large group of people coming from several different countries.
We started our journey in Sao Paulo and drove up to Minas Gerais and back down to Sao Paulo where we all flew out from.
- Cachoeira de Grama
- Fazenda Recreio
- Monte Alegre
- Inglaterra – of course we stopped by our boss’s farm to check it out!
- Fazenda Passeio
- Fazenda Caxambu – the famous, most beautiful farm! Coffee rests in warehouses listening to Mozart! Usha is very very spiritual and has a miracle garden where she has buried crystals under the trees!
- Fazenda Conquista (Ipanema Group)
- Fazenda Rio Verde
- Fazenda Villa Boa
- Samambaia (Sancoffee)
Our days started with some great breakfast, usually fresh produce from the farms and of course the best coffee!
We continued trekking through farms, learning all about the varieties each farm has – their experimental lots, the nurseries as well as all the new fancy fermentation methods/techniques.
Each day we were served INSANE lunch spreads (I still dream about them), followed by delicious cupping tables. Always ended the day on the good note with large dinners, ‘wobbly’ desserts & of course countless beers & cachaca’s!
We stayed at some breathtakingly beautiful farmhouses, cannot thank all the producers enough for their amazing hospitality. We also spent some time at local hotels when traveling between farms.
One of the hotels were located in Tres Caoracoes, the town the famous football player pepe was born in!
Chris Petrovitch of Metropolis Coffee Roasters in Chicago also joined the trip and recalls his time:
Since I have been back from my trip to Brazil many people have asked “how was your trip”? and the answer that I keep landing on is that it was hands down the most hospitable trip I have ever been on. Everyone we met along the way greeted us as if we were old friends. Big hugs and genuine conversation followed up by lavish meals and fantastic coffees. Some of what we experienced as buyers is what the producers have been working on over the last few years. A big commonality that we noticed was the focus on experimentation with anaerobic fermentation. We tasted some coffees that seemed as if they could be from Africa!? We also tasted many classic Brazilian profiles that I know and love. The extreme balance and chocolatey mouthfeel with a subtle cranberry or red apple acidity. Something you could sip on all day long.
Everywhere we went and everyone we met seemed to be at the top of their game and their common focus was on producing high quality coffees. It was extremely impressive to see the high-end processing mills. One of the more interesting things I noticed in Brazil compared to other origin trips I have had in Guatemala and Peru was how the high mountains almost resembled the rolling hills of the Midwest but at an elevation that produces Arabica coffee. I knew that because of this Brazil is the only coffee producing country that is able to use mechanical pickers during harvest season. We were there in the early Spring and not able to see this firsthand, but it was easily imaginable.
There was another layer to this trip that made things a bit more interesting. The trip started a day after the presidential election in which Bolsonaro lost a close election to Lula; a previous president of Brazil from 2003- 2011. The state of Minas Gerais seemed to be quite polarized by these results. The cities were celebrating Lulas victory while the more rural coffee producing areas were a little more upset with the results. We did come across a few roadblock protests on our journey, but nothing ever seemed to get out of hand.
Overall, this experience ended up being even more incredible and enjoyable than I could have imagined. Our group consisted of people from South Korea, Japan, Germany, England, Dubai, Scotland, North America, and a late addition from Australia. We had an international group of likeminded people. We all seemed to get along right from the start which made this trip that much more enjoyable.
Grant Whitaker of Mac and Me Roasters based in the UK thoroughly enjoyed his time and mentions this about his trip:
Ten days, one bus, nine nationalities, 2,500 miles, ten farms (and a vineyard!) endless cups of incredible coffee, non-stop laughs, possibly too much cachaça, so many amazing people, an abundance of mind-blowing information and LOADS of toilet stops…
Mercanta really knows how to put together an unforgettable origin trip. I can’t thank you guys enough for the chance to see Brazil and meet so many wonderful people who were so generous with their time and hospitality!
A special thanks to all our host farms on the November Coffeehunter Field Trip. Once again, Brazil excelled in hospitality and welcoming. We will be back again soon! And thank you to all of the amazing people who joined us!