We were driving through Minas Gerais state, the biggest coffee growing region in Brazil, the biggest coffee producing country in the world…
“My cousin is a truck driver,” said Marcelo, the man behind the wheel. “A few years ago on this road he got hijacked. They stripped him naked and tied him to that tree over there.”
We blurred past the tree at what felt like a million miles an hour.
“He was stuck there for one night and one day before anyone found him. He was OK though. Before they left they plied him full of cachaça [a spirit made from sugar cane] to help him sleep,” Marcelo laughed.
“This is a dangerous road,” he said whilst pulling out directly in to oncoming traffic to overtake two lorries and a hatchback Fiat. “It’s the main route connecting São Paulo state to Brasilia. Drug traffickers use it a lot.”
Marcelo Dianin was not our tour guide. We had met him in Rio de Janeiro five weeks earlier through a friend of a friend of my girlfriend’s ex-colleague. He is the fourth generation in his family to grow coffee in Brazil, and he was driving my girlfriend and me to the town of Monte Carmelo to show us the Dianin coffee empire.
“My great grandfather Ferdinando Dianin came from Italy to Brazil in 1887 when he was five years old. He ended up working on a plantation in São Paulo state,” Marcelo continued.
“Then my grandfather Antonio bought a patch of land to the south in Paraná state, and that was the first Dianin owned coffee plantation. I grew up there. The plantation was passed down to my father and my uncle, and eventually they sold it in 1985 to buy our 130 hectare plantation outside Monte Carmelo.”
“Do you see the coffee bushes over there?” Marcelo pointed, diverting his eyes from the highway for a few heart stopping seconds.
Despite being a self confessed coffee snob (drinking upwards of 12 cups a day at the height of my addiction) I had to admit never giving much thought to the appearance of fresh coffee beans, less indeed the method by which the bean becomes a beverage.
From the road, the plants looked tall and lush and green but otherwise nondescript. I don’t know what else I had expected to see.
We were now deep in coffee country. The car pulled in to Fazenda União E Fazenda São José and we got out. The air smelt sweet, nothing like Kenco Smooth Roast, more like freshly cut grass. The soil was red dust dry, except for paths trodden down by feet and tyres which had hardened like concrete.
We looked out at endless miles of neatly rowed coffee plants that extended well beyond the boundaries of the Dianin’s plantation.
“All the farmers in this area grow Arabica coffee plants,” continued Marcelo. “Arabica is the only species that can give aroma, flavour and body to coffee. Other species only give body, so cheaper coffee brands use them to bulk out the packet. Sometimes they also add toasted soya beans and sugar and other crap. It’s awful.”
“But western Minas Gerais is the perfect place for Arabica. The conditions here are unique – in fact, just two weeks ago the coffee from Minas Gerais was granted an appellation like champagne or roquefort – from now on you can’t call it Minas Gerais Arabica unless it comes from this area.”
“There’s about five to six million bags of beans produced every year here, and each bag weighs 60 kilograms. Right now we’re at 950 metres above sea level and the soil is slightly acidic. You can’t grow Arabica under 800 metres because there’s too much moisture in the air and you start losing plants to disease.”
We went to inspect the Arabica more closely. Marcelo pushed back the big leaves and grinned like an expectant father parading an ultrasound photo.
There were coffee beans – hundreds of them, just on a single plant – plump and green. We asked if we could taste one. He raised an eyebrow and chuckled. It was chalky and flavourless like an under cooked broad bean.
“Right now we’re at least six months away from the harvest,” said Marcelo. “When you plant a coffee sapling it takes two and a half years until the first harvest. The first harvest yields about 30 bags of beans per hectare, and then for the next three years you get between 50 to 80 bags of beans per hectare. After that it alternates between 30 and 60 bags, year on year off, until a plant gets to about 10 years old and the yield steadily declines and the plant becomes uneconomical to maintain.”
“At today’s prices, anything less than 30 bags of beans per hectare and we’re making a loss. But the real challenge is always to try and figure out what the consumer might want several years down the line. Most of our product is sold to Europe and the USA and Japan. If you want to drink good coffee, get as far away from Brazil as possible,” he laughed. “Watch out for spiders, by the way.”
We asked if they were dangerous.
“Yes, but you can just do this,” he mimed a stamping motion.
Marcelo continued walking us around the rest of the plantation. There were old plants and new plants – all of which were in striking uniformity. Each corridor of coffee was a déjà vu of the last. It was a colossal agricultural labyrinth the likes of which an unguided backpacker could get lost and not be found until drier and crumblier than a jar of past-its-sell-by-date Nescafé Gold Instant.
Every now and again, someone would zoom past on a dirt bike. We saw irrigation pipes, giant tractors, bean sorters, the drying floor and the drying machine.
Then we stumbled across some plants that weren’t even coffee at all – orange and lime, mahogany and eucalyptus trees. Finally, we found some red coffee beans.
“Ah, these beans are much closer to being ready for harvest,” he said. “They should be better to taste.”
They were sweet but rock hard, like a less sickly Jolly Rancher. Still nothing like the cups of joe I used to buy in Costa’s back home, but it definitely had flavour.
The coffee tasting…
We were back in the car. The drive kept being interrupted by calls to Marcelo’s mobile phone. Marcelo would answer with both hands, using his knees to steady the steering wheel.
“We all sell our coffee to cooperatives,” said Marcelo between one of the calls. “They blend the beans together from the different plantations and sell them on.”
We arrived at the Região do Cerrado Mineiro. “My uncle Mario is Vice President here.”
Outside there were coffee silos as big as power station cooling towers. Inside was like a laboratory. We were introduced to Marco.
Marco’s job is to test the quality of each harvest. After the beans are collected, they are dried for three days in the sun, and then for 24 hours in the drying machine at each plantation. Then they are sent to Marco.
Marco was surrounded by stacks of clear plastic bags packed full of coffee beans. The beans were now shrivelled and olive green.
“The bigger the bean, the better, because it will roast more evenly. If just one green bean is left in the end product it will ruin the taste of the coffee.”
Marco poured out different bags of beans on to what looked like a giant leatherette mousepad. He twiddled and swooshed the beans in his fingers, occasionally holding a single bean up to the light. Then he would scoop up all the beans on the mousepad, pour them back in to the bag from whence they came, and repeat the process with the next bag of beans. My girlfriend and I nodded frequently, as if to confirm that the opinion Marco formed on every bean he examined was definitely the right one.
There was an exotic array of wooden bean measuring devices, like sieves with giant holes, to quickly sort the beans by their varying sizes.
“After the beans are sorted, they are roasted. By far and away the biggest factor on the taste of a cup of coffee is the plantation conditions, but after that it’s the method and duration of the roasting. Most of our beans are sent to Germany to be roasted, but we roast some on site too for taste testing,” said Marco.
We were led in to a simple white kitchen with a stove and a sink. There were wall charts detailing the nuances in coffee flavour – hazelnuts, chocolate, blackcurrants, tobacco, cloves, cedar, malt, maple and toast.
In the middle of the room was a long steel table, and fifteen cups already filled with ground roast coffee beans. Marco got busy with the kettle.
“Coffee beans are graded on a scale of 0 to 100,” said Marco. “The average cup of coffee you buy in a restaurant in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro is usually about 20 on the scale. In Europe or the USA or Japan it’s about 50. Beans ranked 90 and above get entered in to competitions and sell for thousands of dollars a bag. The cups in front of you all contain beans ranked 80.”
“But each cup contains beans from different a plantation. When we come to selling the coffee, the beans from all the different plantations are mixed together. They are the same species and size of bean, so we would expect them to taste the same, but if there isn’t consistency it will reduce the overall standard. So to test the quality of each harvest we must find out whether there is a difference in taste in the cups.”
“This is a ceremony he has performed thousands of times,” said Marcelo. “Marco has been doing this for 11 years. It’s like a ritual for him. He isn’t allowed to drink or smoke because it could affect his palette.”
Marco began the tasting. His method was to audibly slurp a spoonful from the surface of each cup, run the liquid over his tastebuds, spit it in to an empty beaker then wash his mouth out with water.
I tried to follow suit but my slurping technique was criticised for not being loud enough. I could definitely tell the differences between each cupful – or at least, I think I could – it was impossible to say whether the perceived nuances in flavour were due to actual discrepancies in the chemical make up of each coffee sample, or because I had been instructed to seek those discrepancies out.
As a drinker and smoker, my dulled tastebuds were no match for Marco’s. But the coffee was delicious. I longed for a splash of milk or a biscotti or perhaps a Parisian terrace to complete the scene. I didn’t tell Marco. I guessed he wouldn’t approve.
The other plantation…
Marcelo drove us to his second plantation. It was much like the first, although the plants were smaller – two to four months since the saplings were planted.
“My father planted these himself by hand,” said Marcelo. “Well, him and two others, but he’s 76 years old. He loves to work.”
“I’m very proud of what he and my uncle have achieved. They started harvesting coffee at the age of ten using a horse and cart, and still they are determined to expand the business.”
“But there are things I would like to do differently when my cousins and I eventually take over. We worked hard to get our plantation certified by the Rainforest Alliance; we use low toxicity fertilisers, make sure our workers get paid a decent price, give their kids access to decent education and computers and so on. I want us to be certified Fair Trade too, but in order to make that happen we need coordination from all the other farmers in the area, and they’re not quite ready for it yet.”
“One day I’d also like to reintroduce big cats and wolves and foxes back in to the area too. My father said ‘My god! They will eat us!’” chuckled Marcelo. “But that’s my dream – to use what we have to protect and restore the wildlife in Minas Gerais.”
“My father and his generation, they don’t understand. Education about the impact of what we’re doing to the environment in Brazil is better now. It’s the responsibility of my generation to make sure we don’t destroy what we have left.”
Coffee with the boss…
Our final stop was at the house of José Dianin, Marcelo’s father. José didn’t speak English, so Marcelo translated.
We sat in the courtyard sunshine with José, his wife and his niece, reminiscing about harvests gone by. He seemed baffled as to why two backpackers would come all the way from England just to see coffee.
I was intrigued to find out how a man who had spent his whole life producing the finest beans for idiots like me prepared coffee for his own consumption. For the record, it was from a percolator, black, weaker than espresso but stronger than an Americano. And it was packed with sugar.
Marcelo and his father spoke about coffee like it was a labour of love rather than industrial agronomy. For everyone we had met at the Dianin plantations (most of whom I have left out for brevity), this strange brew was more than just a beverage, it was the life blood of the community.
My girlfriend asked José if he ever thought about retiring. José looked visibly aghast at the question, and retorted with a long winded answer in Portuguese that Marcelo absorbed in preparation for the translation.
“No,” said Marcelo.
Perhaps caffeine is not the only addictive ingredient in coffee.