Winning the coveted Cup of Excellence (COE) competition is like winning an Oscar at the Academy Awards. Just as the esteemed movie awards celebrate the best in cinematic production, each year the COE commends hundreds of farmers who submit their best coffees for assessment. The coffee with the highest score out of 100 is announced in front of hundreds at an awards ceremony, only without the red carpet arrival and golden statue. In this competition, becoming a champion is the reward.
Ismael Andrade knows this feeling well. On 30 October, his name and farm, Andrade Bros Estate Coffees, comprising Sao Silvestre and Capim Branco farms, was announced as winners of Brazil’s Naturals COE competition with a score of 93.26 for a lot from the Paraíso farm in the Capim Branco Terroir unit.
“I cannot explain the feeling of winning. I was not expecting it,” Ismael says. “The competition was at such a high level. I imagined we might make the top 10, but not number one.”
Ismael’s coffee has performed well at COE over the past three years, but this win, he says, is proof that hard work pays off.
“My team and I have been developing our husbandry process and trying to improve it since we began growing coffee. Our success is the result of hard work, a detailed harvest plan and a very strict schedule,” he says. “In theory, every coffee is 100 points when it’s on the tree. What we as producers try to do is to cause minimal damage to the cherry, but it’s not easy.”
The Andrade Bros farm is located in the Cerrado region of Brazil, a state on the west side of Minas Gerais Ismael describes “the new frontier of Brazilian coffee”.
Ismael’s family has produced coffee since 1901 at the Capim Branco Farm in Carmo do Paranaíba, High Cerrado. Initially, production was on a very small scale, too small to be noticed. It was only after frost decimated the coffee producing region of Paraná in 1975 that the government started to incentivise producers to come to Cerrado with new technology to reinvigorate a new area of coffee production. Cerrado was already established as a soy, cotton, and corn agricultural region, but Ismael’s family was a Cerrado coffee producer from the start. Ismael and his brother Eduardo Andrade later acquired São Silvestre farm in Serra do Salitre in Minas Gerais, and have watched the land evolve.
Ismael says because Cerrado was considered more of an African savannah than a high fertile region ripe for coffee producing, new technology and the introduction of fertilising gradually helped turn the safari-like landscape into volcanic soil, rich for coffee production. That boom has now settled and producers are developing new techniques for drying and new coffee profiles that are gaining attention from across Brazil, and beyond.
“Everybody asks us, ‘what varietals are you using? How did you get them? What’s the secret to your coffee?’ The truth is that nature has given us this gift of a stable climate at high altitude, and good sun exposure that contributes to the life and power of the farm,” Ismael says. “It’s also our good team of people, crop management, the terroir – the soil, sun, and land – then the choice of varietal that’s important.”
Yellow Catuaí is the most successful cultivar grown at the Andrade farm, but Yellow Icatu and Red Catuaí are also grown.
With an altitude between 1100 and 1200 metres, the Andrade farm has one of the highest altitudes of coffee production in Brazil. This combined with the region’s stable weather between wet and dry seasons makes for perfect conditions to grow natural-processed coffee, the most commonly used method in Cerrado.
“Here in Cerrado we have very well defined climate – wet summers and dry winters – and we are very inland of Brazil, so we don’t get contamination from moisture. These are privileged conditions for natural processed coffees. If you don’t have a stable climate it’s hard to produce naturals,” Ismael says. “This process however, is more complex than washed coffees because when you dry the natural coffees, you dry the whole cherry. Drying without the skin is much easier, but it’s also more risky with more opportunities for mistakes.”
Thanks to Andrade Bros’ high altitude, Ismael says it’s intrinsic that the cherry’s maturation and drying is slow to help achieve a desired profile. “This way, we can add fermentation processes to provoke the bean to give us complexity in the cup,” Ismael says.
The first step is separating ripe from unripe beans. Ismael says it’s tricky to separate natural processed green beans from ripe in mass volume but insists cherries are only picked at the perfect point of maturation. The farm harvests about 90 per cent of the cherries fully ripe after the region’s one flowering each year. Micro lots are 100 per cent picked manually, but for larger volumes, the farm uses electronic separation to read the colour of the beans and spit out only the ripe cherries.
The coffee is brought to raised beds and continues to dry slowly for about 20 to 30 days. Pulped coffee is dried for half that time.
“The longer we expose the beans in the drying process, the greater the risk of damage, so we have to treat them carefully,” he says.
Ismael knows all about risk assessment and finding solutions as an engineer by trade. After he graduated from university, Ismael pursued a career in finance but quit after five years to help the family farm improve its processes and coffee quality.
“It was a challenge and is a challenge every day. A challenge to improve the husbandry, the quality, to innovate, and even the way we sell coffee,” Ismael says.
It was only when Ismael helped found the Brazil Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA) in 1991 together with a group of 14 members that they made a collective mission to help showcase Brazil’s potential as a specialty producing nation, not just a traditional one. The BSCA supports all small coffee producers in the region to improve quality, which improves sustainability, and helps producers reach importers worldwide.
“At that time we were trying to find a place for Brazil coffee – it was not recognised for its quality coffee. It was only commodity coffee blended with others. We were just fillers of the market,” Ismael says. “By founding the BSCA, we wanted to show the world that Brazil has a big potential for quality.”
That was 27 years ago. Back then, Ismael says Cerrado had good quality coffee but it wasn’t recognised. Now, of course, the quality is much higher, and it’s thanks to direct trade partnerships that gives Ismael a chance to present his produce straight to the consumer.
“We used a middle man in the beginning but now we’re 100 per cent direct trade, and it’s very important for us. Transparency is very good, we have a direct channel between us and the end consumer, and this allows us to exchange knowledge of what’s going on at the farm level and what the consumers want, so that we can produce better coffee that the market requests,” Ismael says.
What the market wants more than ever, Ismael says, is fermented coffee.
“It’s about provoking the bean to bring out something more in the cup – more fruit, pleasant acidity, complexity, more body, more sweetness,” he says. “Every year we try to invent something new in our processing because the market always demands new things and new profiles – it’s a constant challenge but we need to listen to what the consumers want, not just what we want.”
For this reason, Ismael says his relationship with Minas Hill and its Director Marcelo Brussi has been vital to his understanding of Australia’s market trends.
“Marcelo has been my conduit between the farm to cup for the past 10 years. Minas Hill, represented by Marcelo, understands ours aims and objectives and transmits the passion and our chain of processes and how we produce our coffee at origin onto consumers,” Ismael says. “Marcelo is more than a commercial partner, he’s a passionate facilitator between Brazil and Australia. He visits us at origin then goes back to Australia, and it’s important that he shows the market what we’re doing. In exchange, he tells us what consumers are demanding.”
Ismael says Minas Hill Coffee also understands the importance of keeping stock levels high, and allowing Australian customers to buy his coffees at any time, at a competitive price.
“Nowadays, Minas Hill Coffee can sell our coffees from one bag to a container-load direct trade through a competitive and safe contract,” Ismael says.
Minas Hill Coffee supplies three ongoing coffees from Ismael, including his farm’s Dolce Cerrado, Yellow and Red Catuaí, perfect for espresso blends, a natural raised-bed Peaberry, a coffee that stands out for its acidity and balance, and a natural process Yellow Icatu. Minas Hill also brings in a number of micro-lot coffees from Andrade Bros each year.
This season, Minas Hill will import two micro-lots from Ismael’s farm to Australia, including a anaerobic fermentation Red Catuaí with a score of 93 points.
From what Ismael understands about Australian coffee, he says it’s a very well developed and discerning specialty market the world should envy. He’s been to Melbourne to attend the Melbourne International Coffee Expo, and was amazed at the high level of coffee found in every corner shop.
“Melbourne is one of the most developed markets I’ve ever seen. It’s a high level coffee city that every market around the world should look too,” he says.
Just as Ismael has experienced Melbourne, the newly crowned COE champion plans to travel to as many countries and industry events as he can to share his mission for Brazilian coffee and the Cerrado region – such is the life of an award-winning producer.
“Travelling is what being a champion demands but I see it as an opportunity to share our coffee with the world – not just for my family and our region, but for Brazil.”
For more information, visit www.minashill.com.au