Brazilian farmer Marcos Croce has woken up and smelled the coffee
Mococa - AFP
Brazilian farmer Marcos Croce has woken up and smelled the coffee -- embracing the organic trend and bucking Brazil's long-held status as a mass producer of poor quality beans.
His Hacienda Ambiental Fortaleza plantation, surrounded by tropical plants and trees in Sao Paulo state, goes against everything that has made Brazil the world's biggest, though hardly most appreciated, source of coffee.
Croce's specialty-grade coffee grows organically: some of the plants in the sun, others in the shade, and the soil is fertilizer free.
"We will never manage to compete in terms of quantity, but here we have managed to stand apart with consistent quality," Croce, 62, said as he walked between rows of shrubs speckled with red coffee beans.
The hacienda stands 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) above sea level, some 185 miles (300 kilometers) north of Brazil's financial capital and biggest city, Sao Paulo.
It has been producing coffee since 1890, most of that with an eye on the mass market and using fertilizers and pesticides. But when Croce and his wife took over the family business in 2001 they switched to organic, a shocking -- but ultimately beneficial, he believes -- change in rhythm.
"Our production dropped 80 percent," Croce remembers.
Before, the plantation collected 10,000 bags of coffee a year. Croce would not reveal the current output.
It's still below old levels, he said, but the business is sustainable, selling to about 30 countries, including France and Italy.
Now Croce, who also set up the Bob-o-Link cooperative of some 60 small producers, wants the organic approach to expand.
"We want to set up a sustainability index, not just in environmental terms, but social," he said.
- Best of the average -
"When it comes to coffee, Brazil has always been considered the best team of the second division," Silvio Leite, president of the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association, which was set up in 1991.
With production of 45.3 million 132-pound (60 kg) bags in 2014, Brazil accounts for almost a third of world output, trailed by Vietnam and Colombia. But there's a problem: Brazilian coffee is very much at the bottom end of the market.
Last year, only eight million bags qualified as specialty grade. However, that was up 59 percent from 2013, and specialty coffee is hot.
It was Brazil's association that created the Cup of Excellence contest in 1999 to promote its coffee. Today, the competition has gone international and is considered a reference.
Demand for specialty coffee has risen worldwide by 10 to 15 percent in the last few years, compared to about two percent for regular coffee, with Europe, Japan and the United States leading the way.
But to date the best known producers remain Colombia and several African countries -- not the sleeping giant of Brazil.
- A 'miracle' -
So what's all the fuss about?
Technically, specialty coffee means scoring 80 points on a 100 point scale, standing out for taste and having few or no defects.
A good cup of coffee is "a miracle," says Isabela Raposeiras, 41, who teaches about coffee and sells coffee at the Coffee Lab in Sao Paulo.
"There are many stages that need to be done right," the renowned specialist said, ticking off everything from where the bean grows to how it is dried and toasted, to how the actual cup of coffee is prepared.
In Brazil, the number of regions producing specialty coffee is growing -- and, whether it's in Sao Paulo or Minas Gerais, Bahia, Espiritu Santo or Parana, each coffee is influenced by the different soils, climate and altitude.
Mostly these are small-scale producers, but some are also larger players who want to break into the market.
Gradually the trend is catching on. It was only in 2014 that a regional designation certification was set up, with Cerrado Minheiro from Minas Gerais state so far the only one.
"There are incredible coffees in Brazil and they're increasingly in demand," said Susie Spindler, from the Alliance for Coffee Excellence.
On the patio of Fortaleza, farmer Ivan Santos, 31, showed off the dark, hand-picked beans from the recent harvest.
"Making quality coffee, without defects, is difficult, slow and expensive," he said. "But it's a dream: we are sending our best coffee around the world and for the best prices."