Brazil is the largest producer of arabica coffee and also a large producer of robusta. Brazilian coffee is nutty, sweet, low in acidity and develops exceptional bittersweet and chocolate roast tastes. There’s a long tradition of roasting Brazil in the United States. Brazil is roasted and sold as a single-origin coffee — by region, cooperative or Fazenda — but it is often used in blends for the sake of cost control. Brazil coffees are common in espresso, both in high-end blends and in commercial coffees like Dunkin Donuts. Even the broken fragments of beans and the dust from the dry mills are sold, ending up in some awful coffee product somewhere, most likely instant.
There’s the big push on behalf of Brazilian coffee growing associations to create the image of their coffees as a distinct flavor profile, but there just isn’t the extreme distinction that identifies one Brazilian coffee from another. Attention to good farming and processing techniques has helped, but the coffee is grown at lower altitudes than most Specialty coffee, in poor quality soils, in open areas that were often originally grassland (a reason why the “shade-grown” criteria really doesn’t apply much to Brazil).
What is true with Brazil is true with all other coffee-producing origins as well. People outside the coffee trade want clear distinctions about quality: Is Brazilian coffee good? Those within the coffee trade are happy to provide the answer roasters and consumers want to hear: “Yes- it’s good!” But the question itself is flawed. Every origin with the capability to produce good coffee can produce horrible coffee as well. Farms side-by-side can produce differing qualities of coffee, and within a single farm or cooperative there is a full spectrum of coffee cup quality. The real question is to ask is whether each lot tastes good, where a “lot” means one batch of coffee processed through the mill. That question is answered in comparative cupping of the coffees for taste quality.
As far as Brazil goes, the issues are complex. Here is a country that produces relatively few containers of coffee that truly cup from 84-87 points, and a staggering quantity of coffee that cups below 80 points, commercial-grade coffee. As far as coffees that are truly 88+ points, Sweet Maria’s feel this is not only rare from Brazil, but also nearly impossible, given the varietals and bean density. Yes, relative to other Brazils and the classic flavor profile of these lower grown, soft coffees, they can go higher. But on a global scale, can a Brazil reach the ranges of the best Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia or Guatemala wet-processed coffees? Likely not.
Then again, Brazil coffees are solid, crowd-pleasing coffees with outstanding body, and nut-to-chocolate roast tones. They also appeal to the palate than finds acidity, the flavorful brightness in better coffees, somehow annoying. And nothing touches a really good Brazil coffee as a base in espresso blends, for the ease with which they produce good physical characteristics (mouthfeel and crema) as well as nice base flavor.
Brazils are not complex coffees, and don’t have impressive acidity that adds a vivid brightness to coffees from higher-grown areas of Guatemala, or Ethiopia. But Brazils are a different sort of beast than those origins. Brazils are not dense coffee seeds: they are grown at lower altitudes than Central American coffees. Hence the very dark roasts of Brazil coffees pick up ashy, bittering flavors. For espresso, you can roast Brazils lighter, separately, or keep the entire blend at a Vienna roast or lighter.
There are 3 methods of processing Brazil coffees of interest to us; Dry- Process (Natural), Pulped Natural, and Semi-Washed. They produce different types of cups. The Natural has great body, chocolate, possibly fruity notes and it risks being earthier and more rustic in the cup. The Pulped Natural is created when the coffee cherry skin is removed and the parchment, with much of the mucilage attached, is sun-dried on patio or raised drying bed. This coffee cups like the more like Natural coffee, but is a bit cleaner in the cup. The Semi-Washed uses a demucilage machine to remove the skin and the mucilage. The Semi-Washed ranges in character from being close to Pulped Natural in flavor profile, to being similar to a wet-processed coffee (clean cup, uniform, less body, less chocolate, a bit brighter).
Good naturals and pulped naturals (called cereja descascada in Brazil) have more intensity, produce more crema, but must be cupped rigorously to ensure there is no defective cup character. On the other hand, really clean Semi-Washed, where a lot of the mucilage is removed, do not have typical Brazil character. Yes, these coffees score higher and they are now totally dominating the Cup of Excellence competition. But if you want a cleaner, brighter cup, the standard is set elsewhere, not Brazil. Go buy a good Central American coffee.
For espresso, Sweet Maria’s used to employ natural Brazils in blends then changed them in favor of more consistent (and less quakery) pulped naturals. Now we only use Brazils in a couple blends, and I could imagine a day when we don’t use any! The coffees are soft (the opposite of dense) and can lack the kind of sweetness we hold dear in espresso.
The trick is that Brazils prefer a lower initial roast temperature and can turn quite ashy tasting when roasted too dark. Sweet Maria’s personal preference is that Brazils for espresso are rested quite a while after roasting — in fact they had a straight pulped natural they roasted to a light Vienna for espresso, and they kept testing the cup because 2 days after roasting it was too lively, nippy – almost like a baking soda effect on your tongue. After 18 days it became one of the deepest, heavy bodied espresso they’ve had. They are not suggesting coffee should be rested that long after roasting (especially other methods like French Press, Drip etc, which fade after as little as 7 days!), but if you don’t have a good initial experience with a Brazil espresso, don’t toss it – try it after a week, or even two.
Most quality Brazil Sweet Maria has found comes from the Sul de Minas: Carmo de Minas, Cerrado and Matas de Minas. Cerrado is a savanna-like area, dry and flat, in Minas Gerais state. They produce a lot of coffee, and there are some un-blended single farm lots that are good. Two micro-regions in Cerrado were of special interest to Sweet Maria’s: Chapadao de Ferro and Serra do Salitre. Now they focus their efforts to the southeast of there.