Most people travel five minutes to get their coffee, we traveled five thousand miles to get ours.
Tara, production manager extraordinaire, and myself, Portuguese-speaking barista, were sent to Brazil to choose from the year’s harvest for our 2018 offering of Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza coffee, lovingly known by 1000 Faces regulars as FAF. Not only was this our first coffee-buying experience, but our first visit to a coffee farm. From the moment we arrived in São Paulo, our fellow coffee buyers and the FAF representatives told us that our experience was not going to be characteristic of most - FAF is a unique coffee farm.
Founded in 1850, Fazenda Fortaleza has remained a part of Silvia Barretto’s family for generations. When Silvia inherited it in 2001, she converted it into an organic farm and added an integral word to the farm name, dubbing it Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (Environmental Fortress Farm). The move to organic and sustainable practices was a ten-year process. It took five years for the plants to start adjusting, then another five years to rebuild a sustainable coffee crop capable of supporting the farm. During that time, Silvia used bees and cows (both milk and meat) to support the farm. She also implemented permaculture practices. All these methods were unusual for a Brazilian coffee farm. Silvia continues to pioneer innovative projects on the farm and within the Mococa community. Her husband, Marcos, and her son, Felipe, have taken over much of the coffee business.
Felipe started working professionally in coffee at a roaster in St. Louis during his college years. After graduating, he returned to Brazil to manage and live full-time on the family farm. “Many farmers have not tasted their coffee properly expressed,” he states, meaning the producers have not drank their coffee roasted and brewed for an optimal cup. He noted that experience has taught him to work backward, thinking from the roasted bean, ready to be ground and brewed, all the way back to the seed. With this in mind, he asks questions such as: “What will this coffee be used for: filter, espresso, etc.?” or “Which varietal should I plant considering the weather patterns of recent years?”
Felipe went on to tell us that the past several years it has been raining a lot in May, so let’s work backwards from that. If we don’t want our cherries to be ripe and ready to pick in that rainy month, we’ll look for a varietal (i.e. O Batã) that ripens later, in the end of June. We’ll also seek out a fertilization technique that delays the maturation of the coffee. The goal is to start harvest during the cherry stage at the end of June. June is the coldest time of the year, so the cherry stage “hibernates.” The longer the fruit is on the tree, the more sweetness and density it gains, extending the hibernation period. The hibernation period allows more time to pick the cherry at its prime stage- rewarding the producer with greater quantity and quality.
Before a cupping session, Felipe guided us to an area where he is growing test coffee varietals, endemic and non-native. He is curious to see which ones flourish and under what conditions. He has established a coffee lab to experiment with different coffee varietals and methods of processing, roasting and brewing.
The FAF team has two coffee labs: one at the farm in Mococa and the other, FAFstudio, in Marcos’ childhood home in the city of São Paulo. Upon our arrival in Brazil, Tara and I went directly to the FAFstudio. We met Felipe, Wago and Nelson, important FAF players. Bags from roasters worldwide who use FAF beans lined the tops of cabinets and shelves. Admiring the array of bags, we noticed many cited Silvia Barretto as the owner. It was inspiring to see a female farmer being acknowledged! With pride, we spotted our 1000 Faces bag. It was fun to poke around the studio. Music was booming and jokes were exchanged between Rafa, roasting, and Bernando, sorting beans, for Isso é Café. Yes, we were in a different country (truly a different hemisphere), but the feeling of personality, energy and camaraderie in the space was reminiscent of our 1000 Faces production area.
Isso é Café (This is Coffee) is the roasting brand Felipe started in collaboration with FAF and FAFstudio, as well as the name of their two cafés. Nelson took us to one of the café locations at the entrance of Beco de Batman (a celebrated long alley full of ever-changing graffiti art) in the heart of the bohemian Vila Madalena neighborhood. It is a streamlined and modern, yet inviting, space. We sat outside under Ipé trees, Tara with an espresso, myself with my first-ever affogato (a scoop of vanilla ice cream in espresso - Hello heaven!), and soaked up the atmosphere. Those who work at or frequent 1000 Faces often remark on a special feeling they have about the space. Simply put: its got soul. Soul is notable in both the Vila Madalena spot, and the other Isso é Café location at the historic Mirante, directly behind the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP).
The next day, we headed off to the farm, located in Mococa, about 300 kilometers north of the city of São Paulo. Tara and I were accompanied by two other green (unroasted) bean buyers, Ángel and Charlie. Ángel has coffee in his blood. When asked how he started in coffee, Ángel said there was no start; it was always a part of his life. His great grandfather bought their family coffee farm in 1890 in his native El Salvador. Ángel moved to France for university and ended up working in Bordeaux at Belco, a green coffee importer and distributor. Charlie is from Oakland’s Blue Bottle Coffee Company. He began working in the coffee world at Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago ten years ago, and is now the green bean buyer for Blue Bottle. He travels all over the world picking the best coffees for the specialty coffee company. Working alongside them could have been daunting, but Ángel and Charlie were open to questions and supportive of furthering our coffee education. It was exciting to embark on this coffee journey with these two knowledgeable, friendly fellows.
When Tara and I found out we were going to Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, we tried to prepare for our task ahead. We participated in more cuppings at the roaster, with an emphasis on our FAF coffee. But no amount of cupping could prepare us for our first experience in a professional cupping room. The cacophony of slurps alone was enough to intimidate! At our first cupping table we had twelve different beans to sample. We circled around the table, first smelling the dry grounds for fragrance, then the wet grounds for aroma. Next came the ceremonious breaking, in which one takes a spoon, cracks the surface of the grounds and stirs slowly three times. All the while, one’s nose is right near the cup, bringing to mind a wine connoisseur swirling their glass and angling their nose for a good sniff. The timer hits the twelve-minute mark –let the tasting begin. The room is silent except for slurps and the spit. (Can you imagine swallowing all that coffee? We have special spit cups for all that.) As we rotate around the table tasting the different coffees, there are many attributes worthy of attention: uniformity, acidity, balance, aftertaste, body, taste notes, and sweetness. After some ten minutes, the discussion commences. Each person shares his or her evaluation of each coffee. It was remarkable to hear Ángel, Charlie, Felipe and other professionals voice their thoughts. They had upwards of ten descriptive words that beautifully characterized the coffee in ways I would not have imagined. Often after a highly specific taste note (caramelized orange blossom, for example) would be called out, I’d grab my spoon and take another sip, thinking, “ Wow, there it is!”
Tara and I absorbed the coffee: its smells, its tastes and the exchange regarding it. It was surreal to share this experience with these coffee experts. They have spent anywhere from a decade to a lifetime in the coffee world and articulate the nature of the coffee clearly and eloquently. Cupping was a big part of our trip - in some ways the most important part. We were there to pick the coffee for our beloved FAF for 1000 Faces and its community of coffee lovers. We took the role seriously and enjoyed learning in the process.
The 100+ cups we sampled in our cuppings weren’t just grown on FAF land. Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza works with ninety farms, sixty within their region, to source their coffee and guide them with organic or sustainable management. “It is about changing your life model, not just your business model,” remarks Felipe. Brazil is the largest coffee producing country worldwide. FAF is a forerunner of the movement to change the Brazilian coffee mentality from focusing solely on quantity to focusing more on quality.
We visited various producers on their farms in the surrounding valleys. One afternoon, we visited a large piece of land shared among three siblings and their families: Gertrude, João and Ivão.
First, we met Gertrude. Her family shifted to producing specialty coffee ten years ago and started collaborating with FAF seven years ago. I asked her how she felt about the change to specialty coffee. She responded that it is a lot more work but definitely “vale a pena,” (worth it). It makes more money for her family, especially since the price of commercial coffee has decreased. She was proud of the two coffees the family offered us, curious to know our favorites, declaring with fervor that hers was O Batã.
After eating bolo (cake) and polvinho (like a Cheeto, but without the cheese flavor) and drinking lots of coffee at Gertrude’s, we hugged goodbye and drove off to her brother João’s farm. Felipe parked the car and out we hopped, spotting a large boulder in the middle of the coffee plants, a waving João on top. We waded through the coffee plants and climbed up a ladder to join him. He welcomed us with coffee and bolo perfectly set up for taking in the stunning sunset that started to sweep across the landscape. As we gazed out and sipped, we also listened to João. Felipe turned the translating role over to me. João described how not too long ago people were ashamed to live on this land and wanted to leave. Now, working with quality coffee, he and others greatly value quality over quantity, not only because he can make more money but because it is an investment in their land for future generations. He spoke of the return to the forested land of before: rich terrain, clean water and land without threat of poison. “Agora,” João said expressing his pride in the land, “esta terra é uma fuente de orgulho.” It reminded me of Felipe describing one of the primary goals of FAF: maintaining the biodiversity and integrity of the land. More bolo, coffee and conversation awaited us at brother Ivão’s, where the same sentiments were expressed; sentiments that continued to echo with all the farmers.
Winding down the roads in the valleys of Mococa, it is easy to get lost. And maybe we did get turned around a couple of times. But the next day, Felipe led Charlie, Tara and me to the farms of various other producers buried deep in the valley. We met Celsus Menuse, who joked about telling the humidity of a coffee bean just by shaking it. He has been a supplier of 1000 Faces coffee for nine years. Next we met Seu Adonis, a 70-year-old farmer who is always enthusiastic about trying novel ways to make the best quality coffee possible. “It’s a lot to be working with so many farms” Felipe states “but by doing so it allows quicker innovation than just sitting on your own single farm.”
This was our favorite part of the FAF trip, having the opportunity to meet with all the producers and hear directly from them about their lives. FAF had clearly cultivated a community of coffee producers. There was a strong, trusting connection between Felipe, FAF and these other producers who might otherwise not grow specialty coffee, not know how to run a sustainable or organic farm, or not profitably source their coffee without the network.
FAF is intertwined with the Igaraí-Mococa community. The farm provides jobs for many people in the area related to coffee, farm upkeep and hospitality. Simone, the roasting queen who prepares all the sample roasts for the many daily cuppings, was born in the very house the cuppings take place! The Barretto-Croce family offers to fund a large portion of university tuition for each of the children of their workers. Silvia works in female empowerment projects in the community, including embroidery of tablecloths and placemats to generate independent income for women.
For our last delicious lunch, visitors from São Paulo who were coordinating the second annual São Paulo choral festival in the region joined us. FAF was an important base for this festival last year, and will continue to be this coming January. In the last year alone, they have offered seminars on rural Brazilian architecture, astronomy and foraging nonconventional plants to eat. Sandor Katz, food fermentation author and expert, just headed a seminar on yeast and coffee this past weekend. FAF always wants visitors with different expertise and curiosities to foster an environment of learning and innovation. All are encouraged to participate in the conversation.
One morning, Tara and I woke up early to do a little exploring of Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza beyond the cupping area we had come to know so well. We ran into Marcos, who encouraged us to join him as he embarked on his daily morning walk. As we walked deeper into the farm, we ascended the dirt road, passing cows, until we reached the peak of the hill. We were surprised with an expansive view of the farm, its valleys and peaks that stretch on and on, sprinkled every once in a while with the vibrant yellow of the Ipé tree. Marcos guided us into the active organic section of the coffee farm. There were rows and rows of coffee plants. In between these rows, plants such as banana trees kept the soil fertile, controlled the weeds, and added to the diversity of the farm’s crops. FAF also practices passive organic farming: the traditional method of growing coffee in the forest.
The best coffee sold from the farm comprises only 30-35% of their total coffee. Labor is expensive in Brazil, so there is no selective picking during harvesting. Five to thirty percent of picked cherries are green, depending on the time of harvest. Every bean is picked, then separated to undergo various processes (i.e. natural, washed, fermentation). Natural and washed were processes Tara and I were used to hearing about. Fermentation, especially through our Athens lens, conjured up pictures of kombucha and kraut, not coffee. The fermentation process can be applied to green coffee cherries, ones that are harvested before being optimally ripe. They are sorted out carefully so as not to interfere with the processing of the ripe, quality cherries. These green cherries normally would not taste good. But with some science and innovation, they can be processed for a good taste or as a useful ingredient.
Felipe has been experimenting with the fermentation of coffee for a while. He notes fermentation makes the coffee cleaner, enhances the flavor, increases shelf life and improves homogeneity of the coffee. Fermentation applied over a period of time continues to increase the quality of the bean until it hits a stopping point. With just the mucilage on the cherry, fermentation cleans up some nuttiness and increases quality up to a stopping point of twenty hours. Adding sugar, however, allows fermentation to last up to 72 hours, giving more time for an increase in quality. Fermentation continues until it uses up the available sugar. Implementing different variables, Felipe wants to find the best fermentation techniques for making the most out of all the green coffee cherries.
At the end of the trip, Charlie, Wago, Rafa (a coffee producer from Espírito Santo) and I gathered at FAFstudio back in São Paulo to participate in a cupping of Felipe’s fermentation innovations. He had conducted numerous tests, playing with variables such as: aerobic or anaerobic fermentation, the amount of time, and additives like wine yeast or sugar cane juice (from his mother’s farm).
The coffees that had been fermented were from seasons past; coffees one would not normally brew up to drink. Felipe wanted our opinions regarding body, acidity, lengthening of shelf life, and most importantly, whether we liked it. Off we went again, sipping and spitting. Some spitting was noticeably more fervent after particular cups. Apparently, some variables had not produced an enjoyable coffee. Surprisingly though, a fair number of the fermented coffees were good. And some of them were even great! It was quite incredible when you consider the possible usage of these now tasty beans. Many products use coffee as an ingredient. A major one is pre-packaged coffee drinks that are almost equal parts coffee and milk or other flavorings. Using these beans would in no way diminish product quality, yet prove far more financially and environmentally sound. Felipe was utilizing coffee that normally would taste mediocre (or not be used at all) and executing this fermentation process. It has the possibility to substantially reduce coffee waste. This final cupping embodied two overriding principles of FAF: to conscientiously make the most of what the land offers and to innovate through experimentation, study and knowledge exchange.
On our last day on the farm, Ashley, a WWOOFer at FAF, had guided us to the shade grown coffee area. It welcomed us with this sign, meaning: “Nature is wise and fair. The wind shakes the trees, moves the branches, so that all the leaves have their moment to see the sun.” This reflects the mentality of Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza. The FAF family not only includes Silvia, Marcos, their son Felipe and another son and daughter. It encompasses those who work on the farm, in a coffee capacity or otherwise, other coffee producers with whom they work, those from the FAFstudio and Isso é Café, and the surrounding community of Mococa. We at 1000 Faces have been part of the FAF family for nine years, and with each cup of coffee served our family grows.