Brazil is the world heavyweight when it comes to coffee and a sustainability program is matching quality with quantity, writes Toni Mason, with growers reaping the benefits.
In São Paulo's historic centre, busy bars and cafés now surround the Largo do Café, a small square where coffee barons came in the 19th century to trade the commodity that would transform the city and become the lifeblood of the nation.
When it comes to coffee, Brazil is the heavyweight champion, producing a third of the world's harvest - last year that was 49 million bags, at 60 kilos each.
It's also the largest source of coffee for Nespresso, and GT travelled there at the tail end of this year's harvest with the company's Australian ambassadors, Tetsuya Wakuda and Shannon Bennett, along with fellow chefs Josh Emett from New Zealand and Tokyo's Yoshihiro Narisawa on a group tour to meet suppliers.
São Paulo is a megacity, the largest in South America, and a picture of contrasts. The sky is constantly abuzz with helicopters, the favoured mode of transport of the city's super-rich in this famously congested city of about 21 million, while just beyond the centre clusters of tattered tent dwellings crowd disused spaces. And sanctioned street art brilliantly fills the void left when the "clean city" law of 2006 turned the cityscape into an advertising-free zone.
It's hands-down the best place to eat in Brazil. If it's brassy beach culture you seek, you've come to the wrong city. The beach at Santos is 70-odd kilometres and potentially four gridlocked hours away, though you could probably get a chopper. São Paulo flies the flag for new Brazilian cuisine. It has two entries on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, both in the swish Jardins district: Alex Atala's avant-garde DOM, and Mani, the more casual eatery of husband and wife team Helena Rizzo and Daniel Redondo. At Brasil a Gosto in the same area, Ana Luiza Trajano boldly reinterprets Brazilian cooking and champions native ingredients.
In the north of the city, meanwhile, in the working-class neighbourhood of Vila Medeiros, is Mocotó. It's a mecca for local food lovers who make the pilgrimage of about an hour by car and are prepared to then wait for a table. Here chef Rodrigo Oliveira serves his take on the traditional food of north-eastern Brazil, where his family hails from. His father opened what was then a small bar in the '70s, named for the house specialty, caldo de mocotó, a meaty broth of stewed cow's feet that's far more appealing than it sounds.
Mocotó has a list of about 300 cachaças, so naturally you start with the national drink. At lunch - a full house on a Monday - we had the classic Caipirinha with lime and lemon, and a notable twist with slices of the bright-orange fruit of the cashew, native to north-eastern Brazil. House specialties followed: torresmos, crunchy chunks of pork, the belly smoked then cooked over charcoal; purées of manioc, or cassava, studded with cured beef and creamy cheese, Oliveira's take on escondidinho de carne seca, a sort of Brazilian shepherd's pie; cubes of tapioca with a golden crust of queijo coalho, a squeaky cheese similar to haloumi; baião de dois, the classic rice and beans made with black-eyed peas, sausage, bacon and beef jerky. Desserts likewise follow the traditional-made-new theme: a flan of tapioca, coconut milk and condensed milk; rapadura ice-cream made with sugar cane; cartola de Engenho, grilled bananas and cheese with caramel crumble, a sugary take on farofa, a typical savoury accompaniment.
Coming in at number 12 on this year's list of Latin America's Best 50 Restaurants, Mocotó has helped put São Paulo on the culinary map. But it was coffee, of course, that first put the city on the world map. Thanks to the spectacular rise in demand for coffee in the 19th century, the city's population skyrocketed from 31,000 in 1872 to more than a million by the 1930s, boosted by immigrants, notably Italian and Japanese, who came to work in the plantations. Coffee production flourished in the south-eastern states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, this last now the largest coffee-producing state in Brazil. It's here that we meet some of the farmers in Nespresso's sustainability program.
Coffee grows between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and our party makes its way to the southern reaches of the coffee-friendly belt, the region of Carmo de Minas in the foothills of the Mantiqueira mountain range. At an average altitude of 1,200 metres, it's a lush area fed by mineral springs, but it remains a challenge to nurture the coffee trees that ring most of the hills in neat rows bordered by eucalyptus and banana.
At Sitio da Torre, we meet Álvaro Antônio Pereira Coli, who works the land his great-grandfather planted with coffee in the 1860s. He has 150,000 coffee trees on just 35 of the 65 sloping hectares, where the last yellow coffee cherries are being harvested by hand.
He took over in 1995, producing what he calls conventional coffee until he found that focusing on "specialty" coffees was more worth his while. In 2011 he joined Nespresso's AAA Sustainable Quality Program, an initiative it started in 2003 in collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance. The company forms direct relationships with farmers and local agronomists to foster best practices, the aim to ensure consistent supply and quality and at the same time benefit the producers and the environment.
For Coli, it means the company now buys 30 per cent of his harvest, mainly the yellow Bourbon variety. It has the best cup quality, he says, but is temperamental and demanding. Better farm management, he's found, has made a difference in the cup and the pocket. Since focusing on specialty coffee, his return has nearly doubled. Conventional coffee, he says, fetches 370 reais (about $177) per bag, whereas the higher-quality beans bring him 600 reais (about $287) per bag; he produces a thousand bags per year on average.
Coffee is tasted and graded by cupping, in a similar fashion to wine-tasting, but the brewed coffee is loudly slurped with an intake of air to get a full sense of body and flavour profiles. We witness this with Jacques Pereira Carneiro, the director of Carmo Coffees, a green coffee supplier that exports most of the specialty coffee beans produced in the region from about 2,000 farmers, clustered in co-operatives.
A cupping judge at the Specialty Coffee Association of America and on the board of the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association, he and his team have been involved with the sustainability program since 2011 and now work with more than 100 participating farms.
At his Carmo Coffees, farmers have batches of their beans roasted and taste-tested. For coffee to be defined as specialty, Carneiro says, "It must be produced in quality environmental and employment conditions, and must 'cup' more than 80 points."
He says the aim is to help farmers reach specialty status and this, in turn, makes the growers more prosperous. "The varieties, altitude, terroir are the same, but now we produce a different quality because of a change of philosophy. We now feel we do a good job and we get more money for that, too."
Shannon Bennett sees the relationship with the exporter as significant for the farmers. "One of the mind-blowing things that I didn't realise, and it's probably the same for a beef or lamb farmer, they often don't get the chance to taste their own product," he says. "Giving them the opportunity to roast their own beans at the co-op, and taste them and compare them, it brings a lot of competitiveness to the farmers, and that was an amazing insight.
"My thought process of where I serve Nespresso in my restaurants has changed - because of the farmers' set-ups, plus the different intensities of the Grand Crus."
Nespresso has 62,000 farmers (that's 84 per cent of their suppliers) in its program across eight countries - in Latin America, and in India and Ethiopia - and 250 agronomists worldwide, with more in the pipeline.
"What I'd say to people is ask where your coffee comes from," says Bennett. "Rainforest compliances are actually real. They're not just stamps that people pay for - they've actually got a lot of meaning. I'd urge people to ask where did this coffee come from and how is it produced and what are the social effects of where the coffee came from?"