Brazil & China: two countries, a farmer, a familiar coffee profile

It was a cold rainy spring day in April 2017 perfect weather for the world’s largest gathering of coffee professionals. My Brazilian business partner Gustavo and I were in Seattle, Washington together for the yearly Global Coffee Expo. 

It was a pivotal moment for me to attended primarily because I had heard that the YCE (Yunnan Coffee Exchange from China) would for the first time formally share their specialty coffees with the world. (Now in 2020 you can buy amazing coffees from the Yunnan Coffee Traders and other importers. China is the ninth-largest arabica coffee producer in the world, with 2 million bags (60kg) produced per year). Ted Lingle and others from the Coffee Quality Institute had been giving consulting for some time to the YCE. They were making amazing strides in quality.

Before 2017 I had never met a Chinese coffee farmer or even cupped Chinese single origin coffee. I also never imagined that within the next year I myself would be moving to China (the location from where I wrote this original piece in Mandarin for a coffee magazine in China).

As I arrived at the expo hall we quickly found the YCE’s booth. It was beautifully constructed in that ancient Chinese architecture style. Red glowing lanterns and intricate frameworks showing off the best of Chinese and Yunnan culture and coffee. 

“Good coffee should be shared with the world” was written in big bold letters set in a red banner with traditional Confucious cloud designs so common in Chinese art and liturature. Known for it’s amazing tea now from TIAN (heaven) comes the grace and flavor of China coffee.

As I stood there taking in the significance of those words my Chinese coffee friends quickly recognized my infatuation with their booth. I was clicking photos from every angle as if I only had a quick moment and it would all disappear before my eyes.

Before I could even post a picture to my instagram I was warmly greeted by a Chinese farmer who was eager to give me a green coffee sample and teach me a little about the different coffee regions of China.

Farmers are amazing people no matter what part of the world you find them. My heart goes out to them and what they go through. 

Most of the farmers at the booth that day were represented by their children who had learned English enough to be sent to share more about the family farm. Some of their children were already studying at universities in the USA. Hopeing for the big chance to break into the world coffee supply chain.

It was only a few minutes later that the daughter of one farmer pulled me aside and introduced us to Professor Chen Dexin, one of the leaders in the YCE. 

After our formal introduction and exchange of business cards he gave me a copy of his book, “The History of Chinese Coffee”.  Later he proudly signed it and invited me to visit the YCE in China. I then realized to my shame that coffee had been around much longer in China than I had even existed. 

After I was able to settle down from all the excitement I had the privilege of tasting Yunnan coffee in its natural, honey and washed processing methods.

As a coffee Q grader and roaster the first thing my brain does when I try a new coffee is compare it with other origins in my sensory memory.

As I slurped the coffee my mind immediately traveled back to Brazil, a coffee origin fresh in my memory. For some who may only have a superficial understanding of Brazilian terroir this discovery could have been a huge let down. But for me it was the dawning of a new day and the opportunity of a lifetime as I discovered the potential of Chinese coffee.

Helping to sustain specialty movement at origin in Southern Brazil

Before moving to China in 2017 I had spent the last 15 years in Southern Brazil. The last 10 of those years I worked in specialty coffee. In 2013 I started roasting in my living room on a small home roaster because I couldn’t find beans that my wife and I really enjoyed in our city.

After a few weeks all my neighbors and friends were making request for coffee. When coffee is roasted you have instant neuromarketing taking place all around you. As I gave friends a sample of my coffee they asked for more and more. Businessmen started asking me if I could roast for them to give to their clients as gifts. It was obviously time to open a small business.

From my previous research and understanding of lean manufacturing I knew that one of the secrets of small batch roasting was in the direct trade supply chain management. If you don’t have good long term suppliers year after year you don’t have a good  business.

I immediately started building relationships with farmers and looking for the best micro-lots of Brazil. Before even opening the business it took about 2 years until I could convince my first farmer to sell me one of his award winning micro-lots. 

I was pretty excited, the coffee was a Yellow Bourbon 90+ (Specialty coffee has point system established by the Specialty Coffee Association) natural processed coffee.  

At that time I was also finishing an MBA. For my final project I wrote a business plan for my new startup, the William & Sons Coffee Company. 

Finding a name for a coffee company that hasn’t been taken is actually very challanging. I decided to make it personal. My dad’s name was William. He was an amazing man. Let me drink my first coffee at 10 years old.

I wanted to honor him by naming my new venture after him and all he had taught me about life. In all reality, when you start a company the name isn’t so important as what you deliver to your customers. That becomes who you are and what your customers come back to every day. You can’t drink a brand name.

In 2014, I officially registered the business and launched the company selling most of my coffee online and shipping all over Brazil. Within three years the business grew into a full grown retail roaster and coffee shop as well as a regional wholesaler of coffee beans. William & Sons Coffee Co. became the first third wave roaster in the city of Porto Alegre. 

I soon added an amazing business partner who is with me till today.  We’ve helped more people open coffee shops that we have opened ourselves but it’s been an amazing journey.  We love to serve our city in many ways besides coffee. Our vision statement is Transformation in every cup.

Partners Gustavo Albuquerque and Jonathan Hutchins

The Glory of a Farmer Centered Roasting Strategy

Brazil is not only the biggest producer and exporter of coffee in the world but also one of the biggest consumers of its own low quality commodity coffee. Brazil doesn’t allow roasters to import from other origins so we were limited to build a specialty movement using only Brazilian micro-lots.

To increase national pride and consumption of specialty grade coffee in our city I developed what I thought was a more “farmer centered” marketing plan. It really wasn’t anything new but I had the job of convincing my clientes that Brazilian coffee was good.

If you’ve ever spent time with farmers at origin working with them in the harvest you quickly discover that so much can go wrong at any point in the delicate process of coffee.

Quality starts at the farm and if you really think about, it can quickly end at the farm.  The stability and future of specialty coffee or any food we consume depends on our farmers.  If farmers stop working in any nation the world is in serious trouble. 

The American Daniel Webster wisely noted, “Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization”.  

As I looked at the 2013 coffee scenario in Brazil I felt that my primary task was to redeem the value of the Brazilian farmer in the eyes of our clients. Making the farmer the center of my marketing I quickly discovered that the more I did this the more our clients valued our coffees and more farmers were motivated to send us their coffee samples. It was a win win situation.

My first visit to a farm and amateur coffee origin video with our farmer Clayton.

One of the big ideas I begin to communicated over and over again to our clients was that, “The product is not greater than its producer (farmer)”. If you say something long enough it usually sticks. (In the portuguese langauge the saying has a better rhyme to it)

We knew that our company could only be as great as our farmers and their coffee. When our clients complimented us about our coffee we always responded by saying, “Well thank you but we don’t make coffee, we just reflect the amazing work of our farmers”. We taught our baristas to keep saying the same thing to our clients and themselves. We can’t make coffee better. We can ruin it by bad roasting and extraction but we can’t make it better.

We did our best to keep our “personalities” and the “William & Sons brand” small and silent in the background while promoting as much as possible front and center the story and work of the farmer. People thought we were a little crazy not to promote ourselves more than we did but we kept true to our core business.  A coffee without a farmer is really only a product.

One of our farmers Clayton at his farm Ninho da Aguia in Brazil.

My strategy to lead our company from selling just products, services and experiences to developing a transformation economy in our business cycle flowed like this:

1. Discover > Origen 2. Extract > Commodities 3. Design > Products 4. Deliver > Services 5. Stage > Experiences 6. Guide >Transformations 7. Rediscover > Origen.  

Promotional video about our farmer centered marketing vision. Sorry it’s in Portuguese.

To illustrate this better I see the clients discovery of the farmer, the farming phenonomen, coffee Origen and history, the botany of that amazing coffee fruit, the farming processes we discover that produce the best coffee, all these things truly glorious. This is what you discover at Origen.

Origin, the story behind the story, was what really excited me about coffee when I began to study it. Coffee shops, brasitas and brew methods are really cool but what happens on the farm is a matter of life and death for those who produce the beans that define the reason for our existence as a business.

Commodities (coffee beans) are only the raw materials for the goods they make. Goods (roasted coffee) are only the physical embodiments of the services that we delivered. Services (coffee drinks, sales chanels, coffee packaging, ect) are only the intangible operations for the experiences they stage. Experiences (specialty sensorial experience, cool design of brand and coffee shop location, human touch and good service, etc.) are only memorable events for the transformations they guide. Transformations are the temporal states (client surprised by a peach or blueberry note in his coffee or the visit of one of our farmers to the city, the visit of one of our clients to the farm) for the externalities they glorify in the life of our clients. 

This strategy helped me put a value on everything we did in it’s relationship to Coffee origin as I started my business. Commodities, products, services, experiences, and transformations are all important but they only reflect the truth we discover and rediscover every harvest at origin. 

With this approach to our product we were able to focus on our core business adding value while staging and selling some amazing transformations to our clients that to this day keeps them coming back for more year after year.

One of the ways we brought more transformation to our market was through a yearly event called Farmer2city. We brought farmers in to talk about their coffee and to meet our clients and other coffee professionals in our region.

Video from our 2016 Farmer2city event.

Some Roasting tips for low density coffee.

Now back to China and how a specialty movement could easily be built in this country as well. I since have moved back to the United States from China and would have loved to have helped do the same thing there in some city that we did in Brazil. To help build a Farmer centered coffee market.

I was able to speak often on coffee while in China and many were surprised that coffee farmers even existed in China.

Like Brazil in early 2013 the Chinese people think that their coffee is not the best quality coffee. This can’t be farther from the truth. The coffee quality is increasing as farmers learn best practices and roasters begin to give some of these delicate coffees a chance to shine. There are some amazing coffee lots now coming out of China. China should be proud of their farmers and promote their wonderful coffees around the world.

As I discovered the similarities between Chinese and Brazilian coffee origen at the YCE booth that day my assumption was later confirmed by further research. Simular to Brazil, China’s coffee as a general rule is lower density (900 to 1600 meters). 

While it’s debated by some, altitude plays an incredible part in development of coffee flavor. My experience of roasting Brazilian coffee had taught me that lower altitudes can still produce 90+ point coffee. 

After this article was first published I received some great feedback from another Yunnan Coffee specialist, Eric Baden founder of the Coffee Comun in China with one caution. We cannot put all altitudes into the “low density” basket. His experience is that there are major differences in the density of Yunnan coffees, depending on altitude and shade (as you would expect). So not all Yunnan coffees are low density.

So taking my clues from the Nordic Barista school I developed our own theory of roasting Brazilian micro-lots. We found through trial and error that lower elevation coffees, both natural and washed, need to be approached in a more delicate manner than other origens.

We also discovered, against the current belief of one roast profile for every extraction method, that our pour over/filtered coffees needed a faster roast development time.

We came to believe the general rule that more time in the roaster meant more loss of complexity in light roast. The key was to develop a well balanced profile of temperature, time, and energy that allowed for sufficient development in each chemical reaction of the roast without destroying the volatile acidity and sweetness we so longed to discover in Brazilian low density coffees.

In this article I want to conclude by giving you a simple example of a typical roast profile for one of our low density micro-lots. I also hope this can began some great discussion on roasting Brazilian and Chinese coffee origin.

The coffee of this profile was a 1300m Red Catuai 144 naturally processed lot that we gave 88 points. It had a wonderful complexity. I can still taste the sweet Raspberry we found in this coffee.

So, get your roast drum thoroughly heated for maximum heat transfer.  Try starting off with a lower drop temp than normal and later with the well heated drum you can use the roasters energy to finish it off after the first crack. 

If you are new to roasting I would recommend you do some reading on the science of the roasting process. The chemical reactions all have their particular color and smell. 

If you do not have a sophisticated roasting software like Cropster you can develop an excel form to manually enter your minute by minute roast profile data and easily repeat the process again in the future.

Roasting requires a lot of discipline and a repeated scientific method that we only discover in the roast and cupping process at our particular geographical location. Coffee roasted in Southern Brazil at 200m on one machine and coffee roasted in Concord, New Hampsire in the USA at 500m on a another machine with the same profile will come out totally different. Saving your data is so important in profile roasting. You will not be able to produce a consistent light roast from harvest to harvest without a good profiling system and a disciplined habit of cupping. 

From all of our testing we discovered the most complexity by using the energy of the roast to finish off after the first crack with a fast and continuing ROR (Rate of rise) development time (sometimes only a 5% development time to total roast time of 8-9 minutes).  Current roast theory will argue that you must have at least a 20% development time or the coffee is always underdeveloped. We found this mostly true with high elevation coffees and expresso roasting but not always with lower density coffee. Do a battery of test with 4,5,6,7,8,9,10% development time.  Our cupping team and hundreds of clients have consistently chosen the 5-8% faster developed coffee.

I challenge you to give your low density coffee another chance by approaching it with a little more finesse in the roasting process. You may be surprised what you will find hidden in your coffee that your clients will love as well. 

If you would like some help developing better small batch roast profiles for your lower density coffee, want to talk about the coffee movement in China or Brazil, or would like to talk about making your business more transformational, please feel free to get in contact with me. I would love to chat.

Jonathan Hutchins 何剑

jonathan@williamsonscoffee.com

William & Sons Facebook:  www.facebook.com/williamsonscoffe

Business Instagram: www.instagram.com/williamsonscoffee

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