Back in August, we were contacted by our good friend and supplier of all-things-Brazil Sergio Dias about participating in an upcoming cupping competition in Carmo de Minas, Brazil. Intrigued, we had to learn more. The competition he was referring to was the 3rd annual Mantiqueiras de Minas Microlot Competition, which was to be held in mid September. They were looking for one more cupper to round out their panel of judges. Now, we’ve been working with Sergio for years and are always down to help a friend-- plus it sounded like a great adventure. It was a no-brainer. I was heading to Brazil!
I flew into São Paulo and was fortunate enough to spend a few days there seeing the sights. I ate some amazing food, checked out some local sights, and was even lucky enough to catch an intimate samba concert with the group of locals I was with. I would’ve loved to spend more time in SP, but we had a purpose. It was time to head four hours northeast to the coffee-producing gem of a town--Carmo de Minas.
Here's a coffee tree in the Pedreira Lot at Canaan Estate. We had coffee on our menu from this tree and hundreds of his cousins.
Carmo de Minas is truly a beautiful place. Coffee plantations sprawl sometimes almost as far as the eye can see. It’s a pretty small town--with population is just over one thousand--it is bustling and full of energy, with a laid-back almost coastal vibe. The cupping competition was held at the local coffee cooperative, Cocarive. Most of the farmers in Carmo and the surrounding areas do all of their wet milling and drying at their own farms; but take it to Cocarive for the dry milling. Farmers can either pay Cocarive for milling services and retain ownership of the coffees--something a farmer usually only does if he or she has their own buyer lined up--or they can sell their coffees to Cocarive, and receive immediate payment. A farmer can always get a little more money if he can line up his own buyer, but typically won’t receive payment for several months--usually when the goods are delivered to the buyer. However, if they sell to the Co-op, they receive payment right away. Some farmers are able to do a combination of both of these things, selling to the Co-op to meet their immediate cash needs, and selling directly to buyers to receive a premium. Most farmers though, are unable to access the buyers market directly, and sell all of their crop directly to the Co-op. Fortunately Cocarive is committed to providing sustainable income for its farmers, and pays more to farmers for their coffee than the vast majority of other local buyers. One of the goals of this competition is to facilitate connections between farmers and potential buyers, by generating excitement and interest among international buyers, so that more farmers are able to access the outside market. After a quick tour of Cocarive’s impressive facility, it was time to get cupping!
Let’s pause here for a little background on this cupping competition. Mantiqueiras de Minas is the name of the region in which Carmo de Minas, and many other coffee-producing communities lie. It is so named after the region’s famous Mantiqueiras mountain range. In Brazil, the federal government regulates how producers can label their bags to indicate where the coffee is from; and three years ago the Mantiqueiras region was awarded regional status by the government. Prior to this, producers were only allowed to say the coffee was from “Sul de Minas” (literally southern Minas, after the state that the coffee is grown in, Minas Gerais). For a little perspective: Minas Gerais is massive--Roughly the size of France; and Sul de Minas, is much larger than Switzerland. For the producers of Mantiqueiras, being prohibited from saying that their coffee was grown anywhere other than a region larger than Switzerland was absurdly vague to say the least; and after years of persistence the government finally awarded Mantiqueiras de Minas regional status in 2013.
It’s a lot to wrap your head around--I know! But if you’re still with me, hang in just a little bit longer. Within Mantiqueiras de Minas there are three cooperatives: Cocarive, CooperRita and Coopervas. The competition I was judging was between these three co-ops. They each submitted their best coffees to be evaluated and ranked by us. Side note: each of these cooperatives process over well one million pounds of coffee per year, yet they are considered microscopic on the national scale.The hardworking employees of these cooperatives managed narrow their very best lots into a top 120, and that’s where we come in!
The competition was separated into two parts based on processing method. Natural, and pulped natural. We began the cupping and continued for three days--tasting five cups each of the 120 samples. After two eight-hour days tasting cup-after-cup, we had selected our top 20. By the end of the third day, we had the top coffees ranked and numbered complete with detailed tasting notes! Overall, the naturals were a bit better, but both processing methods were quite impressive. On the last day we paid visits to CooperRita and Coopervas, and thanked all of the wonderful coffee professionals who facilitated and enabled us to participate in such an incredible event. That night, an award ceremony ensued and each farmer who placed in top 20 was awarded a certificate and a plaque commemorating their achievement. It was a truly special night, and we were very honored to be a part of it.
The best part of this whole thing is that these coffees are now headed for the US to be auctioned off, and we’re going to get first crack at bidding on our favorite lots. This story is far from over, so keep an eye on our single-origin menu and you just might be able to try one of our most favorite lots for yourself!