The Climpson & Friends Brazil Trip of 2016 took a twist after Daterra Estate hosted us, when Bruno de Sousa turned up to drive us further into Minas Gerais, stopping at Sites of Coffee Significance along the way. These included the freshly planted Fazenda Lavirinha (demonstrating how diversity of crops can be a sustainable model for farmers, without compromising quality) and a visit to a commodity coffee dry mill in Campos Altos (where quality coffees exist amongst the lower grades but generally are all treated equally and sold at the lower end of “commodity” pricing).
Let us tell you some of Bruno’s colourful story and journey into specialty coffee. Bruno Olivera Sidney de Sousa (aka “the B.O.S.S.”) was born in Campos Altos (population approx. 10,000) in 1959, eventually becoming the 4th generation of his family line to end up making his livelihood from growing coffee. His father, Joao known as Zinho (“Little John”) was a World War 2 veteran, and it was during his 6 years based in Livorno, Italy that he experienced another side of the coffee economy that he could take back home - trading coffee. Back in Brazil, with no phones it was hard work that involved literally offering to buy a farmer's crop and then driving to the port of Santos to hopefully get a good enough price from the exporters to turn a small profit.
Zinho went on to establish his own farm in the 1950s, and in 1969 moved to Campos Altos to start a farm near his cousin in the new Cerrado region (which only gained its status as a coffee farming zone in 1971), with the nearby small city of Patricinio the new capital. With a cousin doing the same thing a few kilometers away, it was a logical place to start a family business in a new frontier. This farm was named Cafe Zinho, and later Fazenda Esperanca when Bruno took over.
Bruno grew up on the farm, cupping his first coffees aged 8. The family still made most of their money from trading but the economic crisis of 1986 killed that dream once and for all. Farming became the main priority, and cattle were introduced to boost income. Working on the farm any spare time available, Bruno first studied as a mechanical engineer (a logical choice) and then Physical Education (a passion). Moving away for a few years to teach PE, he would always return for harvest. Other duties included literally being a cowboy on horseback (for a few years they held 6,800 cattle at another farm a few hours drive away).
Whilst working in Belo Horizonte he met Deborah and in November 1987 they married. Moving back to the farm full-time, their two daughters Julia (1991) and then Maria (1995) formed the next generation to be born into the coffee life. July 9, 1994: 5-months pregnant Deborah happened to be away from the farm overnight when bandits raided. Bruno was shot at close range and to this day carries injuries of that terrible night; he was driven for hours in a Hearse as there was no ambulance in the area. He emerged from hospital 27 days later unsure about raising the family at the farm and uprooted again to Belo Horizonte. Deborah established a legal office there and they spent the next few years in the big city.
2002 saw a crisis in the New York-based Coffee “C” market, prices hitting a low of 47c/pound. This would usually drive farmers to give up growing, at least until commodity prices recover and demand returns. Improvisation was needed, and a plan was hatched: Bruno would take the family coffee and some of their friends’ coffee of similar quality to the USA. Surely they could find a market there, once the quality was recognized, and retrieve a more sustainable profit for his efforts? This bold move started shakily, with Bruno separated from his young family for months on end, sleeping on the couch at a friends in Dallas before doing the same thing in Portland. However, he realized the quality of their collective coffees was significantly higher than the Brazilian imports with a “specialty” tag. Walking dogs and delivering papers, Bruno held onto this thought, having faith that the right customers were out there.
Ritual Coffee Roasters (San Francisco) soon became his main customer. In 2006, Intelligentsia purchased 20 bags; soon it was 20 containers. BECCOR was born and established, a truly independent, farmer-owned collective, embedded in their own supply chain and completely vertically integrated. The crisis passed. Some of the other farms he worked with went on to win multiple Cup of Excellence competitions. The relationships with farmers and roasters are strong to this day and Beccor is now run by a friend in Beaverton, near Portland, still shipping 5-6 containers of mixed lots every year.
The family had moved to the states, but 10 years after the first fateful venture into the unknown, home called again. Dad was 90, the farm needed attention. The Brazil-based export arm of BECCOR was in need of streamlining, they needed a proper quality laboratory, and most of all, Bruno and Deborah saw a vast gap in quality education in Brazil. So, in 2011, Academia do Cafe was created in Belo Horizonte. Once the Beccor needs were seen to, the main thing to get on with (besides heading back to the farm as often as needed) was “the school”. Starting with barista classes and soon roasting courses, Bruno created a stream of “third wave” coffee professionals in Brazil. In 2007 Bruno had passed his Q-grader exam in Long Beach, California, the first Brazilian to do so, and today he has trained over 200 Q-graders in Brazil, mainly in the training rooms at the back of the Academia do Cafe cafe.
In a country that grown so much of the world’s coffee, the standards of everyday coffee drinking and roasting traditionally are not prioritised by the grower-led industry. Bruno has been one of the few farmers to drive the shift towards higher quality production and greater understanding of best consumer-oriented practices for the local markets. His daughter Julia now runs the cafe and a lot of the courses too; Maria is studying in Europe and is the person on the ground representing the family farm’s coffees and again some of the their friends in the burgeoning specialty markets within the EU.
Recently Zinho passed away and the family are re-building parts of the farm, planting new trees and encouraging other local farmers to focus on producing the best quality coffees they can. Bruno predicts the C-market will still dominate for the foreseeable future, but hopes that true specialty coffee will rise from 5% of global production towards 30% in the next 10-20 years. The producers have a lot of work to do, but quality in Brazil is coming up and there is a lot of experiments taking place, with processing and fermentation a firm focus.
You can meet Bruno, and try his and some of his friends’ coffees at our next cupping club on Wednesday 16th August at 6pm, Climpson’s Arch. See you there!
Climpson & Friends stayed as a guest of the de Sousa family at Cafe Zinho/Fazenda Esperanca in December 2016.