Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #30.
In a previous post, I discussed coffee growing in the cerrado region of Brazil. This area is a biodiversity hotspot, and is being rapidly converted to large-scale agriculture. While coffee growing is a small portion, land converted to coffee in the cerrado is nearly devoid of native biodiversity. This is because the cerrado is primarily savannah. Unlike coffee growing in forested ecosystems, where coffee farms can approximate natural habitats, a coffee farm cannot mimic a grassland. One of the most unique and important aspects of the cerrado’s biodiversity is its high level of endemic plants. These are essentially eliminated when any kind of agriculture takes over. Biodiversity preservation on farms in the cerrado depends on the existence and quality of protected set-asides.
While Brazil produces a large volume of low-quality coffee, the cerrado region is one of the areas that is important to the country’s emerging specialty coffee sector. For this review, we’ll look at Daterra Estate, a company known for its sustainability practices.
Daterra, established in 1974, is not a single farm but five large areas divided into 88 smaller areas, and covers over 6000 ha, of which 2500 are protected (much under Brazilian law). There are further subdivisions that each grow a specific variety of coffee. Some names you may hear associated with Daterra are Boa Vista, Sao Joao, Tabuoes, Santo (or San) Antonio, Santo Buriti, and Santo Ignacio. A number of the units are near Patrocinio in Minas Gerais. The average altitude is 1150 meters. The original crop was avocados, and land was also used for cattle ranching. Coffee was introduced in the mid-1980s.
Much of Daterra’s distinction and acclaim come from the precision in which the farms are managed, intense research into new varieties, use state-of-the-art technology, innovative packaging, traceability of every lot, and so forth. This is very interesting stuff (you can read a great overview at Sweet Marias), but we’ll concentrate on Daterra’s biodiversity and sustainability measures.
Daterra was Rainforest Alliance’s (RA) first certified farm (RA says it certifies just over 3000 ha, in both coffee and avocados). Several Daterra units are also Utz Certified (2754 ha certified). Daterra also has ISO 14001 certification (standards that help organizations minimize environmental impact).
The RA profile notes:
Daterra is located in an area where the natural vegetation is grass, shrubs and low trees. Because the ecosystem does not lend itself to shade coffee, the beans here are grown in sun and planted in tight rows. …certification should promote conservation of the natural ecosystem called cerrado.
Recall from the previous post that 35% of cerrado property must be set aside for wildlife. Specifically, 20% on the property itself, and up to 15% within the same watershed. Because there are multiple units, it’s hard to pin down how many hectares Daterra covers. There are somewhere between 2800 to 3300 ha of coffee and about 3000 to 4000 ha of protected area. Daterra’s web site gives the figure of natural preservation areas as 50%. No source mentions whether this area is contiguous or fragmented. As also noted in the previous post, any type of unused land might be counted in this set-aside.
The RA profile on Daterra states that biologists have found rare macaws (presumably Hyacinth Macaws) and owls, jaguar tracks, and a giant anteater in the Daterra protected areas. These animals indicate there is some forest habitat there. Daterra was kind enough to send me a short list of more typical grassland species found on their protected areas. In addition to a half dozen common trees and shrubs, the list included four animals: the anteater, Pampas deer, Greater Rhea, and the Red-legged Seriema (photo). If these species are represented by healthy, self-sustaining populations it indicates that there are some large, contiguous patches of classic cerrado habitat being preserved.
Further information from Daterra focused on one of the large units, Fazenda Boa Vista in Patrocinio. Purchased in 1987, it is nearly 6900 ha, with over 2800 ha of natural habitat (41%). This property was largely degraded when purchased, and Daterra has restored the rivers, streams, waterfalls, and savannah, and wildlife has returned.
Other sustainability efforts at Daterra include:
- Water. About 20% of the coffee is irrigated, as is the case in much of this region. Most or all of the water used to wash and process the coffee is recycled and used for irrigation.
- Areas are reforested using native tree species which are grown on the farms.
- Recyling. The company minimizes use of consumable products and recycles paper and other similar items. Coffee parchment is compacted into “logs” which are burned in place of firewood.
- Weed control. The by-products of coffee processing along with other organic matter is composted and returned to the soil as fertilizer and mulch. Herbicides are only used when weeds get too unruly.
- Daterra supports the use of the farm for environmental restoration and education in
collaboration with a local college.
A wide variety of coffees from Daterra are available as single origins and used in regular and espresso blends. We tried two different types from three roasters.
Terroir Coffee Company. Special reserve. Organic, Rainforest Alliance certified. Light, “full flavored” roast. Catuai and Mundo Novo varieties. Pulped natural process (skin removed, then bean with most of its mucilage dried on a patio, raised bed, and/or with mechanical dryers).
Terroir describes this coffee as clean, smooth, low-acid, and full flavored. “This cup has a California merlot character emphasizing mellow bass notes. It begins with fleeting floral notes of roses while very hot gradually revealing nutty flavors of walnut and pecan with a trace of
cocoa as the cup cools.”
We found it medium-bodied, and agreed it was smooth and uniform. Two people found it a bit too smooth and called it “boring.” Tasters variously detected hints of hazelnut, cinnamon, and butterscotch. Overall, it was good but lacked distinction, rather solidly like a classic Central American, but without the brightness. The final tally was 2.5 motmots.
Rowster Coffee. Sweet yellow bourbon. Rainforest Alliance certified. Full city roast. Pulped Natural. Rowster describes this as a “Round, noble, sensible cup, with touches of light chocolate, vanilla, carmel sweetness, some orange and cinnamon.”
We found this coffee to be just on the light side of medium-bodied, with a nice, smooth mouthfeel. It had a different sort of sweetness than the Terroir Special Reserve, with a faint hint of black licorice and perhaps chocolate, but it was fleeting. Beyond that, it was slightly generic, once again a very classic feel. 3.25
Sweetwater Organic Coffees. Organic Special Reserve. Rainforest Alliance certified. Same bean as Terroir selection, pulped natural, and also a very light roast.
Sweetwater roaster Chris Neumann once worked with Terroir founder George Howell, and uses similar light roasts. Considering this was also the same bean, we thought these might be very much the same. However, the Sweetwater tasted much better than the Terroir. There was still the same medium-bodied smoothness and slight nuttiness, but this selection had a slightly longer finish and seemed more balanced and refined. It was much sweeter, with several tasters all converging on some combination of subtle flavors that reminded them of rum cake, as well as cocoa notes. One taster thought it was a perfect fall coffee, although once again, one person was not impressed. It ended up with 3.5 motmots.
Bottom line: These were all nice coffees. Looks like Daterra has worked hard to merit their reputation as environmentally-friendly coffee source, in addition to their dedication to many other unique innovations. If you wish to try cerrado coffees, chose them carefully. Hold them to at least Daterra’s sustainability standards. Personally, I still have reservations about buying coffee from any farm in such an ecologically-sensitive area, no matter how good it is. I’ll continue to look at coffee growing in this region, perhaps even visting my friend in the area, and pass on more information as it comes available.