Five Days with Q-Grader Rafael Marques

On October 6th, I took a bus from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, to Venda Nova do Imigrante, Espírito Santo, to spend five days with Rafael Marques. Rafael, or Rafa, is a certified Q-Grader and co-owner of a beautiful piece of property called Café Arq. He shares it with his friend Emilio, an architect, so the space is half coffee lab and half architectural office. Lots of wood, glass, repurposed shipping containers, and coffee. It sits in a field of corn nestled in the mountains. Absolutely beautiful.

The work Rafa does is quite amazing. He connects specialty coffee producers in the area with buyers both in Brazil and worldwide. Every day, he collects samples from farmers, roasts them, and tries them via the standardized tasting process called “cupping”. After giving each coffee a score, he is able to go back to the farmer and talk with them about what went well and what didn’t, offering advice to produce better coffee.

Cupping another round of coffees after dark.

He does this all for free, as he is truly invested in creating a more sustainable future for specialty coffee by improving the product and bringing about higher prices for higher-quality work. His parents were coffee producers, so Rafa’s experience with coffee dates back to his childhood days. He only makes money (through a percentage cut) when a buyer purchases coffee, so he is invested in the process from growing to the final sale. He succeeds when the farmers succeed. There is a lot of love involved in his work, but I’ll let Rafa describe what he does himself…

“I have been working with coffee producers in the region since 2000. Right now, we are working on a project where we give support to all the members of the Arabica coffee production chain. Our main work is to help and improve quality and connect these producers with the best roasters and the best coffee shops in Brazil and throughout the world. Here at Café Arq we are a team of 5 people. We have the tasting area – the “Cupping Room” – where we try 4000 samples per year. There are about 200 producers that work with us from 14 different cities.”

-Rafael Marques
View from the Cupping Room.

Rafa also invites anyone and everyone to come try coffee with him… farmers, buyers, and anyone who has an interest. The space is very open and inviting, and Rafa and his entire team are extremely kind and willing to share their love and expertise of coffee with those interested in learning. I witnessed a lot of neighbors, farmers, and green coffee buyers all trying coffee together over my short stay at Café Arq. Big thanks to Rafa, Michel, Felipe, Steven, Claudia, Letícia, and Dirceu for all the patience and hospitality!

Felipe organizing samples from the many farmers they work with.

While I was there, I tried 67 coffees through the cupping process, and a few more just by drinking a regular V60 pour-over or espresso. I had the pleasure of meeting and cupping coffees with Sérgio of Curto Café (Rio de Janeiro), Bento of Revo Manufactory (Santos, São Paulo), and Yosuke of Unir Specialty Coffee (Kyoto, Japan)!

Sérgio is the owner of a very unique coffee shop in Rio de Janeiro, where there isn’t a clear distinction between barista and client. Everyone is allowed and encouraged to try making coffees and toy with the machines. Sérgio believes that we lose this childlike curiosity and self-allowance to try things, fail, and try again in another way. There is no right way to drink or prepare coffee… he believes that you must experiment for yourself and see what you like! Don’t take anyone else’s word for it.

When I arrived at Café Arq the first day, Sérgio was roasting coffee like a madman, only getting 3-4 hours of sleep per night. I saw bags and bags of coffee all around the roaster. Jack Johnson was playing on the speakers. I knew I was in a great place with creative and inspiring people, passionate about what they do.

Then we have Bento, the owner of a coffee shop/bar in Santos. This guy made me laugh. We joked that he wasn’t a Q-Grader (quality grader) but rather a “B-Grader”. You guessed it – B for Bento. His system for tasting coffees and writing down notes was simplified. Instead of having 10 categories and a final score, he used more general qualifiers – such as bad, good, really good, and fucking awesome – for 4 different phases of the coffee. I adopted the system because it felt less overwhelming, and funnily enough, I was able to remember and describe each coffee more clearly. This is super helpful when you are trying 12 coffees at once.

It’s always a valuable experience to be able to taste coffees then review and compare those observations with experts. We tried some incredible coffees from the area, including the first harvest of couple Henrique and Bárbara of Sítio Inhambu. This coffee was fruity with a strong acidity and balanced sweetness. Bento ended up buying this coffee, so we visited the farm together to see the process in person.

Henrique’s father asked if we wanted to see the bees that they were collecting honey from. I kindly declined, but Bento – not a huge fan of bees – accepted, ventured over, and very quickly got stung! It was quite the scene getting the stinger out, and I was there to laugh and document it all. Good times! Who says work always has to be serious?

Yosuke, the green coffee buyer from Japan, also brought a natural Geisha variety from his visit to Colombia for us to try… it was a flavor explosion, tasting more like a juice than a coffee for me! After trying so many coffees over five days, I was reminded of coffee’s potential to have tons of different tastes. During our trips to nearby coffee farms with Yosuke, I got to help translate between Portuguese and English, which is always a fun treat and something I really enjoy!

Overall, this trip was incredible, and I’m super thankful to Rafa for offering me a place to stay and treating me to some fun experiences in his city, like the 41st Annual Festa da Polenta (“Polenta Party”) that happens every October to celebrate the culture from the many Italian immigrants that made their way to Brazil many years ago. Nothing like a giant pot of hot polenta to start off my stay in a new town in Brazil!

I spent a lot of time with the sample roaster, cupping coffee, visiting farms, and meeting with intelligent and funny characters in the specialty coffee industry here in Brazil. Lots of laughs were shared, and I learned a lot from passionate people. I definitely feel more a part of this tiny but growing specialty coffee family.

Rafa is somebody that I really look up to. At only 33-years-old, he is doing and has already accomplished lots of things that I aspire to do in my life. He’s traveled South America on his dual-sport motorcycle, owns a business around specialty coffee, loves architecture and design and implements it into his daily life and work, and is overall one of the nicest and most welcoming people I have come to meet. He makes time to talk with everyone and seems to genuinely love what he does and how he does it.

Thanks for everything.

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