During the last week of September 2019, I spent my days living with and shadowing the work of a family of specialty coffee producers at Sítio Vargem Grande in Minas Gerais. Tida, Alípio, and their son Renato welcomed me – a complete stranger – into their home for five days to learn about where coffee begins… the origin of the bean. I will forever be thankful for this experience!
After driving 5 hours from Belo Horizonte and then another 30 minutes up a windy, dirt road in the mountains of Alto Jequitibá, I arrived at their coffee farm at 1200 meters of altitude on a Monday night. With just 10.2 hectares of total land (of only 6 being used for coffee trees), this family’s work has to be extremely artisanal and sustainable in order to produce a solid quantity of high-quality coffee. Having already won several awards, including the #1 coffee in the Caparaó Region of Minas Gerais, Tida and her family’s extensive knowledge of producing specialty coffee is clear. They have been working with specialty coffee since 2010, the year that they made the transition from commodity to specialty, and it shows. For more information on what qualifies as “specialty coffee”, click here. All of their coffee scores above 85 points!
The first morning consisted of waking up at 6:30am to go to the lavoura (“crops/field”). I shadowed Tida with a permanent smile on my face the entire time. I was like a little kid on Christmas morning, except my present was seeing and picking coffee cherries for the first time in one of the most beautiful places I have ever traveled. I mean, just look at this landscape! It reminds me of Indonesia’s mountains, but with coffee trees instead of rice fields.
Tida quickly got to showing me the ropes of picking the cherries selectively. The coffee varieties Tida works with are primarily Catuaí Amarelo, Catuaí Vermelho, Bourbon Vermelho, and Caturra Amarelo. Amarelo is “yellow” in Portuguese, and vermelho is “red”. Depending on the variety, the ripe cherries are a deep red or yellow color. Before this, they are green. If you wait too long, the cherries can get really dark and dry out on the branch.
You leave the green cherries on the tree until they are ripe enough to pick. This means that multiple passes over several months are necessary to completely harvest a single tree. This work is tiring and repetitive, with each worker normally filling a 64-liter sack daily with cherries. Even after just one day, I was physically exhausted the next morning.
That first day was incredible. I tried an amazing coffee of the Bourbon Vermelho variety that had strong blackberry and floral notes with a hint of chocolate. I was hooked! This family already had me loving their coffee on Day 1! A neighbor brought fresh quejio de Minas (famous cheese from Minas Gerais) to us on his motorcycle. He arrived wearing Havaianas – the famous flipflop brand of Brazil – and this cheese paired well with a late morning cup of Sítio Vargem Grande specialty coffee.
Tida also cooked some incredible meals. She always liked to remind me that she and her family are da roça (“of the farm”), meaning simple people. She would say that her house, food, and lifestyle are all simple. She works most days and her life isn’t posh. However, I told her many times that I disagreed with this statement on the food! It was some of the best, most flavorful food I have had. Sure, it wasn’t too fancy, but when you have fresh mandioca (“cassava”), pumpkin, and tomatoes growing next to your house in nutrient-rich soil, everything tastes incredibly fresh. Add some rice and beans per Brazilian tradition, and you got yourself a damn good meal!
The second day, I harvested some more coffee cherries with Tida, filmed a lot, and asked way too many questions about everything! Luckily, Tida loves her work and her life in the world of specialty coffee and was always happy to share her knowledge with me.
In the afternoon, Alípio showed me more of how the washing and drying processes are carried out after the cherries are picked. Once the cherries are harvested, they fill a tank with water and dump them in. The green cherries that are underripe sink to the bottom (denser), while the overripe cherries float to the top (less dense). The floating, overripe cherries are known as bóias (“buoys”) in Portuguese, and it is good practice to scoop these out and separate them because they tend to have different flavors and characteristics than the normal ripe cherries.
Sometimes the floating cherries are packed with lots more flavor and sweetness and make for an amazing cup. Other times, they have defects and ruin the cup completely. Better to be safe and separate them.
After this, Alípio primarily works with natural and black honey processed coffee. In the natural process, the cherry pulp is left on the bean, and the coffee beans are sent to dry and reach about 11% humidity. Sítio Vargem Grande has a drying system that blows heat under a raised platform with tiny holes in it. The coffee sits on top of the platform while the hot air passes through. This area has a roof to protect against the rain, which is essential in the always-changing microclimate of Alto Jequitibá.
The black honey process is part of a growing trend where the coffee is de-pulped by a machine then left to dry with some sticky mucilage (or “honey”) intact. This family prefers to use these two methods, where some or all of the cherry stays intact with the bean during the drying process because it generally leads to a more complex cup with fruity notes. The fully washed method also de-pulps but then washes the coffee again to remove all leftover fruit and mucilage. This method is not used very often at Sítio Vargem Grande
After the coffee dries to 11% humidity, it is almost ready to be packaged and shipped out; however, a few things must happen first! If the coffee has not been de-pulped (AKA natural process), it must first be de-pulped after drying. Then, you must remove one more thin layer – called the parchment – that envelopes the bean. After this, you sort the clean, dried beans by size and make sure there are no defects (black beans, cracked beans, etc.) before packaging and sending off the green coffee beans!
When I wasn’t learning about the coffee process, we did a lot of other things. Tida took me for a hike the second afternoon to the top of the coffee farm, where they planted the Geisha variety. For those that don’t know, Geisha is a very sought after coffee variety because it is said to be very high quality when its potential is reached. How true this statement is, I don’t know… but some of the most expensive coffees sold have been Geishas.
Anyhow, we hiked up to 1400 meters to see the young trees planted just a few years ago. The size difference was dramatic compared to the oldest trees on the farm that are 45-years-old! Tida and her family had already harvested and prepared this Geisha coffee using the natural process mentioned above. It was also fermented anaerobically for 96 hours. It was a super unique coffee, with notes of raisins, licorice, red fruits, and cacao. The licorice taste was very present due to the long fermentation. This reaffirmed to me just how different each coffee can taste. Now I want to try some of the same coffee without fermentation to compare the differences!
Over the next few days, it rained quite a bit which prohibited working in the field. It’s not fun to pick coffee cherries soaking wet on a muddy, steep mountain. Renato took this time to roast over 12 coffee samples with me and taste them with a process called “cupping”. Renato is studying to be a Q-Grader, which is somebody that is certified to taste coffees and give them a score from 0 to 100 based on 10 characteristics. Because he has the most experience in this field, the surrounding coffee-producing neighbors all send samples to him to try and score. It was a privilege to learn from Renato and try all of these coffees.
Another day, the family took me to visit the neighbors’ coffee farms and learn from them as well.
At one farm, there was an old-fashioned mechanical juicer to get the juice out of sugarcane, which seems to grow all over Brazil. This sugarcane juice, called caldo de cana here, was the best I’ve ever had. Tida also showed me how to chop down and collect mandioca and bananas!
On my final day in Alto Jequitibá, an annual event about specialty coffee was held. A few buyers were present from countries like France and New Zealand, in addition to other Brazilian representatives in the industry. The goal was to taste and score the coffees, as well as to provide feedback and learning opportunities for all of the producers, discussing the future of specialty coffee in the region, sustainability, etc.
Overall, spending time with this family was a huge privilege and an experience that I will be forever grateful for. They made me feel like a member of the family, and their willingness and excitement to show me how they work and live was something special.
While the whole family works together to accomplish anything and everything that needs to get done, they each have their own areas.
Tida: In charge of negotiation, selling, and overseeing the actual harvest.
Alípio: Takes charge of all post-harvest processes, especially drying.
Renato: Works marketing and social media outreach; sensory analysis expert.
I was fortunate enough to witness firsthand this family’s love for what they do and the pride they have for their coffee, voted the best coffee in the region. I picked my first coffee cherries thanks to their hospitality and the opportunity they gave me to “live and work on a specialty coffee farm” for a week. To say this family is generous is an understatement. Now I have the dream of having my own coffee farm in the future, with a beautiful wooden chalet to host guests, and a roaster on-site to roast and brew my own coffee. Who knows, maybe I will end up living in Alto Jequitibá!
Ah, the friends that coffee has brought me… thank you so much!
Já estou com bastante saudades! Obrigado por tudo!
Find Part 2 of this story here.
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