Update on Selective Harvest Project and Lessons Learned
A year ago, we detailed our Selective Harvest Project, wherein we began working with several of our partners before the harvest to guarantee a high price for the coffee if the growers would follow a series of protocols, including selectively harvesting only ripe coffee fruits, that would yield a higher quality coffee. The idea is that Casa Brasil would assume the risk so that their investment in quality would be compensated, regardless of the market price when it came time to sell. We did a complete cost analysis, ensuring that costs would be covered and that those picking the coffee would be adequately compensated for their quality. (Actually, given the tight labor supply for coffee pickers in Brazil, that factor is largely self-regulating.)
Initial meeting with APAS to propose the Selective Harvest Project and discuss project intention and details
The objective of the Selective Harvest Project was, in fact, two-fold. The first was to create a value in the supply chain that wasn't there before based on the guarantee of a higher price. As detailed in the initial blog post, given market instability, growers are more inclined to seek cost minimization as opposed to investing in quality through infrastructure improvements and the increased labor needed for consistent quality. The intent was to guarantee price for a certain quantity of bags, and then the growers could take advantage of this guaranteed price stability to selectively harvest even more bags to enter into competitions. Here is a list of some of the accomplishments of our partners who did just that:
- Ademilson Noiman Borges - 2016 Brazilian Fair Trade Competition - 1st Place
- Ademilson Noiman Borges - 2017 Winning Coffee used by Barista Hugo Silva in 6th Annual Barista Cup
- Alessandro Hervaz - 2017 Brazilian Cup of Excellence Naturals - 7th Place (Auction Price $13/lb)
- Alessandro Hervaz - 2017 Carmo Best Cup - 5th Place
- Alessandro Hervaz - 2017 Best of APAS Competition - Selective Harvest Category - 1st Place (a new category they created in their association of around 50 families just for selectively harvested coffee).
- Alessandro Hervaz - 2017 2nd Place Coffee of the Year, Serra da Mantiqueira
The other objective was to better understand the terroir and the impact of processing. With a heterogeneous harvest that contains various maturations, it's hard to isolate the impact of the cultivar or the post-harvest treatment. After two harvests, the growers are starting to gather experience in working with 100% ripe fruit, and learning what works and what doesn't. Certain cultivars such as Yellow Catuai and Yellow Bourbon stood out on the cupping table, while several sample of selectively harvested Acaia and Mundo Novo scored below 80.
Meeting with growers before 2017/18 harvest
The overall theme of what we have learned is something we already knew (and, if fact, I came to Brazil in pursuit of a master's degree to better understand). No matter how good the raw material, if the coffee is not properly dried in the post-harvest, the resulting coffee beverage will likely not be of high quality. These lessons learned are largely different incarnations of this basic theme:
Trust, But What Can You Verify?
We can verify the unripes; we can’t verify that proper care was taken during the post-harvest. In other words, we can do a physical analysis of the green coffee and determine the percent of immature coffee beans to verify if a selective harvest was performed, but we cannot determine if the coffee was slowly and carefully dried. This is a shortcoming on our part for not providing sufficient training to all partners, but, even more importantly, is likely due to a lack of infrastructure (lack of greenhouses to better control temperature, and lack of patio space, so they need to dry the coffee quickly to make room for the coffee arriving from the field throughout the harvest).
We will meet with APAS growers again before this coming harvest, and perhaps this is one thing we can consider. It can be safely assumed that very little dry material is loss during drying, i.e. it remains constant and only water is lost, if you track mass loss, you are in essence tracking the drying. Under commercial production conditions it is usually not viable to weigh the entire coffee lot to track moisture loss during drying (alas, the dream of a tared raised bed remains just that). However, if a representative sample of the lot can be obtained, segregated (using plastic mesh bags, for instance) and subjected to the exact same drying conditions (e.g. the bag does not affect drying by restricting airflow through the coffee), then it can be used to determine the drying.
The gravimet from Cenifcafe is a low-technology solution being applied in Colombia that works on this principle (and on an assumption of the initial moisture content of drained parchment).
Lack of Processing Oversight Inhibits Learning
This lack of consistent post-harvest processing conditions and oversight inhibits our ability to objectively gauge the quality potential of different cultivars. On the cupping table, there has been a general trend for Acaia and Mundo Novo to score lower than say Yellow Catuai and Yellow Bourbon. However, these cultivars were also from different growers. Since post-harvest processing is not carefully monitored (as mentioned above), we cannot cast judgement on their potential (though as buyers, we reserve the non-scientific right to respectively say “let’s not use those!”). There is, however, credible research that supports our experience, including this publication by Ribeiro et al. which demonstrated increased quality potential of Yellow Bourbon over Acaia in the Mantiqueira de Minas region (where APAS is located).
The “Single Layer” Barrier
When Ademilson, Augusto, Alessandro and I met at Oop Coffee in Belo Horizonte last month, they commented that to break through the 85/86 barrier with consistency, at least for their realities, selective harvest with standard single-fruit-high patio drying was not enough.
Cupping with Ademilson, Augusto, Alessandro at Oop Coffee in Belo Horizonte this past November
Initially drying the coffee fruit in a single-fruit-high layer is widely considered a best practice in coffee post-harvest processing to facilitate the removal of loosely absorbed water (water that is held more mechanically than through chemical bonds - Borém and Figueireiro provide a thorough account of water in coffee fruit, Marcos Filho a thorough account of water in grains and agricultural products in general).
What Ademilson, Augusto, and Alessandro have found is that there are two key things to breaking through–
The first is drying rate. Even with selective harvest, their coffees that dried quickly, almost without fail, scored lower than those that scored higher. The second is pushing the fermentation. Instead of quickly spreading out the fruit, if it is left piled up (or bagged, or in a condition where air flow is constricted) and slightly ferments, this can lead to a more complex coffee. This is no longer too big of a secret, and many growers are doing this to “fruitify” their naturals (and their pulped naturals for various honey processes). However, care must be taken to ensure the coffee is not over-fermented. Also, this is not the elixir that turns an 80 to an 86, as some blogs out there are purporting. Ideally, the conditions can be controlled and annotated so that results can be analyzed, and, most importantly, replicated if a desired result is obtained.
For this coming harvest, we have further expanded our partnership by pre-paying for the selectively harvested microlots from APAS members Ademilson Noiman and Augusto Borges. With this pre-payment, they will purchase greenhouses to dry the selectively harvested coffee in the 18/19 harvest.
This is actually something we should have implemented from Day 1. After all, what is the point of selectively harvesting a coffee if it is then subject to whatever the elements happen to me? For someone guaranteeing price for a process and not necessarily the resulting quality, this should have been a no-brainer to secure our investment. While we got some incredible microlots these past few years (including, for example, the same lot that won 6th place in this year’s COE), we have also paid a high price for some very ordinary coffees.
A properly constructed greenhouse not only mitigates risk, but allows for better control over the drying rate, making it easier for the growers to slowly dry their coffee in an effort to break the 85/86 barrier.
Location where Ademilson's greenhouse will be installed
As the harvest approaches, we will again sit down with APAS to talk about what we can do to again bump up quality. Likely this will entail more monitoring - of drying rates, temperatures, etc. - and perhaps explorations into fully washed coffees so that we can offer a more diverse flavor profile for APAS coffees.
Borém, F.M., and L.P. Figueiredo. 2014. “Water in Coffee Fruit and Seeds.” In Handbook of Post-Harvest Coffee Technology, edited by F.M. Borém, 1sted., 14–27. Norcross: Gin Press.
Marcos Filho, Julio. 2005. Fisiologia de Sementes de Plantas Cultivadas. 1sted. Piracicaba: FEALQ.
Oliveros Tascón, Carlos E, Aída E Peñuela Martínez, and Julieth M Jurado Chana. 2009. “Controle La Humedad Del Cafe En El Secado Solar, Utilizando El Metodo Gravimet.” Cenicafe Avances Técnicos 387: 1–8.
Ribeiro, Diego Egidio, Flavio Meira Borem, Marcelo Angelo Cirillo, Mariele Vilela, Bernardes Prado, Vany Perpetua Ferraz, Helena Maria, Ramos Alves, Jose Henrique, and Silva Taveira. 2016. “Interaction of Genotype, Environment and Processing in the Chemical Composition Expression and Sensorial Quality of Arabica Coffee.” African Journal of Agricultural Research 11 (27): 2412–22. doi:10.5897/AJAR2016.10832.