Brazil: Tired Of Being Just A Hill Of Beans

The world's leading coffee exporter is starting to cash in on the gourmet craze

On a large rotating table, Jack Robson Silva sets out 12 glass cups in two semi-circles. He spoons a different kind of ground roast coffee into each set of cups and fills them with freshly boiled water. He then hunches down over the table and uses a spoon to take quick sips from one set, spitting into a spittoon and cleaning his palate with filtered water between tastings. Then he tries the other set. "This one has plenty of chocolate," says Robson, "and lots of body, which is what I expected. And the other has more floral aromas. A nice surprise."

Terms like chocolate, fruit, and floral and citric are common lingo in the world of coffee cuppers, as tasters are called. Surprisingly, it's a language that Brazil, the world's biggest coffee producer, is only now starting to master. "Until recently, the only terms we used were soft, hard, rio, and rioy [more or less bitter]," says Silva, who works for Café Bom Dia, of Varginha in the state of Minas Gerais.

Café Bom Dia is one of the companies spearheading a revolution in Brazil's coffee industry. The country supplies one-third of the world's coffee, with exports totaling 26.4 million 60-kilo sacks worth $2 billion last year -- twice as much as its nearest rival, Vietnam. But nearly 90% of Brazil's coffee, which is primarily of the arabica variety, is exported as green beans, while much of the rest is processed into instant coffee. Neither is much known for its quality. "Brazil has always been an exporter of quantity rather than quality," says Glauco Carvalho of Embrapa, an agricultural research company in Campinas.

That's starting to change. The first step was the abolition in 1992 of a government agency that bought up farmers' coffee beans regardless of how they tasted. Since then, Brazilian producers have competed in the open market, forcing them to pay more attention to quality. Nowadays, specialty Brazilian coffees sold at online auctions can fetch more than $1,000 a sack, compared with a Brazilian average of $100. Ipanema Coffees, a small specialty producer, sells its Brazil Ipanema Bourbon brand coffee through Starbucks Corp.'s (SBUX ) chain. By roasting and blending coffee rather than exporting it raw, these companies keep for themselves the added value that usually goes to foreign roasters. They are still a tiny part of the industry, but they are growing year by year.


Café Bom Dia is one of the few Brazilian companies active in every stage of the production chain, from growing to roasting, blending, and packing. The company will not divulge sales figures but says exports of roast coffee are set to reach $20 million this year -- a four-fold increase over 2004. The company supplies Royal Ahold and Carrefour, among others. "No other [Brazilian] roaster operates the way we do, from tree to [supermarket] shelf," says company President Sydney Marques de Paiva, whose family started growing coffee near Varginha in 1895. "For roasted, specialty coffees, we get between 4 and 10 times the price we get for green beans," he says.

Café Bom Dia is quickly building a following stateside. Its exports to the U.S. are now running as high as $2 million per month. The company sells its Marques de Paiva brand of coffees, including an organic variety, through Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s (WMT ) Sam's Club chain and other retailers. "We selected Marques de Paiva for the tremendous quality of the product," says Sam's Club spokesperson Jolanda Stewart, who notes that Marques de Paiva beat out several popular national brands in a consumer blind taste test.

On Aug. 1, Café Bom Dia introduced Café Brazil, a brand of non-organic coffee to be sold through Wal-Mart's Sam's Club outlets worldwide. Priced at $6.88 for a 2.5-lb. bag, Café Brazil is designed to go head to head with Folgers, America's biggest-selling ground coffee. One way or the other, the coffee-drinking masses can finally sample some of Brazil's higher-end brews for themselves.

By Jonathan Wheatley in Varginha, Brazil

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