After working for four years in the tea industry I finally managed to visit… a coffee plantation. D’oh! My love affair with caffeine began following University when, unimpressed by the prospect of whoring myself to various city based finance firms, I sought a first job more akin to my foodish endeavours. Trawling through the careers website I spotted teapigs. Tea? Pigs? I was curious to find out more. “Finally the candidate must be passionate about food, willing to go on a biscuit run and get along with Harvey the office dog”, (honestly boss the dog ate my presentation)! It sounded perfect. So following an invitation to interview, I packed my bags, bid Yorkshire farewell and headed to the big city. A week later a new chapter in my life began as teapigs’ tea guru.
teapigs pride themselves in leading the ‘real tea’ revolution, offering a range of whole leaf teas in their tea ‘temples’ – all the taste of loose tea with none of the mess (I remember my sales spiel after all). But despite evangelizing the joys of quality tea we were always a little frustrated at the favour cafés gave to coffee over tea. Many would spend thousands on top quality coffee machines and yet fail to even use boiling water to brew their teas. As my old boss Nick often remarked, “if an alien landed on the high street they would assume we are a nation of coffee drinkers”, something completely remarkable given the UK consumes twice the amount of tea compared to coffee. In the same way Ross, Rachel, Chandler and the gang set a paradigm for a generation of latte lovers, we wanted to do the same for tea. “How could tea become the new coffee?” we asked. My idea of a campaign entitled ‘Fuck-offee Coffee’ certainly was not one of them!
During my time as a tea guru, I suppressed all desires I had about the other side (excluding perhaps occasionally slipping out of the coffee closet with my Italian colleague Sofia for a covert cappuccino). But now no longer a tea boy, I can confess my feelings for coffee have slowly grown and when I mapped out my route for a year of 52 food experiences, working on a coffee plantation was at the top of the list.
Despite my best attempts, I struggled to find a coffee company willing to host me. One fateful morning after a rather indulgent night on the razz with some local chefs, Tumi, the maître d’ at Dill restaurant, served me some coffee to shake off the hangover. On seeing my smiling face after my first gulp, he revealed himself as a national barista champion and that he soon hoped to open a coffee company – Reykjavik Roasters. 18 jobs later, following his help, I found myself at Uberlandia airport on my way to begin my next job with Brazil’s Daterra Coffee.
My coffee companion for the week, Gabriel, greeted me at the airport and it wasn’t long until our conversation turned to our experiences as young whippersnappers of the hot beverage industry. Interestingly, Brazil only deregulated the coffee industry in 1989 meaning the price and quantity of coffee was no longer fixed. As a result, scale economies were no longer practical and the free market encouraged quality over quantity for the first time. Since then, Brazil’s speciality coffee market has boomed and helped established Daterra as one of the leading sustainable, ethical and gourmet coffee companies. Although Daterra export 90% of their coffee to clients such as Fortnum and Mason, the rising middle class of Brazil has contributed to an increased growth in the home market as well (although judging from the god awful sludge I’ve forced down every morning after a night on cachaca, Brazil hostels still have to follow suit).
Life as a coffee farmer began tending to the fields with Gustavo. Although I arrived in the rainy season, the only downfall I met was the mischievous local insects who took it upon themselves to urinate on me as they flew overhead…
The cycle of Brazilian coffee trees is as follows. The rainy season, September to October, brings the first blossoms on the trees. These then develop into the coffee cherries which are finally harvested between May and August when ripe (usually 40 weeks from the first rain). I arrived just as some of first trees were blooming. Had I visited two weeks later the fields would have looked like snow had fallen.
Gustavo explained that two main coffee crops are grown world-wide, Robusta and Arabica. Robusta has high caffeine content, is more resistant to pests (diseases) and can grow under 600m. But at 1,500m Daterra grows Arabica, a variety much more suited to speciality coffee due to its fruity and acidic characters. The lower caffeine content however makes the plants much more vulnerable and from everything Gustavo told me about pests, cold winds, disease, water problems, nutrient content and soil erosion, the pursuit of growing Arabica and speciality coffee is no easy task.
After a hearty lunch of yet more rice and beans, Gustavo took me to observe the trees being pruned. As much as I’d loved to have had a more hands on experience, I’m not sure letting me drive a tractor with huge spinning blades was really a good idea.
As the sunset approached, the distant alarm rang out to signal the end of the day. We drove back to the farm-house to meet Gabriel and climb the mill tower to watch the sun go down. Just 48 hours earlier I had been in a hot kitchen, among the chaos of São Paulo. Today I was in a world of tranquillity. Now I couldn’t wait for sunrise as it meant only one thing…time for some serious coffee drinking. Stay tuned to see how I got on…
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