Did you know that the dulsao do brasil grand cru is essentially composed of just one variety of coffee? It is bourbon coffee, and its yellow and red cherries come from brazil. Come with us to the vale da grama, a valley that is the leading producer of this precious commodity.
It is rare for a Nespresso grand cru to contain coffee from a single region. It is even rarer for the coffee to be predominantly composed of a single variety. Dulsão do Brasil is the exception that proves the rule, our first “pure origin” coffee to come exclusively from Brazil.
It comes mainly from Vale da Grama, a tiny region close to the town of Poços de Caldas, the uncontested Bourbon capital. Bourbon is a cultivar that belongs to one of the noblest coffee families in Brazil, the country that rules the coffee world like a dominant superpower. Historically, this variety was developed by the French Monarch’s botanists on Bourbon Island. When the island changed its name to Réunion under the new revolutionary regime, Bourbon coffee was carrying out its own revolution far from the Indian Ocean, in Brazil, where it had been introduced a few decades earlier via French Guiana. This coffee, with its red cherries, naturally crossed with a local yellow variety and their unexpected union produced a golden cherry that is sweeter and ripens earlier than the red cherry.
When driving through the Cerrado, the huge savannah that lies between the coast and the virgin forest of the Amazon basin, you are treated to a natural spectacle that is as diverse as a Rio Carnival parade. The Minas Gerais state offers a unique sense of profusion as it stretches from Uberlândia (see Experts section) in the North, to Poços de 71 Caldas in the South. You cross flat lands that seem to have been stripped bare by conquistadors, gold-diggers and herders who have been coming here to make their fortune for over two hundred years. The “Brazilian miracle” keeps its promise, wherever you go: rust-coloured fields darkened by fertilisers, irrigation channels that rise from the ground like artesian aquifers, a crop-spraying biplane swooping like the Red Baron. Even the toucans, who seem to have missed the fact that their impractical beaks should disqualify them from flying, engage in acrobatic displays over your car.
On the way out of Poços de Caldas, a little road splits off to the right and turns into a red earth track thrusting its way through the pine trees. Then, without warning, the tree line breaks, and you’re in Vale da Grama, which looks like a picture-postcard Bavarian landscape. The farms have preserved their colonial austerity, their white houses with navy blue shutters sitting under overhanging roofs. In the early days, when Brazil was still no more than a distant Portuguese province, the only person who lived in this unknown valley was an ancestor of Francisco Lotufo, who now owns “La Fazenda do Barreiro” which produces one of the best coffees in the area. The descendants of this fi rst Lord of Poços de Caldas later sold the land where the town populated by 100,000 inhabitants now stands. Immigrants soon arrived from Italy, built farms and opened shops. Today, you will fi nd the best pizza in Brazil on Correa Neto street, hot from the oven of “Pizza na Roça”. This far-flung corner of Minas Gerais is characterised by thermal springs, where people come to pamper themselves and relax. In this former coffee-growing area, some landowners have grown so prosperous that coffee is now no longer their main source of income. It is almost a gardening hobby for them, like wealthy Europeans who buy themselves a prestigious vineyard to tender. They offer weekend or holiday lodgings where people come to get away from it all. The real espresso coffees they serve are a testament to the relaxed way of life in this region, and are a far cry from the sweetened fi lter coffee that the farmers love to sip. These fazenda coffee plantations are big enough to manage their own exports and employ their own agronomists. They all have their own nurseries, where coffee grains are left to open like a butterfly’s chrysalis. Not all the coffee-growers in the region are gentlemen farmers, however. For them, coffee is not an extra luxury, but a way of life.
Sun-bleached coffee trees
The sun-bleached tops of the coffee trees in Vale da Grama have fi lled the land like fi elds of mirabelle plums every summer for more than a century. It might be a dazzling sight, but this rare coffee could soon disappear. Its naturally fleshy cherry offers beautifully rounded aromas to balance out any acidic tones without blunting them: a cup of Bourbon is thus a perfect prodigy, sweet but not too sweet, strong but not too fi erce. Sadly, though, coffee like this comes at a price, and a high one at that. Sometimes too high for the producers, who cannot allow themselves to sell a variety that produces so little and is so vulnerable to disease at normal coffee prices. They need to be encouraged to maintain this crop, which is older than the Neo-Gothic windows that adorn the old coffee exchange in the port of Santos.
The strength of these plantations
It all started with a limited edition in 2006. Usually, a single harvest is not enough to produce the quantity of good coffee beans required for a large-scale marketing effort. This, however, is Minas Gerais, an agricultural region as vast as it is fruitful, the São Paulo of the agricultural countryside, a kind of vast parallel world or fourth dimension. São Paulo has a population as large as Australia, and sometimes even dreams of becoming a country of its own. As for Minas Gerais, it alone accounts for 50% of Brazilian coffee and 20% of international output. In this industry, Brazilian quantities are always huge in comparison to the capacities of other agricultural countries, even including rare commodities. Basically, there was enough Bourbon coffee for everyone. The weakness, but also the strength of these plantations, is that they are too hilly for harvesting machines to be used instead of traditional methods. With labour becoming increasingly expensive, coffee-growers do not really have a choice. Either they manage to sell their coffee above market rates, or they have to sell their land. This is why Nespresso launched the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program, which puts the world’s best coffees back in the spotlight. It encourages producers to grow more, because the higher labour costs are offset by better quality coffee, which Nespresso buys at full price.
Vale da Grama is the primary producer of Bourbon coffee because it combines a number of the qualities required for good coffee: its soil is watered by thermal springs and is rich in minerals, while distinct seasons limit over-exposure to the sun and prevent the cherries from over-ripening. The resulting coffee is very balanced, but a lot of hard work and precision are also required to guarantee exceptional results. Higher up in Minas Gerais, on the hot plains where there is so little rain, the coffee trees are stimulated by water stress: you merely have to start irrigation to produce intense flowering in a short period of time. This leads to near-perfect harvests, because the fruit all ripens at the same time. Here, though, in Vale da Grama, where the climate and slopes make such sophisticated methods impossible, harvesters have to separate ripe cherries from green ones manually; this selection process cannot be conducted by mechanical harvesters.
Sweet notes of honey
The pulp is removed from the cherries by machine. Traditionally, the coffee is fermented for a few hours first to remove its mucilage. Now, special processes enable this sugary film to leave sweet notes of honey on the grain itself, providing a more refined flavour than the coffee usually produced in the Minas Gerais region. This region is so important because of its high output, but also because the coffee it produces is often excellent for making espressos. Their special aroma provides a base to which stronger, more flavoursome coffee blends can be added. Bourbon coffee, on the other hand, has too much character and is too expensive to produce for it to be used merely as a base. It would be like using premium cognac to flambé your crêpes!
Text: Julien Bouré; Photography: Olivier Gachen