Homage to Opus: A Long Slow Cup

By Ari Weinzweig

It’s only a few weeks ago I finished up an article for a business magazine about what (my partner) Paul has long referred to as “Natural Laws of Business.” (Happy to send you a copy if you like – email me at zingtrain@zingermans.com.) One of the ones on the list (#10 to be exact) is that “It generally takes a lot longer to make something great happen than people think.” To build a really sustainable business generally takes a long time, a lot of ups and downs, a strong vision and the stubbornness and determination to stick with it through all the dissonance, distraction and dissatisfaction that confronts all positive change in the making.

With that in mind, I give enormous credit to anyone who makes meaningful, lasting change like that a reality. Which is why I’m so fascinated – in good ways – with the work of one of our best coffee suppliers, the folks from Daterra, down in the Cerrado region (in the State of Minas Gerais) of central Brazil.

Opus OneDaterra dates back to the 1980’s, when the De Paschoal family decided that they wanted to develop a business that would be more ecologically and socially sustainable than the tire trade in which they’d done very well over the decades. The family’s roots in Brazil and in business are long ones – the grandfather of current owner, Luis Norberto Paschoal, came to South American from Italy intending to be a coffee grower. He ended up opening a specialty food shop, which became the foundation of the family business. Decades later they ended up in the tire trade. The coffee business grew from their commitment to find a work that would create and sell something unique to Brazil, a business that would help their country, its people, and its amazing environment.

To quote Luis when he was up here last fall, “Daterra is a not a farm. Daterra is a project. It’s a coffee concept.” He shook his head, stopped for a second, looked me long in the eye and then went on. “Sustainability,” he said with great seriousness, “plus quality. This is what the customer wants. At the end, every customer wants quality and sustainability. Nobody will say, ?I’m against that.’ The problem is how to put the two together.”

Thinking about what Daterra is doing reminds me of one of those obscure subsets of history that I love – the utopian socialist movement of the 19th century in Europe – a series of idealistic attempts to create positive small, “utopian” communities (most which pretty much failed, unfortunately). And while Daterra has been made possible only because of very successful capitalism, they are, nevertheless, creating a quality-oriented, environmentally responsible, cooperative and caring community of the sort that the utopian socialists imagined. And they’re doing it in an industry – coffee – that’s not generally known for those sorts of things.

We’ve been working with Luis and the staff at Daterra ever since we started the Zingerman’s Coffee Company four and a half years ago. Allen (managing partner and coffee roaster) spec’ed their beans for our Espresso Blend #1 right from the get go. I appreciate the wisdom of his choice every time I enjoy an espresso at the Deli or the Roadhouse. It is, obviously, highly recommended for espresso making. But the blend is actually also excellent brewed with a filter or in a press pot. We have the Espresso Blend #1 brewed at the Bakehouse every day so try some next time you’re out there.

I also love their Sweet Yellow coffee – it’s made from a series of very special yellow (not green) bean varietals (Bourbon, Catoise and Caturra) that they’ve spent years working on. The brewed cup is subtly sweet, elegant, very nutty, and very smooth, almost buttery, with lots of high notes with a really long finish with a light touch of chocolatiness that’s not at all bitter.

But in the moment I’m most excited about the exceedingly limited, exceptionally lovely (if also way big expensive) Opus 1. The supply of this stuff is so limited that I’m wary of even bringing it up here. There are only something like 50 boxes for the whole world. I’m grateful we got any at all! For all I know by the time you read this we’ll already have sold the little we got. (I guess though it’s not too soon to reserve yours for next year.) Among the only other American spots that have it are Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa.

“The Opus story is a very crazy one,” Luis related during a visit last month. “Back in 1954 Madagascar sent some samples of new coffee plant genetics to Ethiopia. In 1964, this plant, racemosa, which never hybrids with Arabica, was then sent from Ethiopia to Brazil [where] they had to be in quarantine for two or three months to make sure there was no new disease. They were all together in one small plantation but one plant in the nursery cross-fertilized with Arabica. One researcher saw this plant was different and he checked and he saw that it had more chromosomes. That one single plant was crossed with the Bourbon coffee that is grown in Brazil. And that plant became aramosa (as in “Arabica” + “Racemosa”), then later it came to be called guarani for the Indian tribe Tupy-Guarani.

“In 1993, we made a contract with this research center to have in our farm one area to research all the varieties that they had. So we started to research. Every year we planted 470 plants. Of those you take 17 that produce well and 17 that have good taste, and you cross them. Then we wait two and half years, plant again, and when you finally get to the fifth generation you’ve dropped what is called ?non-conformable trees’ down from 80 percent to about 20 percent and that’s when you have commercially viable production. This year we could have our first crop?just twelve 132-pound bags. That’s it. After cleaning it was only ten bags. This is Opus 1.”

Like I said, Rule #10 says that it takes a lot longer to make something great happen than most people realize. Opus 1 coffee qualifies on both counts – very long in the making and very special. The coffee is noteworthy in this context, simply because of how many years of careful, patient work it’s taken to have it available for sale, even in these super limited quantities.

But beyond its story, the Opus is amazing for two reasons. The first is the one most everyone else seems to be talking about most – Opus 1 is naturally low in caffeine. Don’t read this wrong – Opus 1 is not a decaf. It’s a bean that just has a LOT less caffeine – about 30 percent of what’s found in most coffees. That’s a nice thing. But while everyone else is all wound up about that, what I’m actually more excited about is how great it tastes. It’s pretty special stuff – light, nutty, notably floral, really delicious.