A Visit to the Daterra Estate in Brazil

By Ari Weinzweig

The Complexity of Getting a Great Cup of Coffee
The truth is that tea is my first language and it’s pretty safe to say that it always will be. But everything changed for me when we started Zingerman’s Coffee Company in 2003.  As in every Zingerman’s business, getting to know our suppliers is an important (and usually really fun) part of bringing great food back to Ann Arbor. Among our favorites in the coffee world are the folks at the Daterra Estate in Brazil from whom we buy the green beans we roast here for our espresso (and a few other of our fantastic coffees).

The Beans in Brazil
The Daterra farm project dates back to the 1980s. Having made it financially through many decades of super-successful work in the tire industry, the De Paschoal family decided that they wanted to build a new business, one that would be more ecologically and socially sustainable than rubber. They gave themselves the assignment of finding something that was unique to Brazil, a business that would help their country, its people, and its amazing environment. They settled on coffee, and 18 years ago began the work to build what is now Daterra, a positive, cooperative and caring community in an industry—coffee—that’s not generally known for those sorts of things.

The name “Daterra” means “the earth” in Portuguese and, not surprisingly, a big push for Daterra right from the start was to do the right thing by the environment. They were the first coffee farm in Brazil to be Rainforest Alliance Certified. While they aren’t certified organic, they are working on some organic coffees for the future. When they do use chemicals they do so sparingly, putting down as little as they possibly can, and that only after looking at natural alternatives first. They have a huge composting project. They use the recycled water, solar heating, fertilize with the pulp and husks left from processing the coffee…all that stuff you’re supposed to do but so few folks really do.

Of the 17,000 acres on the farm, 7,000 are currently planted in coffee. The other 10,000 have been dedicated as a nature preserve for wild animals and trees that are native to this part of the Cerrado. They have a nursery on the farm where they work to grow indigenous trees and plants for use on the farmlands. They are also working to bring the native fauna back, and/or protect those that are still there. In laying out the farm, they actually blocked off corridors so that the animals can move freely and not have their rhythms set off by the coffee growing.

One of the simplest, but most important, of their innovations was the move to ship Daterra’s best coffees in sealed foil bags inside boxes, not in the old-style jute bags that everyone else has used religiously for centuries. “Usually in Brazil the families in the coffee business have been in it for hundreds of years. But we don’t come from a coffee family,” Isabela DePaschoal, daughter of the founder, explained. “Which means that we ask questions that other people don’t ask. We’re not scared of trying new things. So we started to ask about why do we ship in jute bags because the coffee in them is exposed to air and light. That’s when we came up with the idea of using the vacuum pack inside a cardboard box to protect the coffee.”  And, she’s right—the coffee does hold up much better and stays freer of off-aromas that can mar coffee stored in jute.

There are dozens of other examples as well. Special little carts that move the fresh coffee on the drying patios to facilitate more effective moisture evaporation. Daily postings of color-coded maps that show the level of ripeness of the coffee in that area and the state of the harvesting. Black-light inspection of the highest-grade coffees is used to identify defects in the structure of the dried beans, an idea originally employed by the blueberry industry, which has the same problem.

Buying Green, Roasting Brown, Drinking Black
As great as the work done at Daterra is, it would be worth little more than the inventory value of their product unless someone buys the green beans and then roasts them to make the coffee ready for brewing. Granted I’m biased, but I think Allen and Steve (managing partners at Zingerman’s Coffee Company) do both tasks really well. Buying and roasting is certainly no perfect science; there are something like 2,000 different flavor elements in a coffee bean, so I can’t imagine a formula that’s going to tell you exactly how to bring out the best in each bean. The skill of the roaster is basically to find and release the natural flavors that would otherwise remain locked inside the green (raw) beans. And Allen (as the Chief Bean Hound) has consistently impressed me with his ability to do this.

The best work in the world in growing, processing, selecting, and roasting can be completely ruined by bad brewing. This is particularly, especially, emphatically the case when it comes to espresso. To make it consistently great, the folks behind the bar have to taste regularly, then adjust the grind, the dose and the speed at which a shot is pulled to make sure that the espresso we serve is as superb as it should be.

So with that in mind, I want to pay tribute to the businesses that have been so diligent in doing the tasting and constant recalibrating that it takes to make great brewed coffee and espresso a reality:  The staff and management Next Door at the Deli, the Roadshow, and the bakeshop. Without their work, it’s clear that all of Daterra’s incredible effort, and the great roasting and selection work by Allen could easily be converted into one more mediocre little cup of coffee.