(This is an article I wrote for the Perfect Daily Grind).
Armando Costa of Costa Café knows that you can find high-cupping specialty coffees in Brazil. He also understands that commodity coffee doesn’t always pay – not for small farmers, and not for large exporters.
His company has been exporting high volumes of coffee from the country since 1987, and is now working with specialty as well as commodity. Costa Café is not the only company to do this. The turn from commodity to specialty can be found in many companies across the world and across Brazil.
I have a special insight into this: Armando is my father. He agreed to talk to me about the move to specialty and why he believes in the potential of Brazil’s best beans.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a coffee exporter?
In Brazil, you need to deal with bureaucracy and a lack of infrastructure. Despite that, the greatest challenge is price volatility: lots of people are only in the market to speculate.
When you’re trying to do the real deal, it’s hard to sell coffee for the market price. Most of the time it doesn’t cover costs. We also have processing facilities and warehouses so we add value to the coffee but even so, sometimes we just can’t do it at the market price.
How have you managed to weather the difficult periods?
We never speculate! To have a sustainable coffee export business, the most important thing is to care not about the volume but about the quality of business.
This is challenging because there are times when importers want to pay such low prices that I prefer not to sell coffee for a while. That’s actually what’s kept us going – we only agree to a sale when it’s good for both the producers and for us.
Can you tell me about your relationship with producers?
We prefer to buy our coffee directly from producers and work together over the long term. We value having relationships of mutual respect.
Apart from cupping and processing, an exporter’s biggest job is gathering the coffee from small producers and enabling them to sell it internationally. Most of them do not produce enough to export alone.
Also, in partnership with other coffee-related businesses from the community, we work to support the region. We support schools, improve roads, invest in quality, promote cultural events, and so on. Since our company is based in a coffee-growing area and was established almost 30 years ago, most of my friends are producers or working in coffee-related businesses.
Would you like to be more active in the specialty coffee industry?
Yes, [in fact] we’re opening an office in Carmo do Paranaíba, a small town in the region of Cerrado, Minas Gerais. Amazing coffees are produced there.
Our plan is to help specialty producers we know find access to market. We have seen many producers of specialty that can’t find a way to sell coffee as such, either because it’s hard to export a few bags alone or because they don’t have access to the international market. We want to work to promote these coffees. There is a lot of potential in Brazilian specialty.
What do you wish more consumers knew about Brazilian coffee?
I would like them to know that, although we have a lot of challenges, this is the kind of job you become passionate about. I have friends all around the world that I’ve made through coffee, and some of my suppliers and clients have become close friends. The passion for coffee connects people.
But it’s also important that people [from non-producing countries] have a closer look at how business works here and the main issues we face. I always try to show that to my clients when they visit.
For coffee drinkers, it is important to also recognize the coffee pickers that work for farmers. They deserve attention too. It’s something I always pay attention to on my own farm, making sure that everyone is treated equally, with respect – and paid fairly.
There are many issues that should be discussed internationally, such as rising labor costs and how they affect the quality of coffee – it’s hard to afford selective picking. But I could go on forever!