We love to celebrate farmers for their dedication to craft and for the transcendent coffees they make. But rarely do we have the chance to highlight the itinerant experts who make it their life’s work to support these very farmers.
So when coffee specialist Marcelo Pereira came by our office on his most recent visit to the U.S., we knew we wanted to learn more. His processing acumen is behind some of our most captivating releases of late. From Port of Mokha’s heroic reintroduction of Yemen single origins, to Myanmar’s groundbreaking naturals, Marcelo’s behind-the-scenes role has strengthened the links in the specialty market supply chain—or built out the links where they didn’t exist at all.
With this week marking the release of our fourth and final coffee from Myanmar’s 2017 harvest, we thought we’d share what we learned from Marcelo, as we sat over coffee on a sunny afternoon in our Old Oakland cafe.
Before we get into your most recent project, can you tell us how you—a former grader of commodity coffee who cupped one-thousand coffees in a day—entered specialty coffee?
When I was growing up in Venezuela, I was used to coffee that sat on a heating plate for hours. Tons of sugar and tiny cups made the drinking experience less traumatic. It wasn’t until I moved to Costa Rica that I tasted just-roasted coffee that came from local farms. Everything changed. I couldn't believe such a thing was actually coffee. I started visiting farms and roasting my own coffee at home. I even opened my own roastery. I wanted to learn all that I could.
Eventually, personal reasons took me to Espiritu Santo, Brazil, a tiny region that produces more coffee than the entire country of Colombia. I was surrounded by coffee farmers, traders, and brokers, and lots of coffee. It was there that I learned to cup, trade, and grade coffee. I started doing quality control for companies, cupping as many as one-thousand cups per day. It was so intense that after three months of being a tasting machine, I was done.
I eventually got my Q certificate for specialty Arabica and R certificate for specialty Robusta. Later, I joined Technoserve, a nonprofit that connects rural farmers to market strategies. When I was volunteering for them in Ethiopia, my entire perspective on coffee changed.
Myanmar opened up to democratization in 2011, and you became involved in a coffee project there a couple years later. Eventually, you became Lead Coffee Trainer for the entire project, which was an impressive collaboration between several organizations, including USAID, Winrock International, Coffee Quality Institute, and the farmers of Shan State. What was the coffee economy like when you first arrived?
The coffee was dismal, and the yields were the lowest in the world. When we arrived, there really wasn’t any value chain that connected farmers to profitable international markets, and little knowledge about how to enhance the base price of the coffee. We were faced with reworking the domestic value chain, and building new international connections.
Given such low yields, participating in the commodity economy was not even a possibility. But the conditions for coffee were good, with high elevation and good canopy, and the farmers were very organized. So, we were faced with the challenge of figuring out what kind of processing would make for the highest-quality coffee.
Both the United Nations and USAID had evaluated Myanmar’s specialty potential. Why are these organizations even thinking about coffee?
Well, it’s the same reason that I fell in love with specialty coffee. Paying farmers above the commodity price has the potential to return dignity and wellbeing to forgotten farmer communities. It is the perfect way for farmers to get revenue for their skills, mastery, and detail-oriented processing methods.
Natural processing was the method Burmese farmers had already used, but with poor results. Why did you think this was the best processing method going forward?
There’s a reason that natural coffee is the standard when you have no means—it’s the only way, really, to do it. And these were very poor communities, water insecure and without electricity. That being said, ninety-nine percent of naturals produced worldwide are bad. They might taste funky, winey, like olives, or like vinegar. It was not an easy sell to the farmers—that we could actually produce the best coffee in the world using the simplest method there is. They definitely considered natural coffees to be a reflection of their poverty.
How did you convince them that this would make delicious coffee?
Before we even implemented new techniques, we did several processing experiments with very small batches to find out the potential of the coffee. We had samples of natural, semi-washed, and washed coffees. The naturals had scores of 89 and 91. They weren’t just good, they were unique, with a tart aftertaste—think tamarind with grapefruit. They were so balanced and delicate that the method of natural processing wasn’t even apparent.
Specialty standards are quite high. How did you support farmers to learn new methods?
In other markets, when farmers are associated with washing stations, they have the motivation to oversee quality. So we organized farmers into groups of about one-hundred households. By removing the brokers in the value chain, farmers were able to receive a first payment upon delivering the cherry, and a second after processing. Suddenly, they wanted their cherry to be perfect, because they saw the coffee as theirs.
We also created a cascade training system. I trained the first farmer's trainer group that spoke English. They then trained other farmers, who trained more, and so on. When a third party assessed how many people we reached, they estimated 17,000 farmers.
And it showed in next year’s competition. That was the first year that the farmers exported coffee, and they earned three, four, or five times what they used to get. The amazing thing was, it was the same coffee, but made so much better because of the farmers’ efforts. Something like coffee is a portrait of whoever made it. When it’s good, the farmers behind it earn a sense of respect. To me, that’s the most important part—when you produce something of high quality, it shows a part of you.
Was there a moment when farmers’ ideas of what their coffee could be shifted?
Yes. When farmers came to view their coffee as a food. You know, coffee is a drink for the developed world. It’s too valuable not to sell. It’s not like wine, where you visit the place of origin to drink the best. So, one training we did was to have farmers roast, grind, and brew their coffee. The resources to do this didn’t even really exist. We roasted the coffee in a fireplace, ground the coffee in a mortar and pestle, and brewed it in pots. They started to learn how to taste it. Now, instead of storing their coffee alongside the livestock, it’s stored in the kitchen. When I go into people’s homes, I’m offered a cup of coffee. There’s an appreciation for it now, and a sense of pride.
What role do roasters and buyers like us play in supporting Myanmar’s new specialty coffee?
It’s not just about producing great coffee; it’s also about appreciating great coffee. There needs to be an audience out there ready to appreciate the difference. Most buyers are still in the mindset that coffee needs to be cheap. But the commodity system is a legacy of colonization: We’re paying for the intrinsic value of coffee, the caffeine boost, not for anything more. We need to break that by finding strategic partners, people who are willing to pay for added value, because smallholder farmers in communities like Shan State will never be able to compete for volume.
What are the challenges facing the burgeoning coffee economy?
After 2019, the support from USAID to the farmers in Shan State will end. Even though the money from USAID is wonderful, it distorts. Now farmers are going to have to learn from the mistakes they’ll inevitably make, and carry that risk themselves. Ultimately, I hope that I’ll be able to return there as a consultant to help.
Coffee often comes from conflict zones, and we take care to buy from farmers, not militarized groups. But the tragedy unfolding with the Rohingya Muslims is catastrophic.
There are no words for what’s happening there. All I can say is that turning our backs on farmers, isolating them further, is not part of the solution.
What keeps you motivated to work in far-flung places in specialty coffee?
For those of us who drink coffee, coffee is something cool or stylish. But in coffee-growing areas, it’s in crisis. Older generation of farmers are retiring, and younger generations don’t want to farm because there’s no money in it… Unless, that is, we operate outside of the commodity system. We need to make farming cool again.
Any last words you’d like people to consider about the coffee from Myanmar?
The work of over two-thousand farmers goes into one container from Myanmar. Compare that to Brazil, where just one farmer’s work might be in a container. A few years ago, farmers from Shan State didn’t sort their cherry or even sell their coffee when it was fresh. Now, it’s delicious. Just imagine the effort that took.
Learn a few of the many ways that coffee is enjoyed .