The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / December 2007
By Larry Luxner
CAMPINAS, Brazil — With all its attention to regions, terroires, aged wooden boxes and quality scores, one might think Daterra Atividades Rurais is actually an upscale winery rather than one of Brazilís most prestigious specialty coffee exporters.
Isabela Pascoal Becker rather likes that association.
Pascoal is marketing manager at Daterra, which is based in Campinas, a large city in the Brazilian state of São Paulo. More than 20 years ago, Daterra — which is part of a large 57-year-old tire retailing group — decided to invest in agribusiness and specialty coffee. The group, headed by veteran coffee farmer Luiz Norberto Pascoal, bought a large farm in the Cerrado Minheiro area, which was then making a name for itself in specialty coffee.
"We spent the first eight years recreating the ecosystem of Cerrado Minheiro, to attract the flora and fauna we would need to have good production and good soil to produce specialty coffee with sustainable practices," Pascoal told The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal during a recent interview in Campinas. "In the beginning, there was no certification seal. For best management purposes, we decided to build Daterra the same way one would build a winery. The whole area is divided into minifarms and terroirs."
To be exact, its farm covers 6,800 hectares, of which 2,800 hectares are devoted to coffee; the rest is preserved land. The 2,800 hectares planted with coffee trees are divided into 88 mini-farms demarcated by variety; these in turn are subdivided into blacks called "quadras."
According to a brochure describing Daterra's operations, "this zooming-in approach allows Daterra to trace its coffee from the planted seeds to the delivered beans, thus certifying its coffee origin. GPS and radio technology make it possible to speedily transfer the harvested cherries to the quality processing unit."
Pascoal said Daterra — which was featured in a 2003 New York Times article about Brazil's coffee industry — has 220 permanent employees, but that the work force rises to 1,000 during harvest time. The company produces 65,000 to 70,000 60-kg bags per year.
"We said we wouldn't export anything until we achieved at least a 74 score on our own standards. We would also invite people from the Cerrado area to cup the coffees as well," she said, explaining how the company developed.
"Meanwhile, we were investing in improving quality by finding defects and researching physiology. We wanted to make sure we could make a good espresso with sustainable practices," she continued. "Little by little, we began partnering with universities in Brazil. Because we don't come from a coffee background, we donít bring any traditional ideas with us. Sometimes, youíre in the business for so long, you donít even question things, but because we were not, we questioned every detail."
Pascoal, whose father took over Daterra the age of 23 when his father died, is a third-generation company official. She said that the company, in partnership with the IAC (Agronomic Institute of Campinas) and Illycaffé, maintains a top collection of germoplasm to promote ongoing improvement in coffee quality. Its coffee trees grow at altitudes of between 1,000 and 1,200 meters (3,250 to 3,900 feet) and are subject to a narrow range of temperatures, from 59 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
The coffee company was Brazil's first to earn Rainforest Alliance certification; it has also acquired ISO, EurepGap and UTZ Kapeh certifications.
"We started exporting 12 years ago," she said, estimating that 99% of Daterra's production ends up overseas. Japan is the company's top client, taking 25% of total exports; other important customers are Australia, Italy, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium and the United States.
"Our company does not buy coffee from anyone else," she said. "We must assure the quality of our coffee. Sometimes, depending on the crop, if I have a smaller crop one year, I look for coffee on the market. But it's not our business to trade coffee. If we do this, itís more a question of supply and demand."
Daterra develops its own blends, she said, noting that "we have a menu of almost 20 blends, all of them estate coffee of controlled origin, which is very different from other farms."
At present, Daterra's coffees score between 74 to 92, and its coffees sell for anywhere from $140 to $400 a bag.
"Now we sell our coffee under our own brands. We also wanted to sell our product internally, because we think Brazilians also deserve to drink quality coffee," said Pascoal. "While traveling abroad, we learned about selling coffee online. This allows the roaster to roast coffee just before shipping, so customers get a better product. In the U.S., this is very popular, but here in Brazil, itís just beginning. So we became the first company in Brazil to sell coffee online."
To that effect, Daterra launched Atelie do Café in January 2006 as sort of a club where people can learn about quality coffee through classes, cupping and onsite visits to Daterra's farms.
"The idea is to improve the people's knowledge about quality coffees in Brazil. That's the whole point," she said, noting that this, indirectly, helps sales.
"All vintage coffee is green, since green coffee can last much longer than roasted, and roasted coffee in whole beans lasts much longer than ground coffee. If you want to buy 250 grams every week, that's OK, but the idea of Atelie isn't only us selling our coffee, but the best coffees that might come up in a year," she said.
The company has also borrowed a page from the wine industry and begun packaging its best "vintage" coffees in wooden boxes ó sort of the way wines are aged in special oak barrels.
"We can make very good quality, but when you ship in jute bags the coffee is exposed to light and moisture. Probably a lot of what we've been doing to improve quality is lost, so why ship in jute bags? We thought about putting it in boxes instead," she said, explaining that jute bags must be extremely clean and free of any undesirable odors in order to maintain freshness of the beans.
"The first idea was to vacuum-pack coffee in 53-lb cardboard boxes. After a year and a half, we learned that coffee — depending on the quality — was actually getting better in boxes, just like wine. So we decided to age coffee in those boxes, but only very high-quality coffee with the fewest defects as possible.
"Now we have clients who buy containers only with boxes. It's been already proven to preserve quality for three years. If you're looking for coffee to make an espresso base, the box can be an option, because it's been aged."
Pascoal proudly said her company has patented boxed coffee both in Brazil and internationally. She said Daterra's patented PentaBox assures three years of total freshness. In addition, Daterra has managed to win some prizes along the way.
"One of the reasons we decided to launch Atelie is because we received some prizes for sustainability. In 2005, the Rainforest Alliance made a cupping among all samples, and we placed third or fourth after Central American coffee," she said. "That same year, we were named as a standard-setter by Rainforest Alliance. And in May 2004, Troels Poulsen (from Denmark) won the World Barista Championships using 100% Daterra roasted by George Howell."
In 2006, she said, another Dane — Klaus Thomsen — won the championship using Daterra blended with La Minita from Costa Rica.
"One of our passions is not only making good coffee but also improving our espresso," she said. "You can fake a filtered coffee, but you can't do this with espresso."