A sea of 800,000 coffee plants is one of the working landscapes that Byron Holcomb has in a daily basis. He traded New York City for the peace of Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Managing the entire length of a coffee chain is a business bet that is paying off for a Brooklyn roastery, its two farms, and mill and warehouse in Brazil and a coffee shop in the heart of New York City.
MINAS GERAIS, Brazil
It was the fifth of the month, payday at Santa Izabel farm located in Ouro Fino, a city of 30,000 people in the rich coffee producing region of Southeastern Brazil.
Leaving the fields following a hard day of work, and still in their dirty clothes, workers gathered happily in front of the main building to receive their paycheck and to take home a package with basic food supplies. Known in Portuguese as Cesta Básica, this is one of the several constitutional rights that workers enjoy in Brazil. All 40 were called by name and one by one, they stepped forward to sign their receipt.
The very same scene can be witnessed the first days of the month at every locally operated Brazilian farm that respects the labor rights — nothing extraordinary until you learn that this payroll was authorized in New York City. Nobletree Coffee is headquartered in one of the most urban cities in the world in the world but its backyard is a peaceful plot of land 4,700 miles (7,500 kilometers) away, in Brazil.
Multinational corporations exert great control over their supply chains but a vertically integrated business model for small roasters is a bold plan. Nobletree, a division of FAL Coffee, spent several years developing essential links in the chain to support its roasting operation. The company began with a roastery in Red Hook, Brooklyn and later added retail space and distribution. In 2013 Nobletree purchased Santa Izabela and established a milling and export operation. In October they plan a grand opening for a café inside the Oculus at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
“In difficult times, betting on a project as complex as this could be madness, but the positive financial results from the farms are proof that we are moving in the right direction,” explains the agribusiness director, Byron Holcomb. Holcomb, an American biologist with great deal of experience in coffee production was chosen to align operations between New York and Brazil in a daily basis.
His first step was to connect the farmers, roasters, and company baristas via Skype calls, Whatsapp chats, and lots of emails that are exchanged every day to shorten the distance from soil to sip. In 2013 after the company bought Santa Izabel farm, Holcomb and his wife made the mountains of Minas Gerais their home. The main goal was producing quality coffee for Nobletree’s roastery. The plan was so successful that the company purchased a second farm – Monte Verde, located in Carmo de Minas (also in Minas Gerais state) the following year.
After three successful harvests, green coffee production is sufficient to meet internal requirements and support several external coffee buyers. “Historically, an average of 35% of our specialty coffee goes to the Nobletree roastery in New York City,” said Holcomb. “We also sell coffee to medium and small roasters in California, New Zealand, and London. However, we always reserve the best beans for New York for our own operation. Let’s say that great coffee stays in the family,” he said.
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More than 16 coffee varietals are planted on the farm.
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The 100-year-old Santa Izabel farm formerly produced milk, beef, and horses.
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Steep mountains of Minas Gerais make manual picking mandatory.
The remaining coffee stays in Brazil. “Part of it is negotiated with Suplicy coffee shop chain and the rest of our good coffee is dedicated to local contests,” explains Holcomb. The company was recognized at last year’s Cup of Excellence competition. “We got the 11th place with coffees from Santa Izabel, which made us really proud,” he said.
Challenges with climate, insufficient plant nutrition, and simply spilling the beans during harvest can result in quantities of low quality coffee. This is normal in any farm. Nobletree sells coffee that scores less than 80 points (using the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s cupping methodology) in the Brazilian internal market with the help of a local broker. The firm has learned to monetize every bean it grows.
According to Holcomb, the challenge for vertical integration is assigning a qualified person in each sector. With this, each detail of the coffee chain will be taken care of competently and in the end, the investment is justified. “When you start talking about lower quality coffees, I don’t how to sell them, for example. For this reason, I have an experienced broker who helps me to get the best prices. It is important to have intellectual capital that helps you with it. And this… well, this is challenging,” he explains.
A language barrier, local bureaucracy, and managing more than 70 workers were challenges that Holcomb faced at the onset. But the biggest thing was accepting how difficult it is to do business in Brazil, he said. Simple procedures such as understanding the tax structure, paying bills, and hiring and firing workers according to established rules presented complications. “We did not expect some of those problems. What we expected to be really simple, such as opening a bank account, took weeks and weeks and weeks. Learning all these processes at once can be overwhelming,” he recalls.
Socialization and alignment with local staff at both farms and the warehouse took a while. The transition from Brazilian to American bosses wasn’t a problem for Délia Gomes de Oliveira, 41, who works at the Monte Verde farm. “I noticed that Byron had difficulties communicating but we found a way to talk to each other. The most important thing is that he always respected me and my family since he took the advice of the farm’s management,” says Oliveira, who was born on the farm and lives there with her family.
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The 3,700-square-meter greenhouse has a 3% elevation and a combination of doors and curtains to enable free flow of air.
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Workers process an average 2,000 bags during the annual harvest.
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Brazilian technology for Brazilian beans.
The centenary farm in Carmo de Minas is one of few properties that still provides housing and infrastructure for workers. Called Colônia, these living areas provide workers a home with minimal infrastructure such as electrical access, and transportation for school-age children. “These are mini cities and every detail demands special attention. The access between farm and the city with descent pavement is one of them,” says Holcomb. In the past, the Monte Verde farm housed as many as 30 families.
Délia and her sister Zélia Gomes de Oliveira, 43, saw their parents and siblings dedicating hard work in those lands for long years. They began working at 10 years of age. “In that time, there were no regulations or certification rules. So it was normal for children help the grown-ups picking the cherries,” explains Zélia. They spent many years collecting coffee in the steep mountains, but shortly after Holcomb arrived they were promoted to the drying yard.
Their special care with details with the beans at the sun, organization in the classification bureau and the lots’ documentation made a difference in the business. Despite the increase in pay, Délia misses her days among the coffee trees. “We have lots of responsibilities in the new position. All the details matter because we cannot mix the lots and the paper work is big too. I miss my time when picking cherries was the only thing to care about,” she says with a shy smile.
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The staff includes three women.
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The Nobletree coffee shop in NYC features branded serving dishes.
The vertical strategy remains the core business model. First came the roaster, next the farms, the mills and the warehouse in Brazil but “we are not quite there in our vision ‘from soil to sip’. Yet!” says Holcomb. “We haven’t gone from our farms all the way to the cup. We sell to other coffee shops, but it is not our cup. It’s their cup,” he said.
The last link in the chain is the café opening at the World Trade Center. Brand manager Nigel Hall said that a team of 15 (maybe 20) well trained baristas will prepare the best coffee that their own farms produced during the year. “We want you to someday go to NY, walk into our store and order a coffee from Santa Izabel and receive a delicious cup of coffee after visiting our farm,” states Holcomb.
The 850 sq. ft. store will offer espresso, batch brew, manual brews and nitro cold brew. Customers pay $12.99 for a 1.5-liter pouch of Dromedaire Cuvée cold brew that is also available in 2.5-gallon bags and in nitrogen-infused 5-gallon kegs for wholesale and private-label purchases.
“We will be using a mod bar system consisting of Modbar espresso modules and pour-over taps and two Fetco batch brewers,” explains Hall. Half of the beans served in this store will be Brazilian from Nobletree’s farms. The remaining coffee will come from different origins.
Once the shop is up and running smoothly look for a planned expansion and innovations like a coffee pop-up. Now that the company controls the entire supply chain there are many new links to forge.
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The farm is upgrading to water-free de-pulping machinery.
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Colombian manufactured processing equipment.
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New York and Brazil are a Skype call apart. In New York the board of directors at FAL Coffee directs operations that impact 135,000 coffee plants and more than 80 employees in Brazil. In order to assure different sensory profiles, the two farms grow varietals such as Mundo Novo, Obatã, Catuaí, Yellow and Red Catuaí, Yellow and Red Bourbon, Acaiá, and Icatu.
Three gardens (two conventional plantations and one organic) also grow non-conventional varietals. Terroir, genetics, and processing combined to make a great cup of coffee.
“We are testing to see the real potential of our terroir and the genetic improvement,” says agribusiness director Byron Holcomb.
Technology is important. The equipment inventory includes tractors, trucks, different models of driers, and greenhouse. Extensive use of Brazilian and Colombian processing equipment provides efficient and eco-friendly solutions. The company has invested in a water free de-pulping machinery, septic tanks for waste and wastewater treatment to make the farms sustainable.
In addition to sanitary garments, the workers have special installations with showers and dressing rooms for their personal hygiene after a full day of work. This is one of several requirements for certifications that the farms are focused on acquiring.