Introducing Sebastião Afonso


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Or should I say, introducing a man who needs no introduction, at least in the massive world of the Brazilian coffee industry. Sebastião Afonso da Silva has risen from humble beginnings—he is one of over 20 children born into a family of rice sharecroppers—to the top echelons of Brazil’s specialty coffee industry, winning numerous awards along the way, including the prized Cup of Excellence. A quick search for him and his farm, Sítio Baixadão, yields hyperbolic headlines such as “Best coffee on the planet” and “Coffee grower sells coffee for record price.” While many farmers have dreamt of large land acquisitions, mass production, and power through sheer volume, Sebastião presents a model for a different dream, one of recognition not because of scale, but of quality.


Sítio Baixadão sits high in the Mantiqueira mountains. Several parts of the farm, such as this natural “bowl,” have unique environmental features that result in longer maturation and complex flavors.

Sítio Baixadão sits high in the Mantiqueira mountains. Several parts of the farm, such as this natural “bowl,” have unique environmental features that result in longer maturation and complex flavors.

Seven years ago I moved to Brazil to study under Flávio Borém, one of the world’s foremost experts in post-harvest coffee processing, and pursue a master’s degree in Agricultural Engineering at the Universidade Federal de Lavras (UFLA). For my master’s thesis experiment, an exploration of how the “natural” flavor develops in naturally processed coffees, we initially harvested coffee in August at a farm in Carmo de Minas. The undertaking was large, involving around 20 students selectively harvesting and sorting the coffee and helping set up and monitor the treatments. And after all that work, a massive power outage during the experiment shut down the coffee dryers as well as the ovens where we were measuring moisture content during the drying. Because of bureaucratic issues, I was only able to re-perform my experiment in late November. Problem was, in Brazil the harvest runs from May to August, so where could we find someone still harvesting in November? Enter Sebastião Afonso and his little slice of heaven, Sítio Baixadão. Not only is his farm higher in altitude than most, his unique microclimate also results in a much longer maturation period. (One likely reason Sebastião has not won even more Cup of Excellence competitions: the competition is often held when he is still harvesting his best coffees!) So we called up Sebastião, who received us with open arms. He had his crew help us selectively harvest the coffee, and he and his son Helisson even harvested quite a bit themselves


Master’s thesis experiment at Sítio Baixadão. Agricultural Engineer and fellow student Guilherme Alves training the pickers on the maturation level required for the experiment.

Master’s thesis experiment at Sítio Baixadão. Agricultural Engineer and fellow student Guilherme Alves training the pickers on the maturation level required for the experiment.

It takes two to do the “terroir tango”—the land can’t do it alone—and Sebastião is a special guy who has learned how to harness what he has. At the time I conducted my experiment, he had just built a cabin on the side of his drying patio so that he could sleep there during the harvest and ensure that the coffee was properly harvested.


Sebastião and his son Helisson showing the quality of their harvest

Sebastião and his son Helisson showing the quality of their harvest

I hope you enjoy this coffee from Sebastião as much as we do. We are very proud of our partnership, and hope to carry it on for years to come.

Joel

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