August 19, 2016

Interview With James Tooill: Brazil Is The Future of Specialty


James Tooill is the US Cup Tasters Champion 2015, the US Brewers Cup First Runner-Up 2016 – not to mention US Brewers Cup finalist 2014 – and he’s sitting opposite me on a bench on Fazenda Primavera in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

The first thing you notice about James is his easy manner and quickness to laugh. But underneath that is a deep intelligence and curiosity. I think back to two nights ago: he was the first and only one to get in Fazenda Primavera’s swimming pool, beer in hand, dancing to the music – the latter more, I suspect, to keep himself warm in the chilly pool than because of the drinks everyone consumed. A little while later, he was turning the interviewer-interviewee relationship back on me, asking thought-provoking questions that I had to react fast to keep up with.

We’re here for the Ally Coffee Champions Origin Trip 2016, a whirlwind tour through Brazil. We’re talking eight days, twelve farms, two parties with producers, and a lot of good of coffee. As James and I sip our morning brew, I move the conversation to Brazil. James speaks in a low, measured voice with regular pauses; I wonder if he does that to give himself more time to formulate answers. Beneath the veneer of a relaxed conversationalist, he’s a deep thinker.

SEE ALSO: Interview with World Brewers Cup Champion Tetsu Kasuya

James inspects drying cherries at Pedro Carnielli, Espírito Santo

James inspects drying cherries at the farm of Pedro Carnielli in Espírito Santo. Credit: Ally Coffee

Brazil: A Continent in a Country

“It’s beautiful here,” James tells me. “And Brazil’s so big. We were in Espírito Santo, and it looked like Guatemala. And now we’re here in Minas Gerais, and it looks like the South of France. I think. I’ve never been there!”

We laugh. Then he continues, “I think people should know how many different kinds of coffee there are, and even just how many different kinds of cultures and people there are, here. People were so Italian before.”

I think back to our first day, when we were visiting third-generation Italian Brazilians. They still spoke Italian, breaking into conversation with Gianni Cassatini from Nuova Simonelli. After showing us around their family farms, they served us homemade cheese, dried meat, and fruit wines.

I ask him his opinion on the different sizes of the farms. In Fazenda Tres Barras, producer Sandrinho and his mother pick and dry 30 bags of coffee a year. In Fazenda Primavera, where we’re sitting right now, they produce 40,000.

“I think you should follow what your values are. We have a lot of customers and small business owners and baristas who are very small business-oriented, and that’s what they value, and they only do grassroots. I think that’s beautiful. And I think they should know that the possibility for that exists in Brazil. And in Central America.”

James Tooill stood behind African beds listens to a person out of the picture

James (right) listens to Ricardo of Ally Coffee explain Sandrinho’s drying methods on Fazenda Tres Barras.

Big Farms Make for Big Impact

“But for me,” he continues, “I love this place, Primavera. I just love this idea of the efficiency of it, and the way that the coffee doesn’t change hands so much, so that vertically integrated partners can create more value for their employees and create more value for their customers. I feel very good about their sustainability audits and their best practices. And I mean, just the expertise here. There’s all of these combined hundreds of years of expertise.”

“Graciano Cruz, the Consultant, he’s very environmentally conscious. For his vision, he could spend 300 years in El Salvador teaching people to mulch the leaves that fall off and to do the coffee naturally, so that there’s not so much water waste, and to pick the ripe cherries, and to prune the trees just right – he could do that for 300 years, and he would never have the impact with these small farmers that he can have here.”

“This is the place where his vision can make a big difference, because there’s such an efficiency of communication that you would never get in a co-op of 300 members.”

I ask him if he thinks big farms suffer because people assume they won’t be specialty.

“I think there are people that say that,” he says. “But for me, that’s not my value. I work for one of the largest specialty coffee companies in the US and I do that because, kind of like Graciano, there’s an opportunity to be really impactful and to promote values on a larger scale. And to run into bigger issues and have to deal with them. You can’t sweep it under the rug of ‘Oh, we’re very small, so we don’t have the resources for that’. There are no excuses for not doing everything well and it just brings a level of excellence that I personally really respect.”

“Maybe they do suffer. But I think it’s a perception that’s changing, and a conversation that’s worth having.”

Production levels at Primavera

Harvest time at Fazenda Primavera, where they produce 40,000 60-kilo bags of coffee a year.

Lessons from Brazil: Re-Evaluating the Coffee Plant

I ask James if anything else surprised him; a look of excitement spreads across his face.

“I was most surprised by Graciano Cruz’s talk about how the coffee changes in ripeness and sugars from day to night,” he said. “You know, you hear about day lots, where they just pick all the coffee in one day, and how that makes it a more unique flavour. But Graciano’s morning, afternoon, evening, and midnight cups was something else. And I mean, after he said that, you could taste it in the cherry. The cherry tasted better at night.”

“That’s exciting to me because, you know, sometimes we forget that the tree is alive – that it’s a living thing, and it’s doing things. We think of plants as being pretty stationary, but they’re so active.”

“Even the seeds, they’re still alive once you pick them. And that’s such a big part of the shelf life of drinking coffee. I mean, sometimes they’re alive until you roast it. What’s nice about the seed being alive for longer is that it just makes the coffee taste more alive. It tastes like a fresher fruit, or a freshly picked flower. It’s just very simple.” He pauses, before laughing again. “And everybody knows that. But nobody knows that.”

I nod. Knowing that plants are alive is a scientific fact is one thing; being able to taste the difference was another.

James with Graciano during night harvesting

James and Graciano Cruz (far right) observe the night harvest on Fazenda Primavera.

A Long-Lasting Love for Brazilian Coffee

Many people don’t use Brazilian coffees, since the country is often associated more with commodity-grade than specialty. Yet I knew that James doesn’t just use them, but that he competed with them.

“I competed with a blend with Brazilian coffee in it,” he confirms. “And my co-worker, who came in 3rd place in the US Barista Championship, also used a Brazilian coffee – from this farm, in fact. I love Brazilian coffees. I’ve been roasting for seven years and, I think, the third coffee that I ever roasted was a Brazilian. I’ve been a big fan of them ever since. This country’s probably one of my favourite origins.”

Two bags of green coffee

The Brazilian coffees James roasts a La Colombe. Credit: La Colombe

Brazilian Coffees and the Customer Experience

“My experience,” he continues, “Is that my customers in North Carolina and Kentucky and Pennsylvania will always enjoy these sort of mild, less acidic, sweet, dried fruit cups. They’re very delicate and almost classic.”

“People drink a lot of Brazilian coffees, because there’s a lot of Brazilian coffee out there, and so to have a relatively light roast of Brazilian coffee is an extremely… well, I would say entry-point but that suggests people should then move on from it. But it’s not a pyramid scheme. If you like Brazilian coffee, just drink Brazilian coffee every day.”

“Also some of the more dense coffees, they’re a little bit difficult to extract,” James adds. “Looking at the way that people who drink coffee at home, with their automatic coffee makers and their grinders – well, I just find that if I go to somebody’s house, like my Grandma’s house, I’m going to bring her a bag of Brazilian coffee. She’s probably going to like it better.”

I tell him of making coffee for my housemates. Their least favourite one? The Geisha.

James laughs. “Yeah, damn right! They’re like ‘there’s tea in the cupboard, don’t give me this’.”

“And so, while it’s just descriptive of my experiences, if I have anything that’s prescriptive it’s just that focusing on our actual customers and what they value is important. And it might lead you to realise that certain profiles, like Brazilian coffees, can be really successful for your business, and make your customers happy, and sell more coffee.”

He smiles at the idea: James doesn’t just love coffee; he loves the idea of helping others enjoy it.

James Tooill and Ricardo of Ally Coffee talking in front of a window

James talks to Ricardo of Ally Coffee, from whom La Colombe buy their Brazilian coffees.

The Average Coffee-Loving Customer

I ask him about how he thinks we should bring specialty coffee to more people.

He pauses for a short moment. “Well, we hear a lot about people who become converted because of this conversion experience where they have their first cup of great coffee… and these people are like evangelicals. Once they have that experience, they want to tell everybody about it, and they’re so passionate and…” He looks a little sheepish, but starts to laugh. “They’re just terribly annoying to most of their friends and coworkers.”

I start laughing, too, remembering times when I’ve managed to bore my friends.

“And I think as an industry we overestimate that type of customer. We overestimate them because they’re very vocal. If you have a hundred customers and two of them are coffee evangelists who had this experience, and they talk about it a lot, and then we focus on creating more of these people – I don’t think we need to do that.”

“I think we just need to keep making coffee delicious, making it available, and the other 98 out of 100 people are just going to drink it and go, ‘Oh yeah, it’s quite good. It’s worth it. Oh, I have a little more income. This is delicious!’ And they’ll just keep buying it and enjoying it and contributing to the chain, in a slightly less vocal but just as important way.”

“The evangelists will get their coffee, and I’ll read their blogs. But the key is, don’t forget about all those people who just quietly enjoy a good cup of coffee.”

James bends over the coffee he's brewing to smell the aroma

James brews coffee from Fazenda Matilde while on Fazenda Matilde.

Coffee With Producers

We’ve spent a lot of time meeting, and drinking coffee with, producers on this trip. I ask him his thoughts about that.

“It was really beautiful to see Kyle [Kyle Bellinger, US Roaster Champion 1st Runner-Up] meeting the very small coffee farmer that he had bought coffee from. That was one of the highlights of the trip for me, just seeing Kyle give him this bag with his name on it. That was really beautiful.”

“And it was really nice when we came to producers’ farms and they served us the little coffees with the corn cake; that was really beautiful. We went to that farm in Caparaó, Fazenda Santo Agostinho, and they gave us the cake, and the coffee was really good, and you saw how they were making all those investments. They were so proud of it and happy to have us. That was really nice.”

Ally Coffee has been working with Fazenda Santo Agostinho for one year now. They were already producing good coffee; Ally set out to help them produce specialty-grade beans that they can sell for a higher price. As a result, the producer now picks the cherries selectively rather than all at once.

Ripe yellow catuai on Fazenda Santo Agostinho

Yellow Catuai at 1,000 MASL on Fazenda Santo Agostinho. This year is the first time they will be picked selectively.

Brazil: The Future of Specialty Production and Consumption

This move towards specialty is a trend that we saw often, and so I asked James what he saw in future of coffee in Brazil.

He stops to think before telling me, “Well, Brazil is one of the largest consuming markets. And specialty consumption, as we saw on the trip, is really, really growing fast in Brazil.”

“Lots of other countries in Africa and Central America, they have these coffee farms which are owned by older generations, and the younger people are moving to the cities. So there’s not a lot of specialty coffee culture. Ethiopia has their own culture but generally there’s not a lot.”

“In ten years, Brazil, and to some extent Panama and Colombia, are going to have this crazy nexus of specialty coffee professionals, just like you and me, except they live in an origin country. Except they get all of it. They are going to understand the entire supply chain.”

James Tooill at Academia do Café looking at a modded 1985 Probat

James inspects a 1985 Probat in Academia do Café: a café, roastery, and cupping school that grows coffee in its garden.

“That’s going to make the world coffee industry really interesting in the next 15 years. Brazil’s going to be a net exporter of talent and knowledge in the global community. And in a big way that no other country could be right now, because of their education and supply chain knowledge.”

“And I think it’s also going to lead to some really tasty coffees out of Brazil. Like imagine a country where people can make real impact and they also live close to the farm, or their family’s been in the coffee business. I think the coffee industry’s next leaders are going to come from Brazil, and I think Brazilian specialty coffee could be… it’s going to be huge.”

He looks surprised at what he’s said, as if it’s not something he quite realised before – something that he had only started to piece together during the trip. Yet his smile is wide, his voice has sped up, and he’s begun to gesture more. He looks exhilarated.

With thanks to James Tooill of La Colombe, Ally Coffee, and all the producers who hosted us in Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais. Feature photo credit: Ally Coffee.

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to take part in more discussions like this? We’re going to Brazil for Micro Coffee Festival 2017! Learn more or buy your ticket here!