In the southeast of South America there lies a concrete jungle with a population of somewhere around 20 million people. Picture Los Angeles on its smoggiest day, a San Francisco landscape, with a New York density, jumbled up and thrown into Latin America. Welcome to São Paolo, a city with deep roots in the coffee trade just now waking up—alive and caffeinated!—to an exciting 21st century specialty coffee scene. Here's 5 to get you started.
On a misty day in 2011, I found myself in the leafy, bohemian neighborhood of Vila Madalena with the task of covering a new micro-roastery for a local gourmet food magazine. Seduced by the aroma, I floated into Isabela Raposeira’s Coffee Lab. Operating as a coffee shop, roastery, and coffee academy, the place looks like part science laboratory, part kitchen, part Willy Wonka Factory with loopy baristas walking around in mechanic jumpsuits. This place helped change my definition of what a coffee shop could be.
For a long-standing coffee drinker, having your reference of the beverage be turned upside-down is a humbling experience. Isabela Raposeiras today is perhaps the most influential roaster in the current independent scene of Brazilian coffees. In her shop, one can experience new-to-Brazil coffee brewing methods such as AeroPress and Hario V60, as well as indulge in small coffee and food pairings offered on the menu as “rituals”.
Raposeiras is well known for encouraging and promoting small producers. Last year, she presented at the Nordic Roaster Forum in Denmark, bringing with her some amazing coffee varieties grown in the mountains of Espírito Santo from farmers who have but a few acres of land. She and São Paolo's Coffee Lab are very much the face of progressive coffee in Brazil, and a must-visit for any cafe crawl.
Coffee Lab’s influence over the years has extended to new coffee shops using its beans. Forest engineer and coffee lover Diego Gonzales first learned about coffee with Isabela Raposeiras, and in 2013, he founded Sofá Café, a cozy and inviting coffee shop with plenty of comfortable sofas. This is the atmosphere that Gonzales likes to offer: a home outside of home. After importing some professionals from Coffee Lab, Sofa began roasting and gradually developed its own style—they roast a touch lighter at Sofá, drawing direct inspiration from leading roasters in Scandinavia.
The offerings at Sofá are much like you'd find in a contemporary cafe in London or Los Angeles. Think carefully pulled espressos, filtered brews via AeroPress and Hario pour-over, and cold brew. At present, the roaster Regina Machado is sourcing beans from the regions of Cerrado Mineiro, Matas de Minas, Espirito Santo, and the west of Bahia. Here in Brazil, where legislature does not allow imports of unroasted coffee from other countries, progressive roasters like Sofá must look inwards towards the best of what the country has to offer. This means collaborating with small landowners and incorporating different processing methods to offer a diverse, yet entirely Brazilian menu of coffees. It's a constraint, to be sure, but Sofá Café's dedication to quality does not suffer one bit.
Coffee and downtown São Paulo have a close relationship. Once inhabited by coffee barons and traders, the district was once a symbol of the utmost Brazilian colonial era prosperity. Over the years, the coffee trade moved from São Paulo to the port city of Santos, and gradually an exodus of wealth from downtown followed. Recently, these neighborhoods are receiving a moderate dose of new energy and investments, in a narrative that should be familiar for residents of many other post-industrial and post-colonial cities around the world.
Right in what we call downtown, the journalist Flávio Seixlack and graphic designer Rodolfo Herrera opened Beluga Café in December of 2014. The architecturally-clean-with-bright-colors look injects an air of modernity into an otherwise grey and heavy urban atmosphere. With barista classes under their belt, the duo developed unique roast profiles with the producer-turned-roaster, Hugo Wolff. Espresso here is a natural processed red Catuai from Wolff's own farm, Portal da Serra, located in Minas Gerais.
Beluga's espresso experience is progressive, to be sure, but Herrera & Co. explained to me that they do not want to shock people too much from the robust and chocolatey shots currently served elsewhere in the neighborhood. The truly daring stuff is left for the house filter coffee at Beluga, a Mundo Novo coffee variety also grown in Minas, showing a light roast profile with big bright fruit tones. This is a neighborhood with changing tastes, after all, and Beluga Café is like a beautiful snapshot of this moment for downtown São Paulo.
The Little Coffee Shop
Standing five feet tall and in your face, the charming Flavia Pogliani is making big waves in the São Paulo coffee scene in perhaps what is the smallest cafe in the country. After working as a barista for four years in Australia, Flavia came back to Brazil and established the São Paulo Coffee Week event. After two years of building up the scene, she decided to show how she believes it should be done, and opened her own little cafe. Emphasis on the little.
On a recent visit, Pogliani is serving coffees from Fazenda Jesuânia, south of Minas, and Fazenda Lagoa Formosa, in Cerrado Mineiro; the roasting program here was developed in concert with Isabela Raposeiras of the aforementioned Coffee Lab. At just two square meters total, this tiny cafe has a presence far greater than its tiny size…not unlike the owner!
Bio Barista is Alex Pereira Santos, a Brazilian barista who circulates São Paulo in his custom-styled 1974 “Kombi” Volkswagon Van. An ex-break-dancer and hip-hop fanatic—he owns a collection of over 60 old school boom —Santos is developing a growing, faithful legion of customers, while pioneering a burgeoning mobile coffee movement in this city and beyond. The “Black Bean”, as his followers fondly refer to the Volkswagon, has been in operation for a year and a half.
Style and attitude are one thing, but the coffee here's got quite the pedigree. For his coffee, Santos has teamed up with Felipe Croce from Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, or FAF, perhaps the most well-known of all Brazilian specialty coffee farms. Croce's family organization incorporates the farm, which bears the name of the company, as well as a network of over 50 additional family farms, an export company, and an office in the city of São Paulo called FAF Studio, where they run a roastery called “Isso é Café” [“This is Coffee” in Portugese). The Black Bean proudly serves coffees roasted by Isso é Café, and surely benefits from the Croce's intimate knowledge of product.
Alex Santos is been a role model for many Brazilian baristas, by virtue of being a barista-turned-entrepreneur. Coming from a humble background, he is perhaps one of the first truly self-made business owners in the São Paulo specialty coffee scene. But surely not the last; it seems coffee is the next big thing in the land of coffee.
Paulo Pedroso is a regular contributor to Brazilian newspapers Folha de São Paulo and Valor Econômico, as well as Revista Espresso, a Brazilian specialty coffee magazine. This is his first feature for Sprudge.