São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city, a massive metropolis with its own unique architecture, culture, food and art—and yes, an incredible coffee scene. But like so many other places around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on so many facets of the city, including our cafes. Some coffee shops faced profound difficulties many of and were forced to look for partners; competition for online sales became fierce, and delivery ruled all other forms of commerce.
Now in 2023, a new playing field has emerged in the city, and to me it looks like a huge proliferation of roasters—nearly all of whom are coming to coffee as a second career. Some of these already had the structure in place before the pandemic, including family coffee farms (that’s a thing here in Brazil!) and good commercial skills to deal with producer partners. A lot of small roasting companies found that they could make good money by sharing equipment with machineless roasters, coffee shops, and emerging brands operating online. The end result feels like a shake-up for the city—and a chance to check in on São Paulo’s new state of play for coffee roasting culture. Let’s follow the coffee aroma trail throughout the city.
Café POR ELAS
For the last five years, sisters Julia and Nadia Nasr dedicated themselves to roasting coffee beans in a semi-detached small house located in the neighborhood of Pinheiros, a neighborhood where the specialty coffee culture grew in São Paulo about 14 years ago.
Both are lawyers that quit their executive jobs and turned to the coffee business to catch the specialty coffee wave. This is paired with the 30 years of memories growing up on their mother’s family coffee farm in rural São Paulo State, and it seemed like a natural choice. They decided to create a roastery to keep their mother’s work going but also opened a range of outside suppliers reaching other small coffee producers and giving preference to female farmers.
“As a woman-leading a farm, our mother faced hard times and prejudice, even coming from employees,” says Nadia Nasr. “The way she handled these situations and her positive outlook of overcoming these obstacles inspired us to honor women and that’s the reason we prioritize them in our business.”
Brazil is so rich in high-quality coffee production, Julia and Nadia can afford to create a supply niche exclusively produced by women, and maintain the excellence of quality coffee beans.
Siriema Coffee Roasters
Julia and Nadia Nasr were not the only female lawyers turned coffee roasters during the pandemic; this is also the story for Laura Barros of Siriema Coffee Roasters. But not only that, get this: her mother also operates a coffee farm, and the cafe is also located in Pinheiros. It’s truly incredible to me that we might find a story so seemingly similar in a city with many millions, but it’s the truth, with one key difference: Laura is working not with a sister, but with her brother, André Barros.
Their brand name Siriema refers to a gray bird that loves to walk around coffee plantations in Central and South America. The siblings opened up their unique garage door roasting space just two weeks before the pandemic broke out, with day-to-day business of the roastery run by Angelica Luizz and Nayra Caldas, two biologists who converted to master roasters over the last 10 years
“We can’t deny that the pandemic changed the profile of coffee consumption and turn out to benefit small businesses like ours,” says roaster Angelica Luizz. “I believe we were agile in accelerating to adjust the route and reach the consumer at home through e-commerce and delivery.” They buy coffee from other small producers and roast the beans for coffee shops, restaurants, and e-commerce consumers, besides offering espressos and filter coffee from their small counter opened at the front of the garage. In addition to Arabica, the duo also likes to make experiences with robusta and Canephora varieties.
Ovelha Negra Torra e Cafés
The name”Ovelha Negra” means black sheep, and this is how founder André Sanches thinks of himself in relation to coffee. This is another story of coffee as a second career; Sanches left an electrical electrical engineering career for the specialty coffee world in 2017, much to his family’s surprise. After a few years spent living in New Zealand, he took barista courses at Coffelab in São Paulo, and learned to roast with noted educator Ensei Neto.
Ovelha Negra is his very own roasting company, located in Vila Clementino, São Paulo, where Sanches has been joined by small group of partners. The brand sells its own coffee online, but also earns income by operating a collaborating roasting arrangement on its equipment, working with other small roasters throughout the city. “During the pandemic this helped brands create their own story, and build a unique customer network,” he tells me. During my visit I tried a truly unique and daring creation, which André Sanches calls ‘Drunk Coffee’—coffee beans are rested inside an American oak barrel used previously to age Cachaça, the iconic Brazilian spirit. It’s an utterly distinct drink, and only available here.
Mauricio Pagani was a mechanical engineer—was being the optimal word. After some years of studying and planning his life change to the coffee business, the pandemic hit, and he quickly had to change gears and rethink the opportunity the pandemic presented. The result of his work is J.Café, opened in 2021, a coffee shop offering a wide range of beans, all exposed beside the roasting machine. The cafe is located in Vila Leopoldina, an industrial neighborhood that today is under a massive real state transformation. But that 2021 lull was only the interval between the first and second Coronavirus waves.
“I had to reinvent everything less than a week after opening the store creating a subscription coffee club and starting a delivery service practically overnight to survive,” said Pagani, who ended up getting through that hard time thanks to increasing home coffee consumption and his quick movement. Today he is roasting full-time for his store and also for small farms that are seeking more technical roasts for their beans.
Catarina Coffee and Love
After five years working as a barista for Starbucks, Henrique Ortiz established a micro-roastery inside a garage located in Vila Madalena, a neighborhood in São Paulo, full of restaurants, cafes, and colorful graffiti walls.
At first, he and his partner Marina Gomes were itinerant coffee sellers, taking their beans to fairs, events, and also pop-up coffee services inside fashion stores where they ended up achieving a strong customer base. When the pandemic arrived they quickly started an educational series through social media, which boosted sales and helped them to purchase a larger coffee roaster machine and move to another neighborhood, Vila Mariana.
Henrique affirms to be always in search of unconventional flavors. “Usually we propose to producers some tests involving fermentation-bases, for instance, similar to pickle preparation techniques,” he tells me. “A brine bath works as a barrier to select microorganisms that will lead the fermentation process, usually bacteria which will add lactic acid in the final drink.” They say this guarantees customers will have a unique and singular experience with the coffees at Catarina.
Sensory Coffee Roasters
Taking a look at the entrance of Sensory, we get the sense of another well-thought-out Pinheiros coffee shop. However, crossing the first room and reaching backstage we found ourselves with two roasting machines operating at full steam, which produce 250kg of coffee weekly to all over the country, reaching small coffee shops, bakeries, candy stores, and several companies.
All roasting work is under command of experiment master roaster Luciano Salomão who joined Fernando Guerra three years ago, a former executive in the Information Technology industry turned into a coffee entrepreneur in 2018 when he founded Sensory Coffee Roasters.
Luciano affirms that they are always seeking coffees graded above 83.5 according to SCA Standards. “We are always receiving new producers and constantly tasting new proposal, we are open to different styles but coffees with sensory notes of chocolate and hazelnut, which meets the classic Brazilian palate are continuously in our portfolio”. In the coming months their operation will expand and move to a more central neighborhood.
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. Read more Paulo Pedroso on Sprudge.