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[interview: Raphael Brandão] "there's no meritocracy in coffee"
with a ton of coffee grains purchased, Café di Preto, a brand launched in December 2020, proposes a new role for black people in the coffee production chain
this issue was translated by Pat Willard, from America Eats! – Thank you, Pat, for spreading my work among your audience!
In common sense, we think that the future is multiple and the past is only one. While the future is seen as something that can be molded and directed, the past would be crystallized and immutable—when, in fact, the entire past is a seam of selected patches. Not the available ones or the ones found along the way: the chosen ones.
It is customary to say that History is written by the hand of those who dominate. And what that hand does is smother and remove from the final version what seems unflattering to it. Learning to look at the past and reinterpret History is not an easy task. Mending the frayed parts that were hidden, reintegrating facts that were ignored into the timeline, challenging the canon—as historian, gastronome and doctor in nutrition, food and health Lourence Alves said in this interview—has its price. Generally, the discredit of those who question the status quo.
The transformation of this official History, which gains more biases and juxtaposed narratives, is something new, technologically speaking. Today, we don't need to write on paper, translate and wait months for it to cross oceans to disperse around the world. The patchwork of History is being stitched live, on multiple fronts – in academia, in civil society and especially in everyday life. Bringing the reading against the grain of official History into everyday life – the samba-enredo of Mangueira in 2019 is an example of this—in live or virtual conversations—is our way of lining the new understanding to the historical patchwork quilt.
Raphael Brandão is 30 years old and approached the world of coffee by chance, in 2019, when working in a micro roaster as an assistant—he packed the roasted beans and glued stickers. In a matter of months, he slurped up what he could of the surroundings and started doing his own research. He understood that "black" and "coffee" were historically tied together around slavery. And he wanted to tear up the farm.
He created the Café di Preto brand in December 2020, relocating his race and class to another position in the world. In practice, as Regina Tchelly does, he points out new paths trying to change his surroundings.
The reality of specialty coffee is expensive bags and cheap wages. And the reality of the Brazilian job market is that white people earn about 45% more than black and brown people. Farm and ranch owners are mostly white: 46.65% versus 8.28% black. Pardos are 44% of rural landowners.
“All coffee produced by black people ends up being a microlot,” defined Raphael, in the midst of a digression while we were talking on the phone. It was difficult to transcribe that conversation. Between contextualization, outbursts and a lot of interference in the operator's signal (the call dropped three or four times), the interview turned into a conversation. I kept, in the transcript, only the main questions, without my lines and comments interspersed with Raphael's answers, letting the text follow a stream of consciousness.
Between 2020 and 2021, Raphael used the company's roaster in his spare time and launched the Dandara and Esperança coffees, tributes to black women who are historical references: Dandara de Palmares and Esperança Garcia, the cook who wrote a petition letter in 1770 . At the time, Raphael did not know the coffee market that well, and the suppliers he had access to were white.
The first volume, scheduled to last three months, sold out in just over a month , in June 2021. For structural reasons, he had to stop using the roaster at the place where he worked and the brand went into latency in September . In October, he started a crowdfunding platform campaign to buy the equipment and start working exclusively for his brand.
Things did not go as expected: after six months of campaigning, he raised R$14,800 and had to dismantle his computer – the best equipment he had at hand—to raffle the parts. He got more than R$10 thousand. Plus occasional donations from friends and strangers, it reached R$40,000 and can be used for a down payment on the equipment.
“I kept working where I was, I left in February of this year, because I didn't have the financial backup to pay the bills. What made me feel safe to leave work was because I live at the house of a friend who moved out of town, Mário. He exempted me from rent if I had a money problem,” he recalls. Another friend from the time at the Control and Automation Engineering college, Rafael, saw his fridge empty and stocked his pantry in early 2022. “For three months I knew I was going to make it work, because I had a place to live and something to eat. Mário and Rafael are two black friends. At the time we met, I didn't have that racial conscience. They helped me at the beginning of college and they help me today. Café di Preto exists today because I have this support network, these friendships,” he says.
Born in the Lagos Region of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Raphael has been living in Nova Iguaçu, Baixada Fluminense, for 11 years, having lived in the capital and in Niterói for short periods. Raphael started the new phase of Café di Preto with a roaster in his living room, in Nova Iguaçu, on April 19, 2022, with coffees from four black suppliers. In August 2022, he reached the mark of a ton of roasted coffee.
Café di Preto can be called an one-man-company. Raphael works alone in purchasing, roasting, selling and shipping by carrier, taking advantage of times when stocks run out to solve bureaucracy.
“When I started, I roasted and sold 240 kg in eight months, but at the time I still didn’t have Black suppliers. Last month (July 2022) I’ve been working only with Black people for four months. And that’s 240 kg in three months! I’m roasting an average of 80 kg per month. It’s small but it’s growing”, he celebrates.
The 90-minute interview has been edited and rearranged for better reading.
How is your routine working at Café di Preto currently?
As the first stock ended, I'm solving bureaucracy. The part of the routine that I like the most is roasting coffee. Now I'm defining the roasting profile of Dandara, of Mr Ivan Santana. The roasting part, even though it is a repetitive process after the sensorial profile is fixed… I really like to see the coffee going in raw and coming out roasted. I see how rewarding the struggle is. I'm still roasting in the living room, I need to renovate the funds to receive people and give courses. But it is very gratifying to know that it was someone who cultivated, who benefited and then came to me. As much as roasting is the same thing, it always has a special taste to conquer something that is mine.
This week I was just remembering. [Roasting coffee] tastes even more special because I worked [in a coffee shop] without even receiving the minimum wage. At the time, I thought those people were my friends. From the moment they saw my growth [with the Café di Preto brand], it seems that they wanted to put a halter on me so that I would continue to be just an employee. I left the cafeteria with nothing right, I didn't even have a roaster. I gave up a lot, what little I had, to conquer this here. It's a stop that I'm afraid, of becoming an example of overcoming. There was an article with [coffee supplier] Ivan Santana on g1. He bought a part of the farm where he worked from the age of 11 to 13 in coffee production. And then there are people who think it's meritocracy, that if you don't give up, you can do it. How many black people today own a property? How many fight and don't have a coffee shop, a roaster? I'm afraid they use my story like that too. I know I got lucky, because I had a great support network. I had poor mental health, I had moments when I was crying at work, it was exhausting and many times other people cannot overcome these barriers. The suicide rate is higher in black men.
I always say that I got over it, but I don't want to be an example of a story of overcoming. I believe it has to be easy for everyone. There is no meritocracy in the society we live in, there is no meritocracy in coffee.
To enter the world of coffee, I had to enter a coffee work day that was not necessary. Coffee is a transformative tool for opening doors. It's like Sueli Carneiro says in the interview with Mano Brown: there are more people who fight than people who win.
Do you service other coffee brands or coffee shops?
I was supplying Dandara beans for espresso at a coffee shop in Rio de Janeiro, but as I had to pass on the increase [in gasoline, coffee, etc.], the partnership was discontinued. When I started, I priced it wrong, because I was afraid of not selling. I priced with no room for growth for the company. Just to get out in a draw every month. I was stuck with the democratization of specialty coffee, but there was no point in my product being cheap and the company closing down. Then things don't work. I'm putting aside the democratization of coffee to make the company grow, and then I can democratize it later on.
In the special coffee, there is a lot of microlots of R$ 70 for a 250 gram package. But when you think about it, practically all coffee made by a black person is microlot: Seu Romão only has three bags, at most, to send. Café di Preto is a portion of a portion [of specialty coffee]: in addition to being planted by a black person, the roasting is also. People need to see that coffee is expensive for rarity.
In this new moment of the brand, you are with black suppliers. Who are the people who work with you now and what are the coffees produced?
I have grains from the Peixoto Family (Santo Antônio do Amparo – MG), the Romão Family (Perdões—MG), Ivan Santana (Cape Verde – MG), and Luís Carlos Gomes (Santa Tereza—ES). The coffees were on pre-sale [until August 12] and have the same names as the first phase of the brand, Esperança and Dandara, but they are drinks with different profiles from those roasted for the first batch. They are tributes to Esperança Garcia and Dandara de Palmares.
I'm making Dandara with a yellow catuaí mocha from Ivan Santana. It's an entryway coffee, so I'm looking for beans with a caramel, chocolate, sensory profile, a more sensitive and friendly sensory profile to be the entryway. Who has never drank special coffee, if you start with a fermented one with notes of passion fruit… [not complete]. Anyone who starts drinking my coffees starts with Dandara.
Esperança is a 99 red catuaí , natural process, by Luiz Carlos Romão. It's more fruity, a step ahead of Dandara. It has caramel, but what stands out is the note of yellow fruit, such as peach, apricot. It has [notes of] rapadura, very sweet and fruity. I even find it nauseating when I toast and forget about the open buckets.
Now I have a new coffee which is a special conilon Rita de Cássia , a canephora clone 153, by Luís Carlos Gomes . The name is a tribute to his sister. This coffee has the characteristics of conilon, it is more almond-shaped, more closed. It has nuts, cocoa. I went up there to roast with them once. This is the coffee that has everything to be the base coffee with Dandara. Luis Carlos trusted me and sent me the bags, since I only had to pay the freight. Just hearing my story, he trusted me. I had never spoken to him in my life.
The fourth coffee is Auxiliadora , which at the moment is a natural yellow catuaí from the Peixoto family. The name is a tribute to Neide's sister-in-law, with whom I deal with the cafes. Auxiliadora helps in the cultivation and harvesting of grains. This coffee is more delicate, with more floral notes and yellow fruit. I bought a little of it, I don't know if it will always be the same grain.
And there's Dona Edilaine, Romão 's wife who is honored in the fermented coffee. Their property is eight years old. He won the lottery and bought that little piece of land and produces 87-point grain for Esperança and Edilaine. This is a red catuaí 99 fermented and dried in a suspended terrace. It has acidic notes, such as tamarind candy, passion fruit and honey with lemon. The first crop was only 30 kg and everyone praises it a lot. Let's try to put this one in Coffee of the Year this year.
Edilaine, due to the property's history and sensory profile, is my favorite. Even those who don't know much about coffee know that there is something in this cafe. The Romão couple do everything, from harvesting, processing and everything else. Their work is small, like an ant, and they are making an incredible stop. It's an awesomeness of cafes they make with the tools they have. I'm just the tip of the spear. Roasting is important, but the work before me is incredible.
The history of coffee in Brazil is that of farmers who began to invest in production after other economic cycles weakened, such as that of sugarcane. The enslaved people, however, were the ones who had the technology, the know-how to work with that product. Even today, the workforce of black people in coffee production centers are hired for physical work, such as harvesting. But at the other end of the chain, in barismo and roasting, you don't see black people, from what I read in your interviews.
There is a farm that is going to host an event. It has been producing coffee since 1852. The knowledge shared in this kind of event would be enriching, but I am not prepared for environments where there was blood and pain. It's something that still hurts me. I can not go. The structure is standing there, the colonial house, the slave quarters. These people at the forefront have a concern for the environment, but you don't see a racial concern, literally. There has to be a fix. The whole story of successful coffee farms [in Brazil] starts in the period of slavery.
These people are not to blame that their great-great-grandparents became rich through the forced labor of black and indigenous people, but there is no initiative on the part of these people to repair, to raise awareness, to create a fund to encourage the entry of people in the coffee world. There is no such debate. Everyone is proud to say that it is the fifth generation to produce coffee, but this is a matter of mathematics: it has not been possible to produce since 1850 and not have used slave labor at some point.
The only program in Brazil that aims to give black people the opportunity to specialize in the coffee business is from the US, from Phyllis Johnson [co-founder and director of BD Imports]. In total, I received a contribution of R$ 10 thousand [from the Dona Ivone scholarship, from Coffee for Equity] to take a course, to travel to São Paulo to take courses that are out of my reality.
My ambitions with Café di Preto go beyond getting rich and being able to buy a house and a car. I want to be an agent of transformation so that other black people take courses in roasting, barista and other things. For all this you need money. It's a tragic past, people should try to clean it up somehow. Here in Brazil I didn't find any initiative like that [like Coffe for Equity].
There are some initiatives, such as encouraging indigenous and gender groups, but black people are not talked about. There was a report by g1 news that talked about the coffee cycle and all the people who speak in the article are white. And when two black people appear in the eight-minute video, they are carrying bags and walking around the yard. Everything remains the same: white people in the condition of power and black people in the condition of cheap and unskilled labor, because there is no concern to insert and qualify them. The concern is to be sustainable, ecologically correct.
Even the question of the African people who came, they had coffee cultivation that is from Ethiopia, maybe some peoples had expertise in another type of agricultural production [similar to coffee management]. Black labor was changed because it was black and not because it was of low quality. Who roasted the coffees [during the period of slavery] were black people. When I went to the Afro Brasil Museum , there was an exhibition on sugarcane. And there was the part that talked about coffee. There was a roaster like the ball, but big. What separates me from that black roaster? The power and racial structure are the same. I'm a black person who roasts coffee for white people. The guy today who is rich and owns a supermarket, for example, did not get rich directly from slave labor, but the family of a coffee farm did. The coffee heir directly benefits from slavery. The division is the same: white people with possession, power and land and black people as labor force. It made me really sick to think about at first. Gradually I feel like an agent of change, but not yet as I wanted. When I Google "black" + "coffee" a couple of pictures of me now appear, and not just images that portray slavery.
And today, a year and a half later, have you found more black people studying and preparing coffee?
Most of the people who follow me are black and work in coffee. Black coffee shop owners, or who work in some way with coffee and want to sell or serve my coffee. Sometimes, what we need is for us to see each other. The mother of a friend of mine asked me to tell my story to the children she teaches: “they need to see that they are in your reality, that you are close to them". What catches me the most to this day are messages that thank you for the brand to exist or for not giving up. It is a key change and turn tool. I know I'm not the first black roaster in Brazil, but I put this in crowdfunding to get attention. Conceição Evaristo says: “it doesn't matter if you are the first, what matters is opening doors.”
I want to know what opportunities Café di Preto can generate for other people. Coffee can transform lives, but since 1727 it has been transforming the lives of the same people: white people. I want black people to be contemplated with this too. It can be as an agronomist, barista, roaster. Black people see opportunity in being a skilled workforce, or opening a small brand, working in a coffee shop or opening one. It goes far beyond getting rich. My greatest wealth will be 20 years from now having positively impacted other people's lives.
Next year I want to provide roasting services, from having a coffee line to espresso coffee shops. But I'm still tight on the stock issue. I have problems that all roasters have, but I also have unique problems. How many black farms produce more than a thousand bags of coffee? Big [white people's farms] always produce more than a thousand. For Café di Preto to grow there is a bottleneck, which is the volume produced on a black farm. If they give me a million reais, I can't buy a million reais of black coffee. And I don't want to give up working only with grains made by black people. Since I started [buying only from black people's farms], it's been an indescribable satisfaction, knowing that these people who sent me these cafes fought hard for the small properties they have. I need to foster the cycle that comes before me.
Everything is political. Coffee is political, because it is very connected to what happened in the past. Just as wealth was inherited, poverty is also passed from generation to generation, as a friend says. It is difficult to break the cycle of poverty. There's no way for a person to buy a special coffee if the regular coffee is R$20 a kilo, if it's R$9 a liter of milk. For black people to access the cafe, it's not just up to me. The situation in Brazil, in addition to screwing the black and poor person, it breaks my role, because my product is only in the bourgeois class, which are white people. I don't want it to be niche. In addition to all the rush, it needs a political movement from the coffee to the outside, and from the outside to the coffee.
It is not fair for a black person to have to win the lottery to buy land if there are people who inherit a share of the hereditary captaincy until today.
The Café di Preto brand has less than two years of history, but it has some important milestones, such as the three-month stock sold in just over 30 days. What was the "ideal functioning" you wanted at the beginning of the brand? Was it like this?
As more [volume of] coffee is coming this time, I thought it best to pre-order. The price of coffees has increased. If I took BRL 10,000 worth of coffee, it would be a smaller volume than the BRL 10,000 worth of coffee a few months ago. I bought nine bags, that's almost 600 kg. With pre-sales I can have more cash to pay my suppliers, who are family farmers. The pre-sale generates a boom and I already paid a portion more than I had promised in the negotiation.
I increased the stock so I don't have to break the offer. I bought more coffee to be able to sell the 12 months of the year without fear.
In the beginning, I wanted to be a brand to bring representation, to sell black people's coffee. At the time, it was just me roasting, I had no ambitions, I was the only black person in the production chain. I still want to be representative, I want it to be democratic, but I want coffee to substantially change a person's life. Give her a course and she can enter the area, in whatever part of the production chain.
Black people are still discovering the world of coffee. There are people who still don't even know that their lives will be changed by coffee.
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