Elio Silva, owner of the Tisbury Farm Market in Vineyard Haven, knows his beans. He grew up on his father’s coffee farm in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moving to the Vineyard in 1988, he purchased a roasting machine, founded the MV Coffee Company three years later, and has roasted his beans here ever since.
“A lot of times people look at coffee beans as a very simple thing, but it’s very complex,” he says.
He explains that about 70 per cent of coffee beans grown in Brazil come from Minas Gerais, the second most populated of the 26 states of Brazil. “A lot of the land is nice and flat and low and they could [harvest it] with machines. Coffee growers have tried the machine at low altitudes; they have good production, but the quality is not that good,” he says, adding:
“One big thing about coffee is altitude. I try to get coffee that is grown at over 3,000 feet. The higher it grows, the finer the coffee beans. The coffee you can really enjoy, like a fine wine, is all grown at the higher altitude. Like Columbian grown at 7,000 feet. Very much the best kind.”
Coffee grown in low, warm land results in greater quantity, while higher and cooler elevations produce a better bean. “We grow higher and colder,” he says. “Like a vineyard, with coffee beans it costs a lot of money to harvest and process. At my father’s farm he has to hand pick the beans, just the right ones. That brings the cost up. Coffee is a lot like wine. Some are fruitier and some are woodier. Most of them ripen at the same time, usually from June to September.”
Care is critical. Coffee beans thrive in sweet, well-irrigated soil. When the beans are harvested, they must be dried on a flat surface, turning them with a large squeegee. “When you harvest a bean you can do everything right for the whole year, irrigation, fertilizer, lime, everything,” Mr. Silva says. The whole process can be lost if the beans are not dried properly.
Taste is crucial for coffee connoisseurs. “When you drink it black, with no sugar, you can really taste it. With the fresh coffee beans, it’s going to have a very different aroma. Each bean is going to have a different aroma,” Mr. Silva says. “Take a Columbian and do a dark roast on it, it will not be the best for the bean. With Ethiopian and Sumatran, I always roast darker. Columbia I keep it lighter.”
A decade ago, most of Mr. Silva’s customers preferred dark roast beans, but now sweeter beans are in favor, as they are less acidic. Organic coffee was not as popular then as it is now. He roasts three times a week to meet the demand for organic beans.
He promotes his organic bean, which is smoother, with less of an edge. Grown without pesticides or harmful fertilizer, organic beans not only benefit the coffee consumer, but enrich the life of the farmer who doesn’t have to handle toxic additives.
“The only way to have fresh coffee is either roast it yourself or buy from a place where they roast it. We roast three times per week. Always keep it fresh. Better not to have it, than to not have it fresh,” says the man who knows his beans.
Mr. Silva learned to roast coffee from the ground up. “Harvest the coffee, then roast on top of a fire, same principle as popping popcorn,” he says. “We hear the beans pop the first time when they get to a certain temperature, then hear them pop again. That was the principal back then. You only had one type of roast, like French roast pretty much all the time.”
Today Mr. Silva employs the same system with his imposing roasting machine to ensure fresh coffee beans for his faithful, expanding customer base.
Mr. Silva does virtually all the roasting himself. He obviously finds pleasure in his work. “For me it’s like walking,” he says. He takes his time at the roaster, and minimizes distractions by working after hours. It’s too easy to burn a batch. I time it. It’s like cooking, cooking a steak, how long it takes, how it feels, how it sounds, it’s time. Like knowledge, live and learn. It’s so natural for me.”
Watching him work, his expertise is apparent.
First he fills a pail with a mixture of beans from Columbia, Peru and Sumatra to create his organic house blend. The beans are pale green. He pours them into the roaster and waits for the correct temperature, which he monitors by adding air or lowering the flame.
Through a peek-hole, we watch the beans turn from light green to caramel to light brown to dark brown. Mr. Silva listens for that “first crack,” which comes about seven minutes into the roasting. As he lowers the temperature, the second crack pops, and he continues to monitor the sound, smell and look of the bean. At just the right moment, he opens the vat door and shiny dark beans tumble onto a large circular drying rack. A mechanical arm combs through them, sealing in aroma and flavor.
Mr. Silva’s sense of community is as strong as his faith in his coffee. He could charge more for his dozen or so house blends, especially to summer visitors, but his intent is to give back to the community and be fair to all his customers. That’s one reason he has succeeded in the coffee business on the Vineyard.
For more information, visit mvcoffeeroasters.com.