Aquarela Is Ready To Change Everything You Think You Know About Brazilian Coffee
You don't need to be writing a story about Aquarela cafe to get a master class in Brazilian coffee from its owners. All you have to do is walk up and say hello. Alex Eliscu Kipling and Otávio Shih are as effusive as they come, singing the praises of their Brazilian beans and the farmers who grow them with a zeal that borders on evangelism.
They have good reason to proselytize. Aquarela, which means watercolor in Portuguese, has brought a rainbow of unique beans from small, independent farmers to the United States — many of them for the first time.
Aquarela is a small shop on an unclaimed stretch of road where Figueroa is absorbed by the 110. It's not quite Chinatown, not quite Downtown L.A. and a stone's throw from Dodger Stadium, between Mexicali and the Kim Sing Theatre. There are a handful of tables on the sidewalk out front, and they've recently reopened the inside with drinks, bags of beans, and pastries, including some Brazilian treats like the cheese bread pão de queijo.
Kipling is a longtime coffee pro who got his start at highly regarded specialty outfits Coava and Stumptown before moving to São Paulo in 2015 to help a friend open a cafe. He began visiting coffee farms in the area on weekends, helping pick and process coffee cherries.
"I was trying coffees that I'd never tried before, and my mind was altered. Why aren't these amazing coffees coming over to the U.S.?" Kipling says.
When he returned to his native Los Angeles, he opened his own shop to feature coffee from Brazilian roasters, and he named it SPLA for his journeys back and forth between São Paulo and Los Angeles. Shih actually started as a customer, a neighbor from Brazil who happened to walk by and notice Portuguese on their menu. He visited often, chatting with Kipling about coffee techniques, Brazil and soccer. Eventually, it became clear that the two of them made a perfect team. Shih joined in February of 2021, and they rebranded as Aquarela to better reflect the breadth of the Brazilian coffees they were bringing here to L.A.
If you catch Kipling and Shih at a quiet moment, they'll almost always be inside the shop, cupping (sampling several coffees side-by-side for close comparison).They love coffee, of course, but they're also deciding which beans to import then dialing in the roast level with the micro-roaster they keep on the counter. They're constantly searching, tasting, tweaking and experimenting to find unique coffee for their shop. In the process, they're trying to do something much more challenging — change the perception of Brazilian coffee.
As of 2020, Brazil was the largest coffee producer in the world but, "Brazil has a reputation for sending commodity-grade coffee, not exactly the best stuff, like Ethiopia or Kenya," Shih says.
That's partially because many of those beans — nearly 70 million 60 kg. bags of green coffee in the 2020/21 marketing year — end up as industrial coffee, used in blends for corporations or as a base for flavored drinks. Broadly speaking, Brazilian beans are considered rounder, smoother, sweeter and nuttier with low acidity, the opposite of what many third-wave coffee aficionados want.
Kipling and Shih will tell you this is a misconception, and that they have the beans to prove it, especially when paired the creative, modern and highly technical fermentation methods their producers use.
That includes anaerobic fermentation done bombona style, in which the beans are kept in a bucket with a one-way valve so fermentation occurs without oxygen. Current selections in this style include beans from José Ricardo Cunha's farm in Ribeirão Corrente, at the northern end of the state of São Paulo. Anaerobic fermentation tends to bring out big, bright fruit flavors. In the case of Cunha's coffee, Kipling and Shih find notes of peach schnapps and orange soda, a zing of acid and a complex sweetness.
But they didn't decide to serve Brazilian beans for flavor alone. For Shih, the mission is personal. He's from coffee-growing country, Cerrado Mineiro in the state of Minas Gerais in Southeastern Brazil. You can feel the intensity as he describes his homeland.
"If Brazil is in the news, it's bad news. But there are Brazilians who are doing amazing work. What [the farmers] are doing with processing is amazing science, they're doing magic. As a Brazilian, it's a privilege to showcase a love of Brazil that isn't about Carnival, corruption, crime or drugs. It's a hard-working, serious, responsible, environmentally conscious side of Brazil," Shih says.
Many specialty roasters share some specifics about where their coffee is from, with a note on region, processing and maybe elevation. Kipling and Shih go further. Each 12-ounce bag they sell comes with a postcard-sized photo of the farmer who grew the beans and a detailed description of their land and story.
"80%, at least, of making amazing coffee, maybe more, happens on the farm. It's not us. Roasting is just a matter of not messing it up," Shih says.
Kipling and Shih visit Brazil at least twice a year, once during the summer harvest season to spend time on the farms and work directly with their producers, and once again in the off-season. Kipling recently returned from a two-week trip for this year's harvest, waking up early to help pick and process beans then staying up late eating and drinking with the farmers. He brought Aquarela's miniature test-roaster with him so he could taste coffee on the spot. It was a fruitful trip, so to speak. Kipling visited six farms and is bringing in beans from four of them to roast here. Three of those four have never before been sold in the U.S.
At Aquarela, Shih and Kipling want to raise the popular estimation of Brazilian coffee while they showcase new processing and fermentation techniques. Just as important, they want to establish a sustainable long-term business model and price structure for growers in Brazil.
"Everything is about them, it's not about us. We want to make sure they can keep doing what they're doing," Shih says.
He and Kipling both speak Portuguese. When they visit Brazil, they discuss everything, from prices to weather, with the farmers. They also have a longstanding relationship with the Brazilian Chapter of the International Women's Coffee Alliance, an organization focused on empowering women in coffee through development, partnerships and visibility. Aquarela almost always features at least one bean from a female-led coffee producer. They pay above market rate for beans and only work with farmers who don't contribute to deforestation.
This last point has special relevance. Agriculture is big business in Brazil, and there's a significant (and highly publicized) problem with deforestation as well as encroachment on indigineous lands. Humanity's incursion into the forest has devastated numerous species, including Brazil's jaguars, who have been driven from their habitats by clear-cutting and fires.
When Kipling first visited the Jaguara farm outside Sao Paulo, he heard about how the big cats (for which the farm was named) had disappeared from the area. He also learned that farmers were trying to help them, planting more native trees than coffee plants in an attempt to reforest the land.
Kipling and Shih have maintained a relationship with the Jaguara farm, continuing to visit and to buy beans there over the years. On the farm, there's a beautiful lake surrounded by coffee plants. Kipling says he was out for a walk one morning when he saw a jaguar on the prowl. The locals told him it had been hanging around, keeping an eye on the village and sometimes attacking cattle, becoming a bit of a legend in the process.
"It really struck it home for me," he says. "These people we're working with, what they're doing with the land is really, really important."
Kipling and Shih seem to have found their calling — supporting Brazil's small, independent coffee farmers, the families who practice responsible agriculture and push creative boundaries. Luckily, their business model overlaps with one of their favorite pastimes, drinking a helluva lot of cool, weird coffee. Whether you're drawn to Aquarela for its funky flavors or because of its flavors, Kipling and Shih will probably be there, ready to discuss.