The Bolsa Official de Café, or Coffee Exchange, is a magnificent building built to showcase the wealth and influence of coffee trade. The Exchange was inaugurated in 1922 as part of the celebrations for the centenary of Brasil’s Independence. It continued in use until its functions were transfered to São Paulo in the 1950s when the building gradually fell into disrepair.
By 1996 the tower was nearing collapse with the rest of the building not far behind. The State stepped in and with the support of private enterprise the building was saved. It became home to the Coffee Museum in 1998 and was declared a Heritage Site in 2009.
Before we visited, Valeria’s niece Mel, had told me about a coffee which is made from bird droppings. It is very exclusive and very expensive so obviously I had to try it. It is called Jacu Coffee. The Jacu bird is an endangered species and suddenly took a liking to organically grown coffee on a plantation in Espirito Santo state. And not just any of the ‘cherries’ either, the Jacu only went for the ripest ones that even experienced coffer pickers couldn’t identify.
Long story short, the plantation owner discovered that Indonesian growers had a similar problem with cats and had found that the beans could be recycled from the cat shit and produced fine coffee. So the plantation workers in Espirito Santo were issued with ‘pooper scoopers’ and Jacu Coffee was born. Obviously it is eye-wateringly expensive as once the droppings are collected each bean has to be individually, lovingly cleaned by hand before it can be used. Sounds like a marketing strategy to me, but it is obviously working so I gave it a go.
Now, I have had some shit coffee in my time, but I have to say this was the best, strong, flavoursome, slightly acidic and it didn’t seem to leave the aftertaste other coffees do. It was nice, I have tried it, but I think that at R$22, that is about £6, for an espresso that will be my only taste of Jacu Coffee. No coffee is worth that amount of money, but, box ticked, and where better to tick it?
The actual building is huge and located close to the railway station where the coffee arrived and opposite the, now derelict, dockside warehouses from where it was exported. The major feature is the Trading Floor, an impressive stone floored ‘arena’ enclosed by a ring of Brasilwood seats for the brokers and traders. These seats on the Exchange were massively expensive, apparently costing as much as a house, and were passed down from father to son, but the profits to be made were obviously worth the cost.
Behind the Floor is a huge mural by Benedito Calixto, a famed artist from Santos, which depicts Bras Cubas founding Santos in front of the church he built, the Holy House of Mercy. Calixto also created the stained glass ceiling above the Floor which gives a very stylised representation of the three periods of Brasilian history from Colonial, through Imperial to the Republic.
The central ‘Colonial’ pane shows, amongst other things, flames on the waters which apparently was a trick the settlers used to scare the Indians. They used cachaça, the clear sugar cane alcohol, to make it look like they had the power to make water burn! His depiction of the period of Imperial abundance, from 1822 to 1889, shows the various crops grown in Brasil. It has been noted that he only depicts European streotypes, completely omitting any reference to the slavery that existed throughout this entire period and which under pinned this prosperity. The third pane represents the industrial development of the Republic up to the centenary of Brasil’s Independence.
The building is impressive, more so because it has actually been preserved. The Coffee Museum itself is also very interesting and I could have spent far longer there than we had. The displays cover the entire history of coffee from its origins in Ethiopia to its arrival in Brasil and the relevance of the coffee trade to the political, social and economic life of the country. That is in addition to an in depth exhibition on how coffee is actually grown and made. They have English and Spanish translations of the main features which was welcome, but half the fun is trying to understand the Portugese! Well worth the R$6 entry fee and after the museum I didn’r even begrudge the R$ 22 coffee!