I am, as I am; whether hideous, or handsome, depends upon who is made judge.Herman Melville
Every story needs a villain—and in an industry where the highest achievement many can aspire to is simply not being a villain, at least that measure of success is attainable.
But the power to create a villain—power that comes with status, stature and success—is one that should be regarded with its own caution.
A couple of weeks ago, this post appeared in Bean Scene Magazine. The timing is conspicuous—in force with a different, similarly vantaged piece published by Perfect Daily Grind days prior, Saša Šestić succeeded in centering industry conversation around so-called “infused coffees,” just weeks before baristas from around the world take the stage in Milan to present their coffees at WBC, and where ONA Coffee—Saša’s company—will be present.
In both pieces, Saša casts suspicion on coffees and coffee producers selling coffees that, he says, are artificially imbued with flavors in an attempt to mimic the coffees his companies offer. He cautions competitors and judges to be skeptical and aware of the prevalence of these coffees, and positions himself as the arbiter of purity and transparency in coffee.
I’m troubled by Saša’s claims on a couple fronts—not simply because he’s appeared at a curious time, with all the fury, swagger and self-righteousness of a carnival barker—but because of the identity of the villain in the narrative he writes: coffee producers.
Anyone who’s worked extensively with coffees processed by the so-called “carbonic maceration” method popularized by Saša and his companies ONA Coffee and Project Origin likely has noticed the way that the parchment of these coffees can often end up dyed red or pink from contact with decomposing pulp, and that the green coffee itself takes on a slightly orange-red hue.
As enzymatic and microbial activities progress over the course of the fermentation, compounds from the cherry and its pulp such as polyphenols are shuttled through the parchment to the seed via the same principles with which we brew coffee—osmosis and diffusion. Oxidative and enzymatic reactions on the coffee further change the structure, appearance and flavor of the coffee.
Coffees processed through this method are distinctly “uncoffeelike” in their flavor, often with remarkable fruit and alcohol notes as well as spice and florals. To say the least: they’re polarizing, generating endless cannon fodder for coffee meme accounts on Instagram and cheap-shots by bloggers like me.
The coffees Saša warns of, though, have been produced in a different way—conventionally processed but infused by their producers with essential oils after processing or by adding oils or or non-coffee materials such as fruits (in wine these non-grape fruits would be referred to as “co-ferments”) or microbes during fermentation.
Saša’s fear, I guess, is that producers will take shortcuts to mimic the coffees he’s famed for popularizing.
At first blush, this makes sense: in theory, any molecule smaller than the pores in the walls of green coffee should be able to penetrate into the seed (the pores are 1.5 nm – 10 nm on average). Anything larger won’t—it would be like trying to park a battleship in a one-car garage.
By adding pineapple to the fermentation tank, a producer might be trying to add tropical flavor to the coffee—but pineapple skin is a rich source of wild yeast, and the flesh high in sugar and acid, so while it’s certainly possible that in high enough concentration some smaller molecules of pineapple flavor or aroma could wind up in the coffee, the greater effect would be that the nature of the fermentation itself changes. Driven by yeast rather than bacteria and with nutrient available to accelerate the fermentation, the metabolic byproducts of that fermentation will also change.
Similarly, the addition of cinnamon to a tank—now infamous—or the use of wood containing cinnamic acid to hold coffee during fermentation actually might have another microbiological effect: reduction in the presence of yeasts, for example, thus allowing for modulation of microbes controlling the fermentation; or inhibiting the production of acetic acid, thus resulting in a cleaner, less sour-tasting coffee with a lower risk of spoilage and thus mitigated risk for the producer—cinnamon aromatics or not. (I’ve been unable to find any evidence of the production of ethyl cinnamate or cinnamic acid in coffee fermentation without the appropriate precursors being added somewhere—but as I’ve said before: I am not a microbiologist).
My first visit to coffee producers in Mexico was in 2014, a year before Saša’s win at WBC; even then, I met producers who spoke of adding panela, pineapple, oranges, and other additives to their coffee fermentations to control the process, improve the quality, reduce risk, and/or improve the selling price of their coffee.
And I met producers who fermented their coffee in wood:
Would those coffees need to be labeled?
While working on this post, I reached out to Samo Smrke, who is quoted in the Bean Scene article, for comment. He explained that through gas chromatography, he was able to determine that it was highly likely that the coffee he analyzed had been infused—a protocol he said works, so far, for cinnamon and anise. He graciously shared a screenshot of this output with me, and sure enough, on the graph, three peaks in the graph jump out as outliers—three peaks that also correspond with compounds found in cinnamon:
“Essential oils of spices are quite stable and very distinct, so it’s easy to find it,” he explained, “but infusing fruit during fermentation is probably going to be extremely hard to detect.”
I think it’s important we focus on the second bit.
While I don’t think they should be banned from commerce or competition, I do support the notion of transparency or disclosure in the case of fully-dried green coffee having been treated post-processing with microbes (à la Afineur), infused or scented—mostly due to potential safety concerns related to the flavor agents used as well as the potential for allergic reaction, pathogenic growth or contamination, but also because of the marketing value of those changes and the importance, as a buyer, of being able to reliably obtain coffees of a desired profile or flavor build year after year (or avoid them, if I choose). In practice, roasters using barrel-aging of green coffee, for example, will disclose this fact as it does generate a premium or a distinctive marketing call-out for that coffee.
But by declaring that the addition of “micro-organisms that are not part of the coffee micro-flora,” (in the words of Dr. Chahan Yeretzian) results in “adulterated coffee”, Saša and his collaborators overlook a key point: not only is it implausible that fruits in a fermentation tank will necessarily flavor coffee in the way they describe (again: battleships in a garage), but more importantly that coffee is in itself a non-native species to most of the world and there is no tenable definition of what coffee’s inherent micro-flora might be.
I’ve written about Dr. Amy Dudley’s work before, but the point is this: green coffee from different parts of the world can be identified by the “fingerprint” of microbes on the coffee because there isn’t just one signature—different coffees from different places will carry different microbes. Fungal spores—such as, of course, those that cause roya—carry easily and long distances in the wind, on humans, and shipping vessels. Anywhere coffee grows, anywhere humans go there will be microbes that are, in other words, not native.
Like the coffee plant itself.
And, in fact: all strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, one of the most-commonly used yeasts in controlled fermentations (not just of coffee but also wine, beer, etc.) and one that is present in high populations in wild fermentations of coffee may have in fact evolved from yeasts native to China.
Coffee from Ethiopia, yeast from China—growing in places they didn’t originate but managed to adapt and survive in the wild. But sure: we’ll leave it to someone who has a vested, corporate interest in regulating the space to dictate that coffee grown in Panama and fermented with a strain of yeast cultured from a vineyard in France is an “unnatural product”—as if removing the skin of the cherry and fermenting it in a carbon dioxide flushed chamber for days on end is somehow a natural process.
But wouldn’t it be easier to exclude all other coffees from competition or purity definitions—other than those that went through an approved Natural Carbonic Maceration™ or Super Honey™ process? [emphasis and sarcasm are, as usual, mine] [And what the fuck are those processes exactly, anyway? For someone so keen to lambast coffee growers for a lack of transparency, I’ve yet to see a published, detailed protocol for Saša-designed coffees used by baristas in competition. And, for the record: in true Beaujolais-style carbonic maceration, chaptalization—meaning the addition of sugar to grape must before fermentation—is, by law, permitted up to 3 g/l.]
To be clear: Silva et al. (2000, 2008a) reported in a study of dry process coffee in Brazil that there are some 200 yeasts present during fermentation of coffee—including S. cerevisiae—as well as bacteria, which Van Pee and Castelein (1972) estimated at a population of some 2.5 × 105 cfu/g (including Acetobacter and LAB), and as many as 104−105 cfu/g Filamentous Fungi including many that uncontrolled may produce a class of mycotoxins known as ochratoxins, such as Aspergillus Flavus—the genetic parent of koji—and Aspergillus Niger (better known for producing black mold). And in wet processes, Dr. Rosean Schwan notes in her seminal Cocoa and Coffee Fermentations that “in general, the wet process can be characterized as a mixed bacterial and yeast fermentation” governed primarily by LAB and yeasts—including our enterprising traveler, S. cerevisiae.
If a tank is inoculated with microorganisms, should these coffees be disqualified or require special labeling? I’ve discussed the shelf life and sensory benefits of inoculated fermentations before, but there are others as well:
- reduced water usage during processing (as the mucilage will be more completely broken down, requiring less water for washed processes or none at all),
- greater uniformity and fewer defects (and thus fewer rejections),
- mitigation of climate effects on cherry ripening or fermentation speed (hugely important in a covid-19 disrupted labor market and in regions experiencing rising global temperatures),
- safety and protection from toxin-producing microbes (because the inoculant will outcompete other spoilage organisms), and
- predictability of flavors.
To restate: the addition of microbes to a fermentation to control it can offer tremendous benefit to coffee producers.
In regulatory parlance, while these microbes may have an impact on the flavor of the final product, they are, in fact, processing agents—destroyed in the roast, and not themselves present in the final product. Other industries that use inoculation, from the production of wine, beer, cider, sake and spirits to yogurt and cheese and butter to miso and soy sauce and vinegar, don’t require special labeling—in the U.S. or anywhere else.
So where do we draw the line?
Do we only allow geshas in competition? [Looking at previous years, you might think that’s already a rule]
Do we specify that coffees must be processed only a certain way, with fermentations taking place in prescribed tank shapes, sizes and materials and only with water from certain sources?
Or do we just require that all competitors use the same coffee?
If industry chooses to regulate processes, definitions or purities, this regulation should originate from coffee producing countries—the same way that wine regulations, whether Protected designations of origin or appellation d’origine contrôlée or EU regulations, originate from those countries that have an economic interest in protecting the production and identity of those wines.
Ultimately, wrestling control from a coffee producer through regulatory mechanisms instituted by buyers and judges in consuming countries is problematic, imperialistic and will stratify coffees as either merely “commodity specialty grade” or gilded for competition by virtue of the purity test imposed by those buyers and judges—regardless of the welfare of producers, regardless of the benefits or economic viability of the processes in question.Tags: carbonic maceration competition green coffee infused microbes processing sasa sestic wbc yeast