Anaerobic Coffee Fermentation: Specialty or Novelty?

Discuss flavors, brew temperatures, blending, and cupping notes.

#1: Post by Milligan »

The strawberry milk coffee thread had me thinking about where the line is between specialty coffee (celebrating the origin, farmer, and coffee quality) and novelty coffees. If the fermentation process with outside components tastes more like that said component than the actual coffee then is it really specialty anymore? Or in a category like Gloria Jean? Is adding a strawberry note with actual strawberries during a fermentation really any different than adding a pump of "real" strawberry syrup to the capp?

I understand how some fermentation can give a different perspective on a coffee especially when using the coffee fruit, but when other components are added that start doing the heavy lifting with their flavors then that gives me pause.

Very interested to see why one (fermentation with other components) is heralded (by some?) as specialty and commands a high price while the other is scoffed at (syrups, extracts, or other after-the-brew additions.).

An example would be I had a B&W anaerobic fermentation with cinnamon in the tank. With the coffee selected it gave it an apple cider taste which was pleasant but I couldn't tell you what coffee was under that novel flavor profile. It lost all origin it seemed.

In a way it feels like a fancy excuse for coffee snobs to enjoy flavored coffees :oops:

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#2: Post by luca »

This is a simple question, with no answer, just possibility to get into endlessly complicated rabbit holes of discussion.

The narrow answer is that "specialty" coffee is whatever the CQI and the SCA define it to be. But then you'll pretty quickly see that few people follow that in practice. For example, you'll probably find it pretty common that coffee roasters that call themselves "specialty coffee" roasters are selling some coffees that have enough quakers (light coloured, immature beans) in them that a visual inspection reveals those coffees to technically fail to qualify as "specialty". But it's not like that is policed.

The broader answer is that you get into a "how long is a piece of string" debate about what is and is not an inherent coffee characteristic, and whether terroir or whatever is even meaningful in coffee.

One of the only fairly clear dividing lines that we can probably draw is actually who benefits from the "value add" price increase associated with additions. If things are being added in the producing country, at least the producer is likely to be paid more. If they are added in the consuming country, then the producer is not benefitting from the "value add" - to the contrary, if additives are being added in the consuming country, they are probably being added to fairly generic coffee that is not likely to have had the producers paid much of a quality premium. Even here, though, the dividing lines are not as clear as we might like. Who is the "producer"? Most of us probably have the idea that it's the farmer. But often ... it's not. The "producer" might be an exporter, a mill, a cooperative, or a coyote. They might pool together lots of cherry from local growers. And if they are different economic interests from the farmers and are working with pooled lots ... same deal ... why would you add flavours to high quality and distinctive coffee? It's likely to be pooled lower quality generic coffee, and the individual farmers are perhaps not likely to see much of a quality or value premium. So, to have good odds that additives result in greater returns to the farmers, you probably need to know that the coffee is a single farm lot.

What should be disclosed to the retail consumer is kind of an odd issue. To some extent, if the processing is a "value add" you'd think it should sort itself out - everyone wants to charge the retail consumer more for it, so they probably need to tell the retail consumer that it has had more expense put into its production by adding cinnamon, durian, coconuts, yeast, virgin's tears, bike inner tubes or whatever, since then it's obvious to the consumer that there is something there they should pay more for. Sasa Sestic from Project Origin expressed a view on this, that coffees that have oils infused into them ought to have that disclosed to end consumers. Sasa's coffee roastery, Ona Coffee, also sells some "barrel aged" coffee. "Barrel aged" means that they add aromatic bitters to barrels, then put green coffee into it to absorb the aromas.

The issue is not straightforward, because, really, whilst as consumers we are given descriptions like "washed", "honey" and "natural", there are lots and lots of variables that happen in coffee processing. For example, Kenyan coffee is classically called "washed", but the Kenyan "washed" process typically involves a dry ferment and a cold water soak/wet ferment stage. One of the variables in coffee processing is the bacteria and yeast present on the cherry that do the actual fermenting ... and the moulds that might be there to screw it all up. Wine and beer makers often use specific strains of yeast to produce specific metabolites to create particular aromas, and this is something that the world of coffee is starting to experiment with. Do coffee producers need to tell us if they have added a particular yeast from a packet? You'd think they would want to, because those yeasts are often quite expensive and they want to charge the value add premium for them. What if they have isolated specific yeasts and bacteria themselves? What if they do something to make some bacteria predominate over others, like adding salt, or cutting off oxygen? Some of the producers of "thermal shock" coffees tell us that there is a rapid change of temperature that makes the seed take up more of the flavour of the fermenting fruit that it is surrounded with. But then if you dig a bit, it turns out that they are using cultured fermentations of coffee fruit and fermenting them separately, then adding that into the new batch, and presumably this very measured, specific and controlled step is really what is producing the distinctive flavours. What happens if you take the pulp from expensive geisha after you are done with it, and add it to the ferment of cheaper castillo? Those expensive "anaerobic" coffees that you bought ... do you think they were fermented in a purpose-built, glistening stainless steel tank on tumbling cogs, like the fermentation gear at Elida estate? Would it make a difference to you if you knew that the coffee sold under the same process name by a different producer was in fact called anaerobic/carbonic maceration because the cherry rested for a few days in a knotted closed garbage bag?

And then we take a look outside the world of coffee to the world of alcohol and soft drinks. Gin, for example, has 100% of its aroma from added aromatics. So does Dr Pepper. They are radically different price points. And now we are seeing non-alcoholic gin and pre-mixed non-alcoholic gin and tonics. These are on the market at the same price points as their alcoholic counterparts; they aren't positioned at the Dr Pepper price point. But they don't have alcohol in them, and the price the consumer pays does not include the taxes, excises and levies that are typically paid on alcohol.

I don't know. Maybe this is angels on a pinhead type stuff. If you like it and are happy with the price, buy it. If you are selling it, disclose to your customers as much information as you reasonably can.

I mean, how different is this from the pre-existing traditional categories of coffee, anyway? Island, wet hulled, monsooned, natural, robusta, java, liberica, pacamara and animal processed coffees, as well as just the huge variety of regular old naturals, have been around for ages and all taste pretty different. And people can and do form a view about what they like.

Why is it that mould, phenolics and ferment (think white vinegar) are SCA defects, but barnyard, sharpie and miso are not?

My personal approach to the world of diverse coffee is to recognise that coffee is a massive economic activity on which the lives of many producers depend, and something that consumers have vastly different tastes for and expectations of. I might not ... hell, I do not ... like much of what's available on the market, but it's really not my place to go and trash coffee that other people enjoy when I'm not going to buy it. Who am I to stand between the producer, the roaster and their revenue from the consumer? I guess my only real issue is if the consumer has been misled or deceived. At some point there's a line between misleading and deceptive conduct and typical advertising puffery. If you believed some claim like their coffee is the best available, or you just bought it because it was expensive or whatever, that's probably on you. If they made some specific claim like "this Sumatran coffee defies the generalisation that wet hulled coffees taste like rubber or earth" and then it tastes like rubber or earth, then that's probably crossing the line. If the offending description is an omission, it starts to get harder ... like if they say that it tastes like "jasmine, bergamot and black tea" and nothing more, and it sort of does taste like those things, but it's also musty and astringent, I don't really know how to feel about that. Equally, a lot of this is more your problem than mine, since I have a fairly good idea what I'm likely to like, and I use my deep scepticism to avoid spending money on coffees that I'm likely to hate, or think of as gimmick curios.

Taking a step back, if producers are making more money and able to have sustainable businesses, I think that's great. If it means that the coffees that I like start to disappear, that sucks. In that case, all that I can reasonably ask for is a pathway for me to use my consumer dollar to incentivise producers to keep on making the coffee that I like by my being able to fund the producer being paid enough to make the coffee that I like to compete against the other processing options available to them. But like if some gimmick chasing roaster with rich and ignorant clientele are willing to pay a producer $2000/kg to do a three week anaerobic natural process of their panama geisha that leaves it tasting of nothing but vegemite and sharpies, and tasting like something that anyone could have produced from any variety, anywhere, who am I to stand between the producer and their money, even if their product will be rendered utterly generic? What am I supposed to do? Tell the oligarchs buying this coffee for $5000/kg roasted that they could get a similar taste profile for 2% of the price? That's not my job. But for any oligarchs that are reading this, I would be happy to source you vegemite and sharpie tasting coffee of my choice for $2,500/kg instead of the $5,000/kg you are paying now, if I can pocket the difference between what I pay for it and what you pay me, and you pay in advance. Look at you, shrewd oligarch billionaire consumer!
LMWDP #034 | 2011: Q Exam, WBrC #3, Aus Cup Tasting #1 | Insta: @lucacoffeenotes
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Milligan (original poster)

#3: Post by Milligan (original poster) »

Thank you luca, a well reasoned response. I whole heartedly agree on the value-add for farmers. If they can turn lower quality coffees into a product demanding a higher price then good on them. I see what you mean about syrups, extracts, and oils being a way that roasters try to mask poor quality coffees and have been doing that for decades. So producers having a tool to do that is all the better.

I'm mostly interested to hear how consumers reconcile the difference. Holding anaerobic with non-coffee components up as a part of the specialty coffee world but looking down upon after-the-roast flavorings covering up the unique flavors of coffee seems at odds with one another. I'm not saying one is better or worse than the other or trying to judge people who consume it with or without, but just want to hear people's opinions on that. I'm not quite sure how I feel although before giving it more thought, I did bin after-the-roast flavorings as lower end and flavorings added during processing as some weird niche in specialty/quality coffees. Now I'm not so sure depending on where it goes and how much influence non-coffee components have on the final flavor profile.

Will anaerobic fermentation end up a lower end novelty like flavor oils eventually? I'm not sure but maybe? Perhaps all it will take is a major national brand doing it in volume and advertising it widely to break it from specialty niche to commercial coffee novelty.


#4: Post by fruitfly »

Luca, thanks for a fascinating and thought provoking response! This ought to be a sticky at the top (if this forum does this).



#5: Post by bored117 »

For now, I feel adding extract (essence) is the line where it went beyond. These processed mentioned requires experimentation and cost involved. However when essence is added to bean before roasting.... or drying... I feel that IS misleading I'd they plan to charge more for it.