Producer Insights: Infused and Co-fermented Coffees

Coffee processing is one area of the industry that has seen no shortage of developments over the past several years. Some innovative coffee producers are finding ways to differentiate parts of their crop through new fermentation styles, while others are seeking the newest developments that can help them safeguard their production from the challenges brought on by a rapidly changing climate. While the initial inspiration for innovation can be widely varied, the results have provided a full slate of coffees branded with new processing terms and, at times, containing new flavors for coffee drinkers everywhere.

One of the developments we’ve seen growing lately has been the addition of “infused” or “co-fermented” coffees to producers’ offerings. These coffees offer distinct cup profiles defined greatly by added flavor agents in the fermentation process, imparting difficult-if-not-impossible to achieve flavors to the coffee. We wanted to explore this development in coffee processing, so we spoke to some coffee producers who have adopted this style of production to gain their perspectives and learn more about what inspired them to take it on, what they have found to be important in the process, and where they see coffee processing heading in the future.

What are infused coffees?

Coffee processing is complex, and can include a wide variety of different steps that can vary from origin to origin, farm to farm, and producer to producer. While some coffee processing is completed with little-to-no additives, relying entirely on the naturally occurring microbes and sugars from the coffee cherries to complete the necessary fermentation step in processing, many producers have adopted the use of extra ingredients during processing to achieve a number of results including batch consistency, labor efficiency, and differentiated flavor profiles. Most of these processing additives, such as yeasts and sugars, help facilitate the typical fermentation process and potentially highlight certain aspects of a coffee’s naturally occurring cup potential.

Elkin Guzman observing cherries in the fermentation tanks, fermented cherries at Finca El Mirador in Huila, ColombiaElkin Guzman observing coffee cherries at the fermentation tanks, fermented cherries at Finca El Mirador in Huila, Colombia

Infused coffees, by contrast, are intentionally fermented with ingredients such as fruits, herbs, and spices, which leave a lasting and often identifiable flavor addition to the coffee which persists through the roasting process. Elkin Guzman, owner of Finca El Mirador in Huila, Colombia, explains his process for producing these lots, “we have some coffee processes which carry flavor inducers fermented with fruits, that is why we call them co-fermentations. [Before] the fermentation of the coffee, a mass of yeasts with fruits is fermented, which is then added to the coffee to make the respective fermentations.”

Infused coffees are co-fermented either by adding the ingredients to the mother culture used in fermentation prior to processing the coffee as in Elkin’s process, or by adding the ingredients directly into the fermentation vessel along with the coffee during its fermentation. The results in the cup can be striking, potentially introducing new flavors in coffee to consumers or elevating the presence of particular notes to make them defining and unmistakable features of the cup.

Why are some producers choosing to produce infused coffees?

The inspiration for innovations like co-fermentation in coffee are as diverse as the people who undertake coffee farming. Unsurprisingly, we received a range of responses when we asked producers about what motivated them to adopt infused coffees into their offerings.

Rodrigo Sanchez, owner of Aromas del Sur in Huila, Colombia, points to the pressure of climate change as part of his inspiration for developing his method for co-fermentation. “Global warming is constantly affecting the stages of cultivation, flowering, and harvest in the coffee industry. In turn, these changes lead to variation in sensory profiles from harvest to harvest,” Rodrigo explains. “This is where a process such as co-fermentation helps us… to minimize the effect of climate change [by] counteracting changes in the sensory profile of each process and having greater stability throughout the year.”

Rodrigo Sanchez (L) and Elkin Guzman (R) in the fermentation area of Finca La LomaRodrigo Sanchez (L) and Elkin Guzman (R) in the fermentation area of Rodrigo's Finca La Loma in Huila, Colombia

For Andres Quesada Vargas of La Mona Micromill in Tarrazú, Costa Rica, this innovation delivered an opportunity to potentially increase the value of a relatively small crop. Andres says, “my plantation is in a very cold area, so the average production per hectare is low. The idea [in producing infused coffees] was to achieve added value to my coffee and therefore a better price.”

Meanwhile, Elkin Guzman is motivated in part by what he sees as the potential in processing innovations like this and what they can offer the broader coffee world. “The market is changing through fermentation itself,” says Elkin. “Paradigms have been changed regarding coffee fermentation and we believe that this is a new line or model of coffee with which we can experiment with this beautiful product.”

Andres Quesada Vargas (R) at La Mona Micromill in Tarrazú, Costa RicaAndres Quesada Vargas (R) with his father (L) at La Mona Micromill in Tarrazú, Costa Rica

Elkin, like all of the people we spoke with about this processing style, also mentions the end consumer of his coffee when discussing his motivations. “[I’m motivated] to generate these studies and research on coffee [because] it is the consumer who always wants to have new experiences through a coffee drink that awakens unique sensations and makes [them] fall more in love with this product.” Rodrigo echoes this sentiment when discussing his co-fermented lots. “Why do we produce it? Due to the high demand for differentiated and innovative coffees worldwide. [We seek] to satisfy this demand for differentiated coffees from an audience that looks for unique experiences.”

What are producers' best practices for infused coffees?

In an expansive and globally interconnected industry, innovations in coffee should always be accompanied by the development of best practices that can be adapted by others based on their needs. This is especially true for a food product like coffee when discussing potential questions regarding food safety or allergen concerns. While there’s no single solution to any issue that can be applied to all producers across the globe, the people we spoke with all focused on a few primary topics when it comes to producing these infused coffees: start with quality ingredients, work thoughtfully with regard to food safety, and offer these coffees with full transparency in their production details.

Andres Vargas tells us that his best practices begin at the root of the production. “[Our standards] start from the moment we select the seeds to create the best plants… we focus on the assistance of the crop and then a good harvest. We select the best fruits and look for the best herbs.”

Preparing fresh citrus fruits for co-fermentation at La Mona MicromillPreparing fresh citrus fruits for co-fermentation at La Mona Micromill

Fermentation of any kind can be fickle and brings the potential to go awry in a variety of ways, which is a fact that’s not lost on Elkin Guzman. “[We aim] to have food safety in the process from start to finish,” he explains “The practices are to carry out quality control and [maintain] standards regarding the co-fermented products like fruit, yeasts, and coffee, knowing that in the end it will be a product for human consumption.”

In addition to prioritizing food safety, keeping a record of the process and its ingredients is critical for transparency when producing coffees with added ingredients. When asked specifically about best practices, Rodrigo replied “most importantly, respect and transparency to the consumer and the industry to inform [them] that it is a coffee with added fruit.” Elkin mirrors this dedication to transparency in his operation, explaining “...the information on how this coffee was processed is sent to the client [as part of] the traceability operation of the coffee on the farm.”

Are infused coffees here to stay?

Some developments in the coffee sector provide long lasting impacts on the industry while others are proven to be passing trends. This new style of processing has already seemingly found a foothold in certain regions, as Rodrigo tells us, “[I’ve seen the greatest interest from regions] like Asia, with its related markets like Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Malaysia. Additionally, they are well received in Arab markets such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia; and in Oceania it has a good impact mainly in Australia.” However, will the current interest in these regions last? And, are these coffees destined to be adopted in specialty coffee consuming countries everywhere?

Rows of coffee trees at Rodrigo Sanchez's Finca MonteblancoRows of coffee trees at Rodrigo Sanchez's Finca Monteblanco in Huila, Colombia

Andres Vargas is confident in this innovation and its staying power, telling us “of course I believe [these coffees are here to stay]. Over the years the food industries have been evolving and coffee has not been the exception. We see how Honey, Natural, and fermentation processes (aerobic and anaerobic) have had a great acceptance in the markets, and infused coffees are gaining an important market.” When asked further about the future of this processing style, Andres was clear in what he sees as a priority, “I hope to see more transparency in the processes and in what we processors are doing. It's not fair to add [to] or infuse coffee and not say so just to have exceptional [coffee]. Part of the success is being honest with our customers, and the idea is to continue growing with the art of infusing coffee, and [getting] the best out of coffee and fruits and herbs.”

Elkin Guzman seems slightly less certain, noting that ultimately the consumers will be the ones who decide the longevity of this novel process. “I consider that [infused coffee] is a new commercial line for the specialty coffee market, [and] that as producers we must be honest with the traceability of the coffee operation and its process. In the end, the consumer is the one who decides what to drink or not.”

Coffee being dried at Finca El MiradorCoffee being dried at Finca El Mirador

Rodrigo Sanchez sees these coffees as an opportunity to broaden the understanding of specialty coffees as differentiated flavor experiences to even more people. “For a final consumer looking to have a different coffee experience it is difficult to find a note marked as jasmine, citronella, lemongrass, cinnamon, etc.” he explains. “When you present [a consumer] a co-fermented coffee… you manage to open a new world and experience of coffee to this consumer, thus awakening their sensory capacity and introducing [them] with greater passion and respect to the world of specialty coffee.”

The future of coffee processing

Looking ahead at the future of coffee production, it's easy to wonder what the next big development will be. The experimentation undertaken by coffee producers always presents some amount of risk for them and their business as the invested money, time, labor, and other resources could ultimately provide no return if the experiment fails to produce results. Despite this risk, specialty coffee has seen so many innovations in production through recent years that seem poised to help guide the industry as it evolves and adapts. It seems most appropriate then to look at the question this way: with producers being the originators of the majority of these developments in production, where do they imagine coffee going next?

Coffee undergoing co-fermentation at Finca La LomaCoffee undergoing co-fermentation at Finca La Loma

Elkin sees this co-fermentation innovation as a continuation of the expansion of consumer choice in coffee. “I say that [coffee] is going to have a line of what is already known as specialty coffee and a line of co-fermented coffee, thus accompanying the line of regional [lots], traditional processes, and exotic varieties. Now the consumer will be the one who chooses according to [their] taste and [their] purchasing power which product or line to consume,” he explains. This diversity of offerings can be attributed to the inherent potential of coffee and its production, as Elkin continues, “coffee is a traditional and unique product that does not require high technology or high production costs, but rather to understand the behavior of coffee as a fruit and as a living product.”

Rodrigo tells us in no uncertain terms who he believes guides the future of the industry, saying “[the future of coffee processing] does not depend on us as producers, but rather on consumers and market trends since we are working and innovating to satisfy the taste and demand of our customers worldwide,” pointing clearly to consumers as inspiration for some of the innovators in the coffee industry. “It is not where we want to take the market, but where the market is taking us [and] what is required or asked for.”

Coffee cherries developing at Finca El MiradorCoffee cherries developing at Finca El Mirador

We certainly can’t predict the next development in production anymore than we can say how infused and co-fermented coffees will ultimately be adopted by the specialty coffee industry. However, we’re glad to be part of an industry filled with people driven to experiment, innovate, and seek the next step toward expanding coffee’s reach and awakening passion for the beverage in new consumers.

Inspired to read more Producer Insights? Check out our blog Producer Insights: Anaerobic Fermentation in Coffee Processing!

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