Specialty coffee has the wine industry to thank for its influence on processing


On the surface, it may seem like the coffee and wine industries have little in common. But if we dig a little deeper, we quickly find that both coffee and wine producers use a shared terminology and set of farming practices.

In fact, when it comes to processing methods in particular, it doesn’t take long to realise just how much specialty coffee producers draw inspiration from winemaking. We’re seeing the influence of the wine industry more and more in recent years, with producers using advanced processing methods more often – and thereby continuing to expand the range of flavours we can experience.

To learn more, I spoke to Camilo Merizalde, founder and director of the Santuario Project, and Carlos Pola, owner of the San Antonio, Las Brisas, and San Roque farms in El Salvador. Read on to learn what they had to share.

You may also like our article comparing coffee & alcohol production.

Fermentation tanks on a coffee farm.Fermentation tanks on a coffee farm.

How has coffee processing changed in recent years?

For many specialty coffee professionals and enthusiasts, experimental processing is one of the industry’s most exciting topics. Although most coffee is processed using the three “traditional” methods – natural, washed, and honey – more advanced and novel techniques have been appearing at pace over the past few years.

We’re all well aware of how far coffee processing has evolved recently. But fewer of us may realise that winemaking has been key to this level of innovation.

For example, 2015 World Barista Champion Saša Šestić famously showcased carbonic maceration during his winning performance. He used the Sudan Rume variety which quickly caught people’s attention for its intense, fruity aromas, and heightened sweetness.

Saša’s WBC performance instantly thrusted carbonic maceration into the spotlight, and helped to generate even more interest in experimental processing. He wasn’t alone, however.

Camilo Merizalde is the founder and director of the Santuario Project, a specialty coffee producer and exporter with farms and wet mills in Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico. Together with Saša, he developed the carbonic maceration process.

Similarly, 2019 World Coffee in Good Spirits Champion Dan Fellows won using a frozen fermented Pacamara coffee. Like Saša, Dan collaborated with another coffee processing expert: Carlos Pola.

A coffee farm in BrazilA coffee farm in Brazil

Exploring the influence of winemaking

Wine and coffee share several fundamental similarities. First and foremost, their unique sensory qualities are influenced by several factors, including:

  • Terroir
  • Fermentation
  • Processing methods

Terroir describes a group of location-specific environmental conditions that include climate, terrain, soil, farming practices, and the effects of local culture and heritage. Although winemakers first coined the term centuries ago, it’s now commonly used in the specialty coffee sector.

However, the biggest similarities between winemaking and coffee production are found in processing methods.

“So many of the processing methods we use in coffee are the result of trends in winemaking, as well as extensive research about the anatomy of the coffee cherry and all the ways we can modify and accentuate flavour and quality,” Camilo says.

Carlos tells me has been experimenting with carbonic maceration and cold fermentations since 2018. He believes that because winemaking is such an ancient profession, the coffee industry can learn so much from it.

“The characteristics of the fruits are similar and, most importantly, winemaking dates back centuries,” he explains. “The practices and protocols used in the wine industry can be replicated in the much newer specialty coffee sector.”

He adds that processing methods like carbonic maceration and cryo-maceration – both influenced by winemaking – help his coffee to stand out in an increasingly competitive market.

“These techniques have helped us differentiate our coffees through creating extraordinary sensory attributes and higher scores,” he explains. “In our experience, it helps us to enhance flavour profile and prolong the shelf life of coffee.”

Frozen coffee cherries.Frozen coffee cherries.

Fermentation is key

Fermentation is a chemical reaction that uses enzymes to break substances down into simpler ones. Typically – as mostly in the case of anaerobic fermentation – it requires a total absence of oxygen and the presence of yeast or bacteria, sugar, and heat. 

In alcohol production, enzyme-producing yeasts break sugars down into ethanol and other compounds, which gives different alcoholic drinks their distinctive flavours and aromas. 

All processing methods involve some level of fermentation, but not all of them have an impact on sensory profile. Some producers ferment coffee to more easily remove the seeds from the skin and mucilage (like washed processing), while others will use fermentation to heavily influence tasting notes and mouthfeel.
When carried out under controlled conditions, fermentation can produce a highly diverse range of flavours in coffee.

Anaerobic fermentation

Anaerobic fermentation always occurs in a low-oxygen environment. Typically, producers de-pulp coffee (although not always) before sealing it in airtight tanks or other vessels. A valve is also used to expel gases created through the fermentation process.

In turn, this method substantially alters the final sensory profile. In most cases, the flavours tend to be more intense, highly complex, and rather unconventional – especially compared to washed coffees.
As a result of these more unique flavour profiles, anaerobic fermentation is becoming more common. Some do believe, however, that this process can lead to inconsistent results if variables aren’t controlled tightly enough.

Lactic fermentation

La Palma y El Tucan, a farm in Cundinamarca, Colombia, is widely believed to have championed the lactic fermentation process. Technically, it’s a variation of anaerobic fermentation because it also occurs in a low-oxygen environment. 

After sorting coffee cherries, producers seal them in tanks. The anaerobic environment encourages the growth of lactobacillus cultures – the same bacteria used in dairy production – which convert sugars into a lactic acid solution. 

Producers often kick-start the process by inoculating the tank with a starter culture. However, like other complex and extended fermentation methods, lactic fermentation can be difficult to execute successfully.

To avoid this, some producers add a salt solution during the processing stage to control the rate and level of fermentation. If done correctly, the process produces a very sweet coffee with a medium-to-high body, with more fruity and yoghurt-like flavours and mouthfeel.

Yeast-assisted fermentation

Yeast application (also referred to as yeast inoculation) is the processing method that is perhaps most directly influenced by winemaking. Humans have been using yeast to ferment food and drink for thousands of years.

Under the right conditions, certain yeasts will grow directly on the skin of coffee cherries. However, it’s important to differentiate between spontaneous (wild) fermentation and commercial inoculation. 

Like winemakers, coffee producers can choose whether to allow yeasts to develop naturally or to intentionally add them. There are advantages to both methods, so the decision often comes down to which method is most accessible and sustainable. In other cases, it’s more about achieving a specific outcome in terms of flavour and quality.

Similar to lactic fermentation, producers begin the commercial inoculation process by introducing a starter culture to the coffee cherries. Typically, producers will use Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is a type of yeast that works especially well for processing coffee. 

Spontaneous fermentation, meanwhile, happens much more slowly. It’s also less predictable, which means stricter quality control methods are essential to achieving good results.

Fermentation tanks in a covered area on a coffee farm.Fermentation tanks in a covered area on a coffee farm.

Carbonic maceration and winemaking

Probably the most famous processing technique borrowed from winemaking – especially in specialty coffee – is carbonic maceration. In the 1930s, wine producers in France’s Beaujolais region helped the method become more well known.

Wine from this region is generally made using the Gamay grape, which results in light red wines with pronounced bitterness and acidity. Carbonic maceration softens the grapes, giving the wine a sweeter and fruitier bouquet.

Like other experimental processing methods, carbonic maceration uses fermentation to amplify certain flavour attributes, or even introduce new ones.

Firstly, producers de-pulp the coffee cherries before sealing them in plastic or stainless steel tanks. Next, they flush the tanks with carbon dioxide. This forces oxygen out through a one-way valve. 

During fermentation, the same valve allows other gases to escape. Finally, after a predetermined period of time, the producer places the coffee on raised beds so it can dry. Here, it undergoes further fermentation – similarly to natural processed coffees.

“Carbonic maceration gives us the opportunity to delve deeper into more complex flavours,” Camilo says.

However, he notes that while carbonic maceration is inspired by the winemaking process, there are some notable differences.

“One of the most notable is the concentration of the mucilaginous layer on both coffee cherries and grapes, as well as the microbial composition of both,” he adds. “We personally believe that the coffee industry is still lightyears behind the wine industry in terms of processing.”

What does carbonic macerated coffee taste like?

In a previous article for PDG, Saša explains that he uses carbonic maceration to “target specific microorganisms by controlling different variables during fermentation”.

“These variables include tank temperature, environment, time, yeast and bacteria esters, and many more,” he elaborated. “Doing so allows us to elevate the flavour profile of the coffee, raising its cup score and changing its taste in a specific way.”

One style of carbonic maceration encourages the growth of microorganisms like Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, which both produce acetoin. Saša says that this gives the coffee a creamy, buttery mouthfeel.

The microorganisms present in the fermentation tank break down the sugars in the cherries more slowly. This results in coffees with complex flavours – often described as bright and winey.

In Panama, where producers consistently grow high-scoring specialty coffees, innovation in carbonic maceration is a growing trend. Producers say the resulting coffees are more layered and complex than those processed using other methods. They also have higher levels of acidity and a wider range of flavours and aromas.

A coffee professional cups Santuario Project coffees.A coffee professional cups Santuario Project coffees.

Considering humans have been drinking wine for much longer than coffee, winemaking has left an indelible legacy on coffee production. As more coffee producers experiment with methods like carbonic maceration, it’s likely that the industry will continue to lean on winemaking for inspiration.

“While we have been experimenting with wine for thousands of years, coffee processing with similar fermentation techniques has been around for just a few years, so there is much work to be done and many more years of experimenting,” Carlos concludes. 

“In the process, the possibilities for better and different profiles in coffee are enormous.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on experimental coffee processing in Panama.

Photo credits: Camilo Merizalde, Carlos Pola, Finca Campo Hermoso Quindio, Edwin Noreña

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