Are experimental processing flavours too dominant?
Re-thinking the Importance of Freshness in Coffee
SUNDAY, 3 OCTOBER 2021
AUTHOR: MAXWELL COLONNA-DASHWOOD
READ TIME: 4:27 MINUTES
I have been thinking about this recently as we taste more samples than ever before with strong anaerobic processing flavour profiles.
It reminded me of the debate around naturally processed coffee that was prevalent when I first got into coffee. The debate centred around two ideas, the first being if a heavily fermented natural was in fact a “defected” coffee, then secondly and perhaps more interestingly, the question of whether the strong process flavour masked “terroir” and character.
High quality washed coffee accounted for the majority of high scoring lots. Inherently, the washed process helps with quality control as poor quality quakers (unripened beans) rise to the top during the process. Natural coffee is in many ways a more basic process and has plenty of risk for the quality of the batch.
In the past decade, technology and development, as well as continued refinement, have created high quality naturals that don’t just taste big and boozy.
There are also of course all sorts of variables to control during processing and a “natural” process isn’t just a “natural”. In fact, “honeys” and pulped processed lots etc. are all really a form of natural too, just with varying amounts of the mucilage left on. One can also split the process up and mix washed processing with natural techniques. There is more and more focus on experimental processing than ever before.
The general discussion though, is regarding a range of fermentations and the resulting impact on cup profile. I think we can safely say that naturals and the like, as well as anaerobic processes, have become part of the coffee menu and although there are detractors, the flavours they produce can be and are now often scored as positive around the world.
The line where a flavour aspect of the process actually becomes a negative taint is still something being defined, with acetic acid (vinegary) notes often resulting in agreement of “too much sourness” or “overly fermented”. Of course there is subjectivity and preference here as you would expect.
The challenge with any new approach to coffee processing is a lack of benchmarking. Of course, the first thing we tend to do is decide if we think it tastes good or not. After this and over time, as we start to taste more and more of the process in action, we start to experience a more nuanced consideration of the process and how it integrates with the other elements of the coffees provenance.
By this, I mean that the first time you taste the profile you wonder how much comes from the other aspects of terroir, in particular the varietal/cultivar. When you taste more and more coffee utilising a similar method, you can begin to see how much is actually the process. For example, I have had several thermal shock coffees now of different cultivars that all taste very similar. Now, this could be that the bacteria and microbes present in the farms using this method in Colombia are producing distinctive results, which is in and of itself interesting.
I remember a coffee buyer once explaining how the differences on a mountain, lot to lot, could be better discerned with the washed process. I guess it’s a bit like setting a variable so one can look at the others more.
When tasting Esmeralda Special, the natural Gesha was extremely good but it didn’t taste as unique in comparison to other farms, whereas the washed lots had a more individual profile (Esmeralda Special Washed Gesha will be showcased as our next Limited Release Rare).
It's important to note also that there are lots of nice but not outstanding washed profiles and the success of a processing style does seem to vary greatly farm to farm.
Anaerobic processing is a term we have all seen more and more. The main concept here being that by fermenting the coffee in an oxygen free or reduced environment, the bacteria and yeast reactions are slower and of a different nature based on the microbiology that happens in such an environment. Of course, there are many other processes and variations of processes that are being explored, but this is one that has become quite common, and its interesting to see a flavour profile go from being uncommon and “exotic” to more prevalent. I am finding myself tasting more and more of these on cupping tables and the flavours can and are often very strong and dominant in the cup profile.
I find myself thinking back on the debates around naturals from 10-15 years ago and feel I understand the love of washed coffees more than ever. Saying that, I also see how much natural processes have evolved from being overwhelming to creating more nuanced cups. I might even say I think anaerobic has a stronger flavour than natural...maybe haha! But I do like the anaerobic cups where it modulates complexity and acidity in a perceivable but non-overwhelming way.
We will always encourage exploration, experimentation and innovation in coffee at all levels. The natural process of following a new innovation or trend is one of refinement though, as we may see in anaerobic coffees too as the shock and awe of the big new flavours subsides.