Has flavour in coffee gone too far?

Re-thinking the Importance of Freshness in Coffee


The processing of coffee has never been more experimental, varied and focused-on within specialty coffee than right now.

For a long time, processing was simplified into two main categories - Washed and Natural. Washed being a water-driven short fermentation to remove the cherry, and Natural being dry processing on patios or raised beds over a much longer period of time (this also includes fermentation, nearly all processing does).

Then came the Honey-style processing, whereby the amount of mucilage (cherry flesh) is left on, creating a gradient of cherry fermentation from full natural downwards.

There are of course hybrid processes where both Natural and Washed methods are used on the same lot.

In more recent times, the exact environment a fermentation takes place in became more defined, specifically in regards to the amount of oxygen present in that environment, creating Aerobic or Anaerobic processing.

Carbonic maceration is now also utilised, with the introduction of carbon dioxide changing the environment yet again. This is effectively a variation of Anaerobic processing.

The defining elements in these environments can be highly varied and intricate, with time, temperature, batch volume etc. all playing key parts, and to me this is much like water used to be in coffee. By this I mean its complexity is not discussed in detail, mainly because of variability and difficulty in understanding how to monitor and manipulate it – similar to the microbial culture present on farms and in the processing stages.

Some producers with scientific backgrounds are beginning to develop specific cultures on their farms much like the use of specific yeasts in wine and beer.

The processes we are seeing are starting to look much more like brewing (beer brewing) and vinification, with producers now establishing many as their own intellectual property.

In all these cases the modulation and manipulation of flavour by a guiding hand are clearly evident and this year a big debate has broken out in the world of specialty coffee - how much manipulation of flavour is too much?

The coffees that started these conversations had cup profiles with distinctive flavours, starting with cinnamon. Then came some very fruity coffees. In each case the flavours were so distinctive it transpired that spices or fruit were used in the processing itself.

It requires craft and understanding to get these flavours to become part of the cup profile in a way that “works”, utilising lactic acid or other processes to help translate the ingredients.

There are lines being drawn by different people about what constitutes a “flavoured coffee” or a “natural” profile, so to speak, but that term is already taken in coffee!

For me, as long as there is transparency about the process and what has contributed to the flavour of the coffee, then where that line is drawn will be down to the individual.

I do think that the specialty coffee industry will eventually land somewhere on how it adopts and presents flavour manipulation.

We are very lucky at Colonna to be able to taste lots of high-experimentation in coffee, and then decide whether to present the coffees to our customers.

We have found that these coffees are fascinating to anyone who tastes them, whether they like them or not! So much so, we wanted to create a tasting-box that would allow our customers to taste the same experiments.