The naturals debate

The naturals debate

You could say this debate is old news, but somehow it still seems to be rumbling on.

In the english speaking online coffee community it often seems a bit like Intelligentsia Vs. Naturals-Lovers, and Geoff Watts great post on the Intelli website kicked off the debate again recently. 1  To quote the relevant part:

Things I hope become historical footnotes:

The near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees. Increased risk for the farmer + significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup + likelihood of current trend reversing at some point = probably not the kind of coffee we want to promote.

Now – we probably shouldn’t read too much into this, but each point probably does merit discussion.

– Increased risk for the farmer.

Not one to be underestimated.  For a long time I fell into the trap of believing that the choice of processing for most coffee was to do with the desired flavour at the end of it.  It isn’t – it is to do with preparing your harvest for sale.  Wet process is the most desirable process, not because of the acidity or cup profile, because it is the least likely to result in defective coffee.

Natural processing was either a last resort in areas where water supply was insufficient, or for coffee whose quality didn’t really matter – unripes for example.

Geoff is someone who has more experience dealing with farmers face to face than I will ever have making him very hard to argue with here, and I think encouraging them to jeopardise their livelihood based on a curiousity is perhaps a touch cavalier of the western coffee consumer/roaster/barista/etc.  I have to agree with him here – we have to be careful what we ask for, and how willing are we (as an industry) to pick up the pieces if it goes wrong?  Probably not very….

– significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup

There can be no doubt that the natural process comes with a particular flavour, in a way that pulped naturals or washed coffees don’t. (But wet hulled coffees probably do).  I don’t believe that it completely masks the character of the coffee – the naturals I’ve tasted over the last 12 months have definitely shown suitable individual characteristics.  However, I think it is a rare part of the coffee chain post harvest where we can add flavour.  I still believe that creation of quality ends the moment you pick a coffee, and that every single step afterwards is about preservation and transparency.  Except for the natural process.

– likelihood of current trend reversing at some point

An interesting point, and one I should avoid being to certain about.  I’ve been drinking coffee since 2004.  The scope of my understanding of trends within coffee consumption (beyond what I’ve read) is very limited.  I can see it being possible, speciality coffee is more susceptible to faddism than the wider industry.  I agree that it could be a concern, though the other half of me feels it is an academic idea rather than a likelihood.

So I agree with Geoff. But I still enjoy natural process coffees.  Not all of them, by a long shot, but when they are done with great care and attention then I think they have value.

This is what it boils down to for me – I think they have value.  I think they have a place.  Most of the issues Geoff raises could be applied to the Geisha variety.  It was suddenly everywhere, farmers tearing out trees to plant it in the hope of the huge returns that the Petersons had seen, even though the original trials of Geisha showed that it generally performed badly.  (Increased risk to the farmer).  It’s cup profile also somewhat smothered the terroir with the character of the variety. (significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup).  I think the tide has pretty much turned on Geisha too – it still remains popular and interesting but I don’t think it is prized the way it was.  (likelihood of current trend reversing at some point).

This isn’t just some cheap semantic trick (I hope).  Geishas have a place, and a value within speciality coffee.  No one is suggesting we stop drinking them, or growing them.  Nor is anyone suggesting that all coffee grown should be Geisha.  Both naturals and Geisha coffees are extremely useful in demonstrating the broad and fascinating range of flavour within coffee – and I could imagine equally appalled and enthralled consumers of each.

There is, I believe, room to explore within the natural process.  The Aricha and Beloya lots of 2008 were, I thought, a necessary and interesting exploration.  Their novelty briefly captivated a large part of our industry – and part of me is curious how the momentum behind them would have influenced the next years lots had it not been for the changes around the ECX.

We probably shouldn’t be demanding that every producer starts doing naturals – but I think anyone who tried Aida Batlle’s naturals this year would agree that writing them off could be a terrible shame.  I’ll end with the one unexamined sentence, from a single point of a much wider (and excellent) piece.

– Things I hope become historical footnotes: The near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees.

If we choose to polarise ourselves over this we probably won’t get anywhere fast.  Be it the fanatical obsession or hatred – if our opinion becomes a point of pride then the conversation never moves forward.  So once again, with that caveat in place, I completely agree with Geoff.

  1. I kind of hope that a few people at Intelli secretly have a stash at home, of illicit dry process coffee – hidden from the world in shame.  ↩︎

90 Comments The naturals debate

  1. Eric Taylor

    I have found this debate a fantastic read. The fact that this has been such a civilized back and forth is a breath of fresh air. It makes for an environment that is non-hostile, if people are not careful someone may learn something! Rare air for sure. Nice.

    Over the past year and a half I have fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of cupping and trainings throughout East Africa but mostly in Rwanda where I am based. I have learned to step back from the table whenever naturals have been introduced, for fear of being spat on or worse. These have usually been trainings focused on specialty coffee from around the globe in countries that focus on washed, so of course naturals are introduced. Time and time again the cupping ends with a lengthy discussion on processing and a simpler version of the debate that is going on here. Which is great, for both me and the people involved.

    It is fascinating to witness the reactions of these cuppers who have never cupped Specialty Coffee from Ethiopia, Brazil, Indonesia, or well…..anywhere other than the country they live. Many have never cupped coffee from even their closest neighbors. The thing is though, that they can wrap their mind around most of the coffees and understand their desirability to people in the world. As long as they are washed that is. They slam the naturals for being fermented, moldy, and all around inconsistent from cup to cup. They punish the coffee beyond reason and are shocked to hear that these coffees sell for high prices and that consumers enjoy them, much less go out of their way to seek them out. They are amazed that these coffees are considered Specialty. These of course are people who have been trained to look for the cleanest, brightest and most lush and reward them for such. So, when they get a cup that is as fruit forward as a quality Sidamo or Harrar they knock it for what they have learned to label defective and poorly harvested or processed, in short, ordinary. There is of course a huge difference between a natural done right or wrong, but these cuppers have a hard time differentiating the two. It makes for a great cupping experience for both them and me, after we mop up the coffee that they have spit out across the room and at each other.

    I have spent time explaining to them that the coffees that first reached out and grabbed my attention, my first big crushes in the world of high end coffees, were the very coffees that they were ripping apart on their cupping forms and in their conversations long after the coffees had cooled. They ask me if I still feel this same way about these natural coffees, and I tell them honestly that I don’t, but it’s more complicated than that isn’t it? I mean, I’m glad I’ve had the experience and glad that these cuppers have the chance to taste other coffees than their own. I really believe that it will make them better cuppers and strengthen the quality chain on this end of things. I think it is important for cuppers to experience single origins that are not from a “single” origin or country. A big part of making this happen involves putting coffees on the table that have been processed differently. I have really seen it engage people in whole new ways, and I am glad about it.

    The longer I am involved in coffee, the more a fan of washed coffees I become. I enjoy tasting the best naturals but rarely can I stomach more than one cup. To add my two cents to the musical analogies going on….I am really glad that I have Slayer’s Reign In Blood in my collection, but I am also glad that it is under 30 minutes long. A great natural is like that for me. I can enjoy it for brief moment, get thrashed around a bit by how up front it all is, but I am not gonna slurp on it while I enjoy the entirety of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, while I revel in the piece and it’s many subtle shifts and layers. I would never make it. Most of these coffees are just too over the top to enjoy like that.

    I have seen first hand, how wet mills have changed the face (and quality) of coffee in Rwanda, and with the introduction of the eco-pulpers here, things are continuing to progress for the better. There is a long way to go of course, but I think things are moving in the right direction. When I moved here in 2008, I needed some persuading that Rwanda was any kind of contender in the world of Specialty Coffee. Since that time I have become friends with a lot of people who believe in the coffee here and have played their part in developing the market for Rwandan Coffee. I have tasted some stellar coffees, and I have been convinced. A lot of that has to do with the washed process. I know it’s not the same everywhere, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s what I’ve experienced.

    Anyway, I have definitely rambled on for too long. When I started writing I just wanted to mention that I enjoyed the debate/conversation. I am clearly a bigger fan of washed coffees over all and I share the skepticism about the naturals boom, but it’s been good to read both sides here. I would like to thank Mr. Watts and Mr. Giulano both for their insight. There is a lot to think about.

  2. Pingback: Sprudge.com » “Please don’t ever compare Yirgacheffe coffees to Celine Dion again.” – Geoff Watts

  3. Price

    No Geoff and Peter, this debate is not academic. Nor, Ric, a meta question. What you gentlemen are debating is very important to growers and they have been carefully following this for the past few years.

    Growers are always striving to make their coffee desired by the roasters. As apples have survived evolutionarily by being tasty and dogs by being cute and loyal (the Botany of Desire) coffee growers survive by pleasing their customers. If the desire of the buyer is naturals, everyone goes to naturals. If the buyer wants ‘heritage’ coffees on ‘African drying beds’, we all switch to those coffees and that system – whether or not it is appropriate to our climate and culture.

    So, what is being debated here and elsewhere is being closely watched by growers. If you, the buying community, throw us growers a curve by talking natural and then buying washed, growers with limited resources who have just switched around to please your desire are going to be seriously hurt. Having heard the conversation, last year Daniel processed some Esmeralda Special ‘naturally’. Even he had to say “ugh”. Not a good idea.

    In summary, we growers are simple folk, so please keep the message about processing simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say and we will provide.

  4. Pingback: Naturally, it’s natural. « {have a nice} coffee time

  5. Peter G

    Some interesting comments, and I can’t help weighing in just one more time.

    Mr. Peterson makes a good point, in that the communication to growers should be crystal-clear. There is a lot of stuff on the internet, and disseminated by agricultural extensionists, and NGOs, and Peace Corps Volunteers, and coffee buyers, who conflict with other coffee buyers…. it can get confusing. The best possible scenario is when there are clear best practices for washing, pulped-natural, natural, wet-hulling, etc.., clear cupping feedback, and clear rewards for those who do a great job. The best way for that to happen, in my opinion, is when a green buyer (roaster or importer) is fully committed and in communication with the farmer, and give that communication clearly and in person. It is no coincidence that the best naturals (and, it seems, the best washed coffees) are often produced by farmers with direct, long-term, supportive relationships with buyers. The buyer and farmer can investigate (doing an experiment on the climate and variety’s suitability to natural process, for example), figure out costs and prices, and make an informed decision. THAT’s the way you eliminate risk- direct communication and long-term stability. A single farm or co-op can produce washed, pulped natural, natural, wet-hulled, whatever from the same farm, which is cool! In Aida’s case, she produces the majority of Finca Mauritania as fully washed coffee (and constantly re-evaluates picking and washing strategies), smaller amounts of natural, pulped natural and tree-dried “pasa” process. All of us buyers who work with her support these experiments, commit to buying the results, and share the results with our customers. Some of these customers love the naturals, some love the washed, etc. The naturals are especially useful adding character to blends, and are a big reason why Aida’s Grand Reserve has been so incredibly spectacular lately.

    Ric, I hope that another discussion gets started somewhere on the idea of “intrinsic” flavor quality; there are a lot of interesting things to say on the matter. Here’s what I think: we human monkeys have evolved tastes to guide us to nutritious, safe food. We evolved an acute sense of acidity and the existence of different acids since all fruits have acids, and we are fruit-eaters. We evolved a sense of sweetness because ripe fruits, with more sugar, have more usable energy. We evolved a sense of umami/savory because umami indicates the presence of amino acids, therefore dietary protein. We evolved our love of sugar-browning and protein-browning when we learned to cook (our species exploded at the same time we invented cooking, read Catching Fire for more on that). We evolved a distaste for bitterness or spoiled tastes to keep us safe from poison fruits or spoiled ones.

    It seems logical, therefore, that any food that maximizes the tastes we have evolved to love (sweetness, fruit acidity, umami/savory, sugar/protein browning) and minimizes the tastes we have evolved to avoid (bitterness, spoiled/rotten, unripe sourness) would be intrinsically better than one that does not. A perfectly ripe peach is better than an unripe or overripe one, and our sense of taste is spot-on when determining perfect ripeness of peaches- amazingly good in fact.

    It gets harder as foods get more complex, and we can find exceptions, but this is the kernel. In coffee, bitterness is a conundrum: we adapt to love the bitterness (presumably because we like the effect of caffeine, which is itself bitter. Aged and fermented foods are another conundrum, they increase fruity and umami/savory characteristics, but may introduce spoiled flavors. This makes them controversial (smelly cheese, natto) and the subject of controversy, and perhaps difficult to place on the good-bad continuum. Molasses is sweet and full of sugar-browning, but has bitterness; wine is full of acidity, umami, and sweetness, has the action of alcohol going for it, but has off-putting flavors in there as well. These foods are therefore controversial or, in our normal parlance, “acquired tastes”.

    It should be no surprise, then, that natural coffees can be controversial. Lots of complexity there to compute. But perfectly ripe, perfectly dried, fresh-tasting naturals appeal to lots of folks- even Mr. Watts has given props to the greatest of them!

    Great coffee is great because it tastes great, and as we focus on our human instrument of taste, and really open ourselves to great flavors even as we sensitize ourselves to bad ones, we discover the true universality of great flavor.

    Peter G

  6. John A Gaberino III

    My family grows coffee on the Santa Ana volcano in El Salvador. I have a personal experience with the naturals that I thought might be interesting from a first hand perspective. We started processing and roasting our own coffee about eight years ago. Five years ago we setup a roastery in the US. Once the US roastery was opened I recieved many comments and requests from both customers and employees for a coffee similar to a “fruity African coffee”. Thus began our journey into dry processing our coffee.

    It was upon the request of our US roastery that our micro mill on the farm took the risk of dry processing some coffee. As we did not have any other market for it in El Salvador the decision was made that the only fair way to manage the risk was for the US roastery to agree to buy all the coffee that was requested to be processed naturally no matter what the cup quality ended up being. If the mill took on the responsibility, and the cup ended up bad, then it would end up having to be sold at a potential loss. However the US roastery could blend it and sell it at a profit, although smaller, to its high volume low price segments of it’s business.

    We started out with a few small batches assuming we would make mistakes. So needless to say we have had some mistakes, some bad and some just different. For example, last year we realized the impact of leaving the coffee in pergamino longer made a very big difference on the sugar content and the fruitiness of the coffee. We dry milled some of the naturals only weeks after being harvested and we also dry milled some a few months after it was harvested. The naturals that were left in pergamino for a few months, continued to absorb the sugars and ended up being much fruitier. Although the natural coffees continue to be a small percentage of our total volume, for us it has had a very positive effect. It has greatly helped our roastery with our espresso blends, something difficult as it is a “single estate espresso blend”. We have also been able to amplify our offerings and capture a segment of the market we previously were not. On the green bean side, this past year it finally helped us open the door and start relationships with a number of new roasters in the US. Personally I am not a very big fan of naturals and as drip or french press I think a washed or semi-washed coffee is much better than any natural I have ever had. However I think our espresso has greatly improved with the addition of the natural.

    To me the risk we have taken is at the core of the entrepreneurial spirit; the willingness to risk failure with the hope of a greater return. Mitigated risk can help the industry change and become more prosperous. Irresponsible, unmitigated risk is unproductive and just plain dangerous for those involved. In my experience and understanding, normally the transaction is made between the mill/exporter and the importer/roaster. The risk is not bared by the farmer normally. With that said, my experience is a bit restricted to El Salvador and the other people posting here might feel differently. The reality is a financially successful mill and/or exporter has to be able to manage the risks of the market. You don’t buy until you have a buyer. A mill should not buy coffee that it doesn’t have a buyer for in the same way a roaster should not buy coffee it does not have a customer for. The same rules apply in the financial world of Wall Street as they do in small business. Do not put all your eggs in one basket, diversify, and only take as much risk as your wallet can afford. No mill should ever accept to try something completely new at the request of a customer/roaster if they do not feel the risk justifies the potential benefit. Lastly about risk, as long as the mill, or farmer if that is the case, makes sure they have a guaranteed buyer, processing coffee in different methods has a temporary effect. If it is bad they can chose to not process it that way the following year. To me one of the more damaging effects of the fickle US market on the farmers is the push to have farmers change to new varietals, like Geisha, which can have an impact lasting many years; maybe good or maybe bad but definitely more risky. A least the risk with processing is short term if the current trend reverses at some point.

    JAG III

  7. thompson

    As it becomes a bit more fleshed out, rather than the original “decree royale,” sans trumpets, I think I understand the naturals comment of GW to reference the experimentation of small farms that produce nice washed coffees, and the desire to experiment with other processes. Right? Because if someone is trying to tell the Yemenis not to produce naturals, 15 minutes in Sana will change your mind on that… It would be a lot easier to read all this if people cited some negative examples, but I guess that is not kosher. GW: did I miss it, or do you say exactly when and where and with whom you have seen this dangerous trend toward naturals? I know you find the scale of Bagersh coffees frightening, right? was that part of it, some idea that many excellent coffees that could be washed are being dried in the skin? Anyway, coffee is an export cash crop produced for us, the buyer and consumer, and be it slightly imperialistic, we determine what kind of product we want. You vote with your money, which way you want things to trend. Of course, my vote means a lot less than some others here, and we all mean less than the big people in coffee, since money talks. It’s not a meritocracy where those more logical or more well-meaning have more say. Our experience is a sliver of the industry as a whole. Two particular cuppings shook me from my little coffea hobbit-hole: cupping for a day the late harvest Harar lots as they came in for auction that day, and a cupping of all the day lots at a coop warehouse in Brazil. In both those cases, I had the chance to look at everything brought to market, all, totally unvetted, and if either of those were my permanent coffee job, I would switch to tea asap. The amount of mold and rot in these coffees was so foul, it makes an indellable impression, or maybe a kind of “taste memory trauma” to be more exact, of how quickly wine and chocolate turn to garbage heap shit pile. But I could have the same experience cupping triage washed coffees, and have come close to those same vomit flavors (but admittedly not as close). I take GW concern in a broader sense. I am scared of coffee farmers being too connected to buyers, or more precisely to the whims of any particular buyer. I hope farmers have an ability to be suspicious of the advice of any single buyer, myself included (in fact, myself in particular!) and to acknowledge the fundamental difference between the retail and producer side of the supply chain. In processing coffee for sale, we deal with a homogenized product in fairly straightforward mechanical processes. They deal with plant material and weather and, yes, machines too. But I can make changes to my roaster daily, to my menu weekly, to my list of offerings, to my line of products, my location …and I can do it on a whim. You can’t move a coffee farm, or change your regional climate, and it takes 5 years to harvest new cultivars, etc. When producers start to have web sites, and they produce multiple products from the same material (nautrals, PNs, Demucilaged, washed….) they are doing some of the things they can do to market and connect with buyers. Each of us decides how we feel about this – GW doesn’t go there, PG does, okay… If you don’t want Panama naturals, don’t buy them. What are we supposed to do, form an action committee and lobby against naturals from traditionally washed areas? I mean, many people have touched in it here, but pick an easier target: wet-hulled coffees. Just go shine a UV light on your wet-hull Sulawesi and you will see what I mean; defective coffee we accept because this market demands variety, because we want coffees to taste different. Oh crap, nevermind.

  8. graciano cruz

    No single doubt I have too drink more than one cup of good coffee,…… I already drink three; one of washed, one of honey and one of natural, then I’m ready to answer these questions or give my farmers comment at this beautiful debate.
    We had been working with different processing methods the last five years, as an organic farmer our main concern was focus in the environment, also because the unique biodiversity of our farm (proud neighbors of La Esmeralda,) in Boquete with 100has of pristine forest above our coffee plantation. In 2003, all our crop was processed and exported as washed coffee both Los Lajones Estate and Emporium Estate(Doña Berta before), it was one container of specialty coffee, today all our crop is processed as microlots of honey’s and naturals. No more washed coffee……..everybody told me you’re killing your coffee……you’re crazy, naturals are only from Africa and brazil…..honey coffee that’s the same that pulped natural or semi wash……..you’re spoiling the consistency of your Los Lajones washed cup profile, all those people and friends push me, to began to work in a network with a team of well educated farmers in different countries, traveling to Ethiopia, Brazil, Hawaii, Colombia, all Central America and the Caribbean, been in the market visiting you guys, took me five years to take the risk and the challenge to change my mind !!! NO MORE WATER IN MY COFFEE PROCESS.
    Today besides Panama, we consolidated a business alliance with four specialty coffee farms from Panama, (where you’ll find today more than 10 farmers producing Honeys and Naturals) and with 100 small farmers from Chalatenango and 30 well known specialty coffee farms including, the cup of excellence winner from 2009, working in a serious program to produce Honey Coffee and Natural Coffee micro lots in adapted African drying beds. Also three more countries have already non commercial trials going on. Right now half of these coffees are already in storage and half in their processing time. All these coffees had been produce, measuring from the harvesting time, brix grades, cherry color quality controls, temperature, hours from harvest to process; in the pulping and drying process, temperature, % humidity at the beans, relative humidity environment, sun radiation. It’s the first time in the history of the coffee industry, that this amount of farmers are willing to change for a common objective, decrease our processing cost, develop a scientific base (data base) to produce high quality honeys or naturals, and the most important avoid the use of any water in our coffee processing practices or any energy drying the coffee besides sun drying in African beds. All these information will be on the web in two more weeks, we are not selecting good high quality coffees we are developing them!!!!
    I really address all of you, to read this scientific article just publish Jan. 10th, 2010, (fresh) done in Costa Rica, which I consider one of the most technical advance coffee origins, where environment had been an important issue for the coffee industry, there are some scientific good reason for taking a chance to change, this big change in the industry have to be at the origins, from the farmers; Price in many points I’m agree with you and we have to listen the market as a farmer, but the specialty market are the importers and the roasters, that was second wave, then we began to listen the baristas and cupping experts, that was the third wave, but for the benefit of everybody, it is about time that farmers in one extreme of the coffee chain, the importers, roasters, baristas and final customers (coffee drinkers) listen to each other, the four wave already start with some farmers telling the market some real scientific facts, which the only ones taking or developing the real on site choices to make it happens are the coffee farmers at their farms.
    “Measuring and Managing the Environmental Cost of Coffee Production in Latin America”
    Victor Julio Chavez Arce1, Raul Raudales2, Rich Trubey2, David I King3, Richard B Chandler4, Carlin C Chandler4
1 Cooperative Montes de Oro and MDI/Montes de Oro Research and Training Center Mirimar, Costa Rica
2 Mesoamerican Development Institute, Lowell, MA, USA
3 Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Amherst, MA, USA
4 Department of Natural Resources Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA

Correspondence Address:
David I King
Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Amherst, MA 
USA. web publication: Jan. 10 2010.
    “ENERGY IN THE COFFEE PROCESSING
    The majority of coffee in Costa Rica is dried using electricity and firewood (ICAFE 2006). Conventional coffee drying consumes on an average 12.5 kWh of electricity and 0.07 cu. m of firewood, per 100 lbs of green coffee (ICAFE 2006). Assuming a net export of 203,244,004 lbs of green coffee annually (ICAFE 2007) and the rates of electrical energy consumption from [Table 1], coffee drying in Costa Rica consumes on the order of 25,405,000 kWh of electricity (enough to power a community in Costa Rica of some 13,534 people [UNDP 2007]).
    In addition to electrical energy, coffee drying in Costa Rica consumes approximately 142,268 cu. m of wood per year. Based on an extrapolation of the amount of fuel wood consumed for the drying process (ICAFE 2006), we estimate that throughout Mesoamerica, approximately 6,509 hectares of forest are cut to supply the firewood used to dry the coffee harvest each year. This is roughly equivalent to 3 sq. cm of wood per cup of coffee. Thus, reducing the amount of wood used for drying coffee could make a significant contribution to tropical forest conservation.
    USE OF WATER
    Conventional coffee processing uses large quantities of water to remove the outer pulp and mucilage and transport the waste products. On an average, these processes use between 1,000-2,000 liters of water per 100 lbs of green coffee (ICAFE 2006). This differs from the conventional “washed coffee” in which the pulp is removed mechanically and the coffee is fermented in concrete tanks to remove the mucilage. Using the semi-washed process the cooperative at Montes de Oro has reduced its water consumption to about 36 liters of water per 100 lbs of green coffee, an over 90% reduction of water consumption. ”

    My own analysis, If we calculate that 2007 world coffee production was 127 millions bags, base on ICO reports. We could assume really conservative way that 50%(66.5 million bags or 83.82 million bags of 100 pounds of green beans)of that coffee was washed coffee, then we will have that in 2007 the coffee farmers, millers and exporters at the origins polluted or used (conventional washed coffee) approx. 83,820,000,000 liters of water, surprise?… more than 83 billions liters of water a year. But let’s said we use eco-mills, that will means 3.017 billions of use or waste water still from the coffee industry at origins, every year.
    The other main factor is the energy use at the mechanical drying of the coffee ( guardiolas), not only using electrical energy or fossil fuels, even worse using wood, well the numbers are above, you guys could make your own calculations.

    We had been working in coffee processing development for the last 5 years, I’ll give you my real scientific facts to been a changed farmer, a fourth generation wave element. as Geoff and Peter asked and also put their clear honest opinion about how differentiate “farmers test” vrs “research institutions” studies and developments base in all of your comments and opinions, and the respect that I have for friends and teachers as I consider many of you because each time we talked I learned something new. Institutional Research at most of the origin producing countries takes years and a lot of money to be transfer and implemented by the farmers, besides must of the research in coffee now days still base on plant pathology and increasing yields, not exactly in improving the quality as Geoff, Peter, Price, Willem, David, George H., Wendy, Dwayne, and many other coffee friends in all sides of the industry have wanted, including myself here. Those are some of the reasons that farmers we have to develop our own research, together with the roasters and baristas, research that could be implemented in real bases, and make a truth change at the industry, giving the consumer a main real story, the four wave is becoming so big that will need from all of us working together, to develop more coffee science for the specialty market.
    To end this long comment, we begin to develop 5 years ago the first test to produce Honey Coffee, coffee process with out water, pulping without water, (the cherries need to be really ripe), using and modify African drying beds from Ethiopians farmers and millers, to avoid and reduce the cost of energy during the drying process. This system makes you to work with small lots in the beds, easy to control micro lots, perfect for remote areas with out water and no energy. No need of high investment in mills. No need to invest in costly drying patios.
    Difference with Pulped Naturals is that this system was made for volume production (massive picking), designed to produce containers of coffee, pulped and move to the patios with water must of the time. Pre dried in the patios, I ask if any of you had try to manage more than 10 micro lots of coffee in the same patio, it could became a disaster really easy. Must of the time the coffee finish dry stage is in big guardiolas, using a lot of energy. The must important they taste different than the Honeys.
    We became together with one more farm in Costa Rica the first producing and calling Honey Coffee or Honey Process to this new coffee type, it became with a different cup (some winners of cup of excellence in Costa Rica and in the Best of Panama, in the last years had been Honey Processed Coffees), so the quality consistency problem is becoming less a problem. Still many roaster don’t like naturals my own analysis again is that a lot of bad quality naturals are offer in the market, not because the process but mainly because bad harvesting culture, massive picking ( green, unripe, dry and ripe cherries all together), I could said with fear or mistaken that more than 80% of the coffee in the world is harvested in this way, “BAD”. We could find now days, many examples of unique natural specialty coffees from different regions of the world making names in the market, because their unique taste and quality, so it’s possible!
    Graciano

  9. Al

    “Water conservation at the wet mills is a must, and farmers are quickly learning how to recycle water and cut their usage to levels that are easily sustained. I’m a huge proponent of Eco-pulpers (demucilaging machines) that can reduce water needs to almost negligible amounts (by 40 times in many cases!). Those machines are getting better and cheaper and are absolutely going to become a standard in the future, I’m quite sure of this.”

    Western white man knows best. Please. How arrogant of us to tell others what they should be drinking and how to process and grow coffee.

    There are two arguments here. Are naturals good coffee to drink and second should they be processed this way at all. Both are moot points because the market has decided. I will continue to buy Naturals for my shop because they sell well and I like them and farmers will continue to process them this way because there is a market for them.

    Anyhow, Peter G has written well reasoned arguments which I whole heartedly agree with and will leave it at that. I am not interested in social engineering and will not dictate to a culture how and why they should grow/process coffee in a particular way to satisfy my conscience. My dollars will vote for me.

    Al

  10. Eric Taylor

    “Western white man knows best. Please. How arrogant of us to tell others what they should be drinking and how to process and grow coffee.”

    …..and then somebody walked into the room and made things ugly. No thanks.

    This has been a fantastic debate. A lot of great points have been made. Not everyone agrees here, but until now it has been incredibly respectful.

    “I will continue to buy Naturals for my shop because they sell well and I like them and farmers will continue to process them this way because there is a market for them.”

    I’m not entirely sure that anyone has stated the opinion that farmers should cease processing naturals entirely, only skepticism about encouraging farmers who don’t process naturals to begin doing so purely because of a current trend in the market. Certainly, many farmers will continue to process naturals, pulp-naturals, etc. Many don’t have a choice.

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  12. Jason Dominy

    Thanks all for such a civil, thought-provoking and insightful conversation. I can say I understand more about this now, and can see both sides. I am a fan of Naturals. The Beloya was the best coffee I’ve ever had. I got to try a natural Guat last year that tasted like Fruity Pebbles. I see it’s place. I understand everyone doesn’t care for them. But, I can now understand both the implications and value in them, mostly because of this post, so cheers all for healthy debate.

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  14. Kevin Knox

    Realize I’m very late to this party (found the blog via the link from Sprudge). Wonderful, high-caliber discussion from some great leaders in the industry.

    Having, unlike most buyers/”roastmasters” in the trade today, apprenticed with seasoned professional tasters who came from large, commercially-oriented firms I can say that the prejudice against naturals is something of a professional necessity when you are a cupper responsible for insuring the quality of hundreds or thousands of containers of coffee passing through your doors and out into the world of consumers. In the commercial, price-constrained coffee world tasting is all about avoiding defects – especially ferment and hardness, that cannot be disguised by roast or blended out.

    In my view – and experience – the preference for ever-more-refined and transparent washed coffee flavors is something that develops naturally over time for cuppers who taste a great deal of coffee professionally. It’s a rarefied conditioning process, but hardly unique. I’ll give an example at quite another end of the spectrum to illustrate what I mean. I remember George Howell coming to visit us at Starbucks around 1990 in conjunction with an SCAA conference. He was poorly received by some of my arrogant superiors at Starbucks but certainly not by me, as I regarded him as a mentor and role model of the highest order. George being George he was both appalled at the darkness of our roasts and respectful enough of our palates and success (and tenaciously inquisitive enough) that he went out and bought a half-pound of every coffee we sold on his way back to Boston and carefully cupped his way through them, tasting only coffees in that roast range for several days in order to habituate his palate to a radically different range of flavors and aromas. This is a long time ago so I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of his comments was that to his surprise he could in fact readily tell all of the coffees apart once tuned in – though he still much preferred his classic full flavor roast. It should come as no surprise that Jerry Baldwin of Peet’s did much the same thing with Coffee Connection coffees, with great admiration.

    My point here is palate conditioning is a matter of access and habituation, and professional cuppers are a uniquely conditioned lot. In my view, that conditioning does not give us the right to ignore the interests of coffee consumers anymore than it gives us the right to not do right by farmers, and what I see in the coffee offerings of most of the so-called “third wave” roasters is an approach to retailing that at its worst is both solipsistic and narcissistic. A coffee menu that consists of nothing but manicured, costly washed coffees, many of them washed Centrals whose flavor differences are discernible by (and of interest to) primarily or perhaps ONLY professional tasters, to the exclusion of rugged Sumatras, fruity Yemens, aged Indonesians and the like, is the coffee equivalent of a beer menu consisting of nothing but IPA’s, or a wine bar offering only grand cru Alsatian rieslings.

    The fact of the matter is that the entire range of flavors found in coffee is pretty narrow compared to these other beverages, and eliminating naturals and semi-washed coffees from the lineup removes a whole universe of flavors coffee drinkers love. It is no accident that Sumatra (say what you will about mold and defects) has historically been the best-selling single origin coffee at places like Peets and Starbucks, nor is it a fluke that most consumers (not to mention retail employees) when they taste a truly great Ethiopian Harrar or Yemen Mocha, are gaga about the experience and find any other coffee boring and ordinary by comparison (I did a promotion at Starbucks that characterized Harrar as “the cure for the common coffee” – and it certainly can be – the fact that even a whiff of its aroma gives professional tasters, including me, nightmares, notwithstanding).

    It’s interesting to me that Geoff mentions Belgian lambics, because much if not most of the reason Belgium is considered by far the greatest beer producing nation has to do with wild yeasts and risky fermentation. Barnyardy Burgundies, brett yeasts in Beaucastel, the crushed-roses-in-freshly-laid-road-tar classic description of Piedmontese Nebbiolo, Alba white truffles or Porcini mushrooms – all cherished gustatory experiences that have everything in common with excellent natural and semi-washed coffees and reflect primal human appetites. Taking the aforementioned Burgundy and Barolo as cases it point, the reason these are considered by many to be the two finest red wines on the planet is precisely because of the haunting combination of fruit and funk, of refinement and earthiness, that they offer. Yemens and Harrars are exact equivalents, and with the decline of Kenyan quality are in fact the only coffees I would currently describe as being winey or vinous in nature.

    To be clear, it’s not that I think there is more than a tiny educated consumer base for any sort of coffee out there at this point. What there is is a massive base of people conditioned at a subconscious level to associate sophistication and high price if not “quality” with custom-made burnt coffee at the bottom of a half-liter cup of frothy milk, thanks to Starbucks and its many imitators. Having worked at Starbucks long before the installation of the first espresso machine in 1985 I can state with certainty that in Seattle and Portland (and doubtless Berkeley and San Francisco as well) there was a coffee culture of retail (only) consumers built up over the decades by Peets and Starbucks that knew and cared about seasonality and distinctions in the actual flavor of origin coffees – and that that base has basically been obliterated due to the introduction of espresso-based beverages into those stores, which has set back the cause of appreciation of actual coffee flavors (and, by extension, any market for extraordinary single origin coffees) by at least 20 years. It may be ungenerous of me, but I don’t think that trying to foist off $20 half-pounds of Panama Geisha or Salvador Pacamaras onto such consumers while telling them you can’t sell them a decent $12 pound of Sumatra or a $18 pound of coffee from its native lands processed in the most ancient way is much of a service either.

    It seems to me that if a coffee business is going to be driven by the taste buds of its buyer to the exclusion of consumer interest in reasonable prices (COE lots at $20-40 a pound don’t qualify, IMO) or a representative selection of flavors from all key regions they ought to have the courage of their convictions and deep six the espresso machine, which whatever its theoretical purpose is in practice a vehicle for ruining good coffee with milk and syrups, and replace it with a vacuum pot bar, since that brewing method is the only one the teases out all of the nuances of flavor and aroma of the preferred washed arabicas on offer. Ditch the milk and sugar while you’re at it and at last you have a coffee presentation that’s all of a piece. Sure it’ll only be in business for a week or two, but extremism in the pursuit of quality is no vice – right?

    In conclusion, I think roaster-retailers are responsible to all of the stakeholders in the coffee supply and consumption chain. The classic definition of a connoisseur is someone who can say “that’s very, very good – and I don’t like it,” and I think meeting that definition and having it reflected in a coffee lineup that honors coffee in all its forms and remembers that it is the consumer who in the end pays for all of the growing, harvesting, constant (and mostly unnecessary and carbon-footprint foolish) travel and tasting at origin by giving them year-round access to a full range of great coffees at fair prices will be essential if good coffee is to ever be something more than a boutique business in this country.

  15. geoff watts

    To Al:

    I just read your comment and am having a lot of trouble connecting the dots here. Perhaps you can help me.
    begin quote:
    “Water conservation at the wet mills is a must, and farmers are quickly learning how to recycle water and cut their usage to levels that are easily sustained. I’m a huge proponent of Eco-pulpers (demucilaging machines) that can reduce water needs to almost negligible amounts (by 40 times in many cases!). Those machines are getting better and cheaper and are absolutely going to become a standard in the future, I’m quite sure of this.”

    Western white man knows best. Please. How arrogant of us to tell others what they should be drinking and how to process and grow coffee.

    :end quote.

    Are you saying that you believe it is arrogant to attempt to address the problem of overly water-intensive coffee processing methods? Do you believe that diminishing water supply is not an issue in most coffee growing areas? Do you not believe that there is a massive struggle going on between balancing needs for food security in these communities with the need to grow cash crops for income and to generate export revenue for the producing country?
    Or are you saying that it is arrogant to recommend use of equipment that reduces risk to the farmer, reduces need for water resources and conserves supply for better use, and cuts processing time in half thereby reducing production cost?
    Perhaps you are saying that in your opinion, coffee producers are generally quite happy doing things the way they always have, and are not interested in learning about different techniques in plant husbandry and understanding different processing methods? That they see this sort of effort as an intrusion or a light-handed paternalism rather than as a collaboration aimed at achieving a more positive outcome?
    Or are you suggesting that these sorts of recommendations are just self-serving, and that they address the needs or concerns of the consuming world at the expense of the farmer without delivering any true benefit? Is yours an ethical objection or an economic one? Or both/neither?

    I’d be thrilled if you’d step forward and explain yourself. Because stepping into a legit discussion among experienced and passionate people who take the time to share because they respect the opinions of their peers and have a genuine interest in debate, and then randomly (and anonymously) lobbing a stink-bomb into the forum that carries no real explanation and makes no real contribution to the discussion….well, besides not being very nice it is also the kind of thing that turns people off from wanting to spend time on these forums.

    There are plenty of other places to go and talk trash where it is welcome and appropriate. Go check out Perez Hilton’s blog if that is what you are into.

    If, on the other hand, you really care about the issues and have something to say….then by all means go ahead and say it, and take responsibility for your words by posting your full name. Most people here will not shit on you for making an effort, even if they think you are wrong.

    My curiosity about your post is genuine…I don’t understand what you are trying to say about the whole Western White Man / arrogance thing. I get the sentiment—I find arrogance to be among the most unattractive character flaws in people. And I’m a student of history…so of course I know quite a lot about the ways in which western culture has been inflicted upon societies in the “developing world” in the name of Jesus, the IMF, or what have you. In fact I see it all the time…paternalism is alive and well in 2010. But once again I’m not sure exactly what lines you are drawing to connect this sort of behavior with anything that has been talked about in this thread. Not even sure if it was aimed at me, but it kinda seems that way.

    So instead of taking pot-shots from behind the bush, why don’t you step out and be a contributor rather than a contrarian?

    If you do decide to identify yourself and forgo the loaded terminology in favor of well-articulated thought I’d be happy to discuss with you…got quite a few thoughts about the idea that ‘the market decides’ which might make for an interesting debate.

    geoff

  16. Tim Roth

    I’m nearly 100% certain that “arguing the merits natural-processed coffee” just made
    the next edition of Stuff White People Like. Congrats.

  17. thompson

    I don’t know where the “western white man” thing came from but I first read it as a response to my comment:
    ” … coffee is an export cash crop produced for us, the buyer and consumer, and be it slightly imperialistic, we determine what kind of product we want.”

    I blew it off, because it is poorly stated, but the fact is that buyers in the specialty market must project onto producers the standards for the product. It is not determined by the producers because they grow it for US to buy, for our markets, for our customers, the ones we know. I was stating this in order to acknowledge that yes, this might, in a really superficial analysis, draw some parallels to imperialsm, except that we don’t just look to former colonies to produce coffee for us because we want to exploit labor, raw material and land. We do it because only they can grow coffee for the consuming world, and we try to act in concert to communicate ideas of quality in order that they can get the best return on the product. If you want to sell the coffee that they, by default, consume in producing countries, you will either end up with Nescafe or triage coffee in your cafe. Others in this discussion have put in countless hours to bridge the gap between how the buyer understands quality and how the coffee producer or mill manager or residen cupper understands it. We have done it not to further exploit them, but to increase their chances to produce quality coffee and get the best price for it. Yes, we need to be aware of being paternalistic in these things, but I think those that have engaged in origin countries with sincere concern are conscious of the pitfalls of such things. Clearly from this discussion, it’s a smart group of people.

    I have had side discussions with many on this thread (another nice offshoot of the discussion here – it creates more discussion), but one thing that comes up for me is that we are painting everyhting with very broad brush strokes – I think we need to speak about concrete instances when producing naturals is, perhaps in the long term, ill-advised. I really don’t think we can address it globally as a topic. I think there are as many issues with bad honey coffees, or people using demucilagers in a bad way, or poor selection of cultivars. (Which is another topic too, a minor point on GW post I have trouble with … should everyone be planting Bourbon? Is catimor bad in all cases? Why is it a bad decision for a 1000 meter farm in Costa Rica to plant a catimor if they will not ever have potential for great quality. Anyway, another topic)

    Water use, a big issue, and forced demucilage coffees have another benefit besides using mere buckets of water a day – they have democratized the wet mill to some degree, made micro-milling possible when all you have is half a cubic meter of water. Before, you had to own water rights to a stream, which you were most likely polluting as well. Now mills can be everywhere and on very small scales, allowing producers to offer a more finished product to the market instead of selling cherry under whatever local market price condition is in effect. But rolling back from water use a bit, water pollution is still a huge problem. One your way to 3-4 amazing, efficient, ecological mills in Acatenango you pass the massive Finca Chalabal where the pulp pile is dumped directly onto the stream, upriver from the other “clean” mills. It just takes one asshole … and who is there to shut him down. Huehue is filled with murky brown algae-bloom rivers. The clean water promise has not been fulfilled, not yet.

    Lastly, It’s really hard to say anything about Graciano’s beautiful post, and his genuine excitement, but some of the experimental process coffees coming out of Panama in particular are really pushing the limit on what is coffee and what is salad dressing. No, there is not going to be a George Howell-led cupping police force out there to decide was is clean and what isn’t, and our industry will not behave in concert to send a clear message to producers on this subject. We’ll decide with what we buy. I for one have been singed by my desire to experiment, like $14k worth of Panama Hartmann Natural that was shipped in sealed mylar bags and cups like moldy strawberry vinegar. We had another blended natural-washed lot from Carmen that worked out very well, because of very favorable conditions in drying. But it’s a crapshoot to dry cherry pods in Panama — hell, it’s a crapshoot to dry washed coffees in Panama lately, and if you don’t ship them out on time the rains come and everything drops a few points. It’s fantastic to have leaders like Graciano who have the wherewithall to experiment of exotic processes in their locale. As far as GWs original post, if I take it to mean, “should everyone do it, will the market reward it, is it a long term strategy” I would agree, no … in Panama, no.

    Okay, another 1/2 hour gone … crap, back to work.

  18. kurt

    Interesting aside:
    One of my customers (a physician who used to work in the Peace Corp but otherwise has little to no coffee knowledge), just got back from Guatemala last week and he was telling me about an encounter at a coffee farm he visited. “This guy…can’t remember his name right now…who works for some company…ummm…UTZ, yeah, that’s it, UTZ Kapeh, who says they are working to bring the processing back to the farmers…some kind of primitive process because, you see, I guess there’s a lot of workers with no work to do so if they can just get these people involved in this primitive process where they dry it in the sun with the fruit on, and that produces a better cup and fetches a higher profit which can pay for them to be productive and take control back from the big mills and put it back into the hands of the people and it saves water and….”

    Apparently this conversation is happening in a lot more places than on this blog…How do you like them apples?

  19. Demian Luper

    I’m also late to the party. I found out about this thread via Mike White’s post on coffeed. This debate is fascinating and great thanks to all the wonderful minds that have downloaded their knowledge in their posts.

    The distillery example was raised by Geoff and that got me thinking about other alcoholic beverages like wine. The origin vs. market dynamics is a debate that still rages in the wine business. There are examples all over the world of how changes in production methods have transformed the flavor profiles of an appellation. There are also examples of non-traditional varietals being planted to meet international market demand (like 80 yr. old dry farmed Tempranillo vines being ripped up to plant Cab Sauv in the Duero of Spain…tragic.)

    What some critics say is that many unique and traditional character has been lost from the world of wine. If you’ve seen the documentary “Mondo Vino” you know what I’m talking about. I’m not comparing washed coffees with Michel Roland’s abuse of the “microbule” but does one process fit most/all origins? Of course, there are examples of production methods altering a region’s character for the better. One only has to look at the introduction of the idea that oxidation is bad for white wines to the Portuguese and Spanish industries.

    Here’s my question: Can improvements in consistency happen without losing traditional character? Is there a way to create more consistent naturals with less defects in origins where that’s the traditional method of production?

  20. thompson

    “Here’s my question: Can improvements in consistency happen without losing traditional character? Is there a way to create more consistent naturals with less defects in origins where that’s the traditional method of production?”

    Yes, absolutely yes, is the answer. To tell people who are producing naturals successfully to change their method is not great advice. To show them a way that they can get higher returns for their coffee by improved cherry selection, thin layers of coffee pods on the drying beds, covering the coffee quickly if rain comes, etc etc is the way to go. The problem is this; how does a Union or Private Mill in Ethiopia find that customer, especially now that the ECX rules are in effect. One way is the DST auction platform. The first DST auction has already happened and the results were fair to middling. I think buyers and producers were testing the waters. Many of the lots were mediocre, and because of the timing of the auction, were most likely NOT produced specifically to put into the auction. Round 2 is coming up and that may show some overall quality improvement. But at this point, the Private Mills have no avenue to market their coffee outside of the ECX, and Privates are the source for some of the best lots of coffee we have ever purchased at Sweet Maria’s. I think others here will have had similar experiences.
    Going back to your point, I took a harvest trip to Sidama/YirgaCheffe in December and it is still shocking to see how bad the cherry selection and processing is at the Union mills. It seems inconceivable they can produce the qualities of coffee that *sometimes* come from their mills. I have some videos on youtube that show really poor processing. There is no program, even within a coop like Yirga Cheffe Coffee Union to have the managers of various mills communicate, share information about best practices. Granted that we can’t assume quality is the only route to success in coffee. It’s always a balance of quality VS volume and you need both. But a mill is basically factory to separate and homogenize quality of the incoming coffee cherry at the best possible levels, to not further damage coffee in the processing, and get the best outcome for each lot, whether it has a high percentage of ripes, a mix of semi-mature and ripe, or is all green under-ripes. The mills are truly failing at this. The staff and managers are under-paid and untrained. Staff at Privates are much better trained, and I imagine they absorb the local talent in coffee processing. I think that along with an avenue for mills to sell coffee direct and tranparently (DST) the ECX really needs to partner with the agronomists to provide technical assistance to mills, or else there just might not be any small lot coffees from the Unions to feed into the DST program. By the way, to read more about this check out the ECX site: http://www.ecx.com.et/DSTIntroduction.aspx

  21. Steve Schaffer

    I’m a consumer. I don’t often cup as do the professionals. So my interest in coffee has developed in ways quite similar to my interest in wine. I find that the varieties of coffees challenge my palate all the time. And that this, after all, is agriculture — beans from the same cultivar differ from year to year. I’m glad of it. However, I’m in the minority (as are, I’m quite sure, most anyone who has visited this blog). I will also admit that, as with wine, my tastes have changed over time. No longer a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon from my youth, I now favor other varietals.

    That said, the discussion of dry versus wet process is a bit like sausage making. I’d rather not be troubled by how it’s done but the results. If a grower is good at producing a crop that they feel is best for their business then so be it. I hate when grape growers and wine producers are all chasing after a common and narrow market force (e.g Robert Parker). For coffee, like wine, vive la difference. If the grower works to get the best out of the crop and determines the optimal method for producing a green bean that is suited to his/her target market, then so be it. Consumers will help shape the market over time, and like all markets, differentiation is what helps keep many in business. However, I really wonder sometimes whether the growers, like winemakers, fully appreciate the end result of their hard work (from the moment it leaves their farm, gets to roasters, gets prepared for extraction, and it used at coffee shops or in homes). Scary thought, that.

    For myself, I happen to favor a wide variety of coffees from all over the world (Ethiopian and Kenyan are what I love the most, with Kona and Panama at the other end of the excitement scale). Some, I’m quite certain, have a more narrow or pedestrian palate. They may be quite happy drinking conventional brews. And let’s please not forget the Starbuck”s crowd — those who demand over roasted coffees, designed to stand up to milk/cream/sugar/whatever. They live in an alternate universe of coffee drinkers.

    Hope I’ve not taken the discussion too far astray. My point is that we need to nurture and educate everyone — from the grower to the consumer, and everyone in between, so that the best result for quality and quantity while protecting the environment through a self sustaining agriculture results. Oh yea, and world peace…..

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  24. samuli marila

    this comment by GW is so important that it deserves to be highlighted. it is valid for the world wide agricultural situation, mono-culture and money-crops at an all to high prize in the long run…
    “…whether coffee should be grown at all in most places where it is currently planted. It is, after all, not a food crop and offers no real nutritional value. There are other things that could be grown in most producing countries that would make more sense in the long run…”
    this deserves its own thread, perhaps in another more general agricultural forum.

  25. thompson

    It’s just been sticking in my mind since reading it weeks ago … but what does yeast have to do with coffee fermentation? You can have yeast fermentation I suppose but it would take too long to develop to be significant in terms of an influence on the final product. Correct me please if I am wrong but coffee fermentation is an enzymatic reaction, enzymes present already within the coffee mucilage. No foreign agents required for fermentation

  26. James Hoffmann

    As far as I understand what is going on in the fermentation tank – there is a lot of pectin breaking down through hydrolysis. I read about experiments where they added pectinase to speed up the process but that didn’t produce the same results in a shorter period of time.

    Yeast activity (in the little I’ve read) has been pretty minimal, though there is a sharp change in pH around the time a coffee ought to be pulled out of the tank but I can’t remember what caused it. (sorry)

  27. Peter G

    Tom and James:

    I’ve wound up doing a lot of reading on the fermentation process in coffee over the years. I’ve come to believe that the idea that: “fermentation is a pectic reaction unrelated to microbial activity” is wrong. I realize it is the conventional wisdom, but I think it is a myth.

    First, check this paper out (here is the abstract, I will email you two the entire paper when I find it on my hard drive) http://www.asic-cafe.org/pdf/abstract/18_074.pdf. In this paper, Avellone et al show quite conclusively that pectin is unaffected all the way through mucilage detachment. In another experiment, they sterilized coffee mucilage and tried to dissolve it using pectolysis- it took over 3 days. Therefore, there must be another reason the mucilage dissolves.

    Avellone et al have gone on to prove in subsequent research (it’s a pretty large body of work, check it out) that mucilage detachment is related to acidification, not pectolysis. In other words, bacteria (like lactic acid bacteria) and yeasts whose action produces acids are responsible for much of the physical activity of mucilage dissolution. The acids destroy the cell walls in certain cells in the mucilage, causing it to detach and dissolve. It’s pretty clear in the studies that what is taught in the old books- that coffee fermentation is achieved by “soft-rot” enzymes already present in the coffee pulp- is incorrect, and that in fact it is the microorganisms like bacteria and yeasts that actually make the mucilage dissolve.

    Also, there is no question that many yeasts and flavor-producing bacteria (like acetobacter and lactobacillus) are very active in coffee fermentation. There are many studies that list these in detail. Some seem to show that the lactic acid bacteria are the most important both in terms of mucilage removal and flavor. There is no question that there is abundant microbial activity in the fermentation tank, that this activity produces various compounds, and these compounds have flavor.

    best,

    Peter G

  28. thompson

    Excellent – thanks for the information and I would really like to see the whole document. If the enzymatic breakdown of pectins with the formation of pectic and other acids is not the main factor that transforms the mucilage into a soluble form, it would actually explain much. I read a bit more on this, and I was not aware what a key role micro-organisms play … still I am just a little doubtful on the role of yeasts so would like to read more …
    Tom

  29. Price

    For some years we also were interested in whether fermentation or enzymes. Several years ago, to test the notion, we checked temperature change during ‘fermentation’ and there was NO significant change. Next we tried adding a mix of penicillin, streptomycin and other antibiotics during fermentation. This had NO effect. My conclusion was that the so-called fermentation is primarily an enzymatic process using amylases and pectinases contained in the coffee pulp. Further to this point, we recently had reason to analyse coffee pulp which had been sun-dried on a patio. the result was ; “Yeast/mold, total plate count and coliform were all very low.”
    Thus, for us, fermentation is not an issue in normal coffee processing.

    On the other hand, I have seen de-pulped coffee sit in a mound on a patio for a week, unable to be dried due to rain. After 10 days it can be smelled from 50 meters and is clearly rotting. I would guess that that is true fermentation and an awful sight to a coffee grower.

  30. Peter G

    Hey Tom-

    I sent you and James both copies of a couple of papers written on this topic. For the sake of this discussion, though, I would like to point out:

    My point in the initial post was that yeasts and other microorganisms certainly contribute to flavors in the fermentation tank, which transfer into the coffee itself. This is a separate process to the process (also microbiological) that drives mucilage detachment.

    Whether or not specific yeasts are responsible for the mechanical detachment of mucilage (Avallone seems to think that lactic acid bacteria are generally responsible for that) there is no question that yeasts are active in metabolizing sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide in the fermentation tank during even short fermentations. Yeasts are the most common microorgansm on plant surfaces, and are often the most common microorganism in the air. Any sugar- and moisture- rich plant material (like mucilage) will be instantly inocculated with yeasts. Yeasts turn sugar into alcohol, and acetobacter turn that alcohol into acetic acid; that’s one way we get acetic acid in coffee. At the same time, lactic acid bacteria turn sugar into lactic acid.

    There are lots of yeasts in the world. Let’s take one for example, candida lambica. This is a yeast that has been found in microbial studies of naturally fermenting coffee mucilage (Avallone et al, 2002). It is also present in the Belgian wild yeasts used to make Lambic Beer (hence the name). Anyone who has made a lambic at home will tell you that those yeasts kick in within a few hours, and are really active within 12 hours, metabolizing that sugar into strongly flavored compounds. I have seen fermentation tanks in Ethiopia bubbling away with CO2, clearly showing all the signs of yeast activity.

    The role of yeasts and other microorganisms is really complex, and is probably the source of incredibly interesting research. I hope this kind of research gets done in the future!

    Peter G

  31. samuli marila

    a quick question, does drying of naturals occur in big greenhouses, with good ventilation, were temps could be high enough to prevent the “negative” impact? can it be done? i imagine it happening in brazil but have only seen it done on patios, covered and not.

  32. Mike Marquard

    Nayarita is a great example to examine. They produce washed and natural coffees of high caliber. What I found extremely interesting is that when we carried both coffees in our cafes, side by side, our baristas were head-over-heals for the natural. While most of us at the roasting facility favored the washed coffee for its balance and cleanliness, there is something to be said for the accessibility and saturation of taste notes in naturals, even if they are fairly one-dimensional. The barista’s ability to hone in on a flavor and then translate that to the customer’s experience really increased the sales of the natural coffee.

    Maybe (and this is unqualified opinion), we need to teach farmers how to better exploit this demand for natural coffees. If it is more risky, can they raise their price……..or ….will the consumer pay more for a natural version of a beloved coffee?

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