Flavour fights futures: How Zest Specialty Coffee combats coffee prices

What roasters can do to combat coffee prices

Zest Specialty Coffee’s Darren Stinson on what roasters can do to soften the impact of the low C-market and support the ongoing investment of quality coffee production.

It’s important to constantly re-evaluate your vision, to sit at the drawing board again and again until your direction aligns to benefit the entire supply chain. It’s something we at Zest Specialty Coffee, as a small to medium-scale specialty roaster, have no objection in doing to ensure our direction benefits the entire supply chain, the most vulnerable and most important members of our industry – the producers.

But how do we do that? The answer is to ask them what they need.

The Coffee Futures Market (the C) hit a record low in April, falling to below US$0.90 per pound, a level unseen since 2006. It’s good news for the money managers who have been betting on the decline of Arabica futures since August 2017, but much like other agricultural industries, it’s bad news for the producers who bear the ultimate cost. 

The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia has tirelessly campaigned against the inevitable failure of the C market to support producers, proposing that cost price plus profit be the absolute minimum trading terms. It’s important to understand that, as the largest coffee producing country in world, Brazil is at the forefront of all C pricing. Over-supply in Brazil with a weak Brazilian Real should not determine the base price for Colombia or other producing countries in Central America.

Darren Stinson is the NSW Manager of Zest Specialty Coffee Roasters.

So again, how can small roasters play a positive role in such a complex system?

Our method has been to work to improve those coffees that are the bulk of our producer’s exports. This means not just selecting the best fruit on the trees and ignoring the balance of the crop, but looking to discover ways to implement sustainable changes to large-scale processing methods that will increase flavour desirability, and therefore the value of the crop.

At Zest, we have been lucky enough to set up long-term relationships with producers in Peru, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. We have implemented fermentation projects to improve our blended regional coffees by using a number of anaerobic and carbonic fermentation techniques. These techniques, in improving the quality of the base product, have allowed our producer partners to demand a higher differential for their coffee. In focusing on the products, which constitute the bulk of our producers, we take advantage of the sheer scale at which such volume is produced in order to best implement change.

At the heart of this strategy, is a fascination with flavour. We’ve already seen vast advancements in roasting and brewing technology, which we can proudly say has allowed many companies to achieve incredible flavour and variety in coffee, but we have further to go.

Relatively new improvements and advancement in coffee processing and fermentation present entirely new paths of possibility. We decided it best to join partner producers on site to implement the changes necessary for advancement. 

Coffee fermentation is traditionally an on-farm process where microbial activity solubilises the coffees’ pulp layer around the seed. It produces metabolic end products like alcohol, carbon dioxide, and organic acids, which ultimately change the flavour in your cup.

Where producers had previously seen fermentation as the time barrier before drying, they are now able to manipulate the microbial community with the help of yeasts and bacteria to improve the complexity of the flavour in the final product. By employing conscious and considered fermentation techniques, we can now coax out flavours that would have otherwise not existed.

Producers in Peru pulp the coffee before applying fermentation techniques to coax out maximum flavour.

Our interest in the potential of these techniques was piqued by sampling a “slow natural” from Brazil that was the result of Tercio Borba from Three Brothers facilitating a project with producer Jhone Milanez Lacerda in the Santa Rita Estate, located at the Caparaó Region in Minas Gerais.

We were mesmerised by their ability to produce a clean natural that cupped above 90 points. Buying this coffee had a ripple effect. To this day I have café partners asking for the return of this absolute unicorn of a coffee.

As a result, we were inspired to experiment with naturals in our most recent project in San Ignacio, Peru in 2018. We worked with producers to process a number of micro-lots exploring the effects on flavour of low oxygen fermentation. Experimenting with time, temperature, pH, processing method, and drying conditions, we produced six little lots of coffee that were to be a crucial stepping stone in our research program.

After a few months on the high seas, we received our shipment into the docks at Melbourne. What we cupped took us all by surprise: a 83.5-scoring regional coffee suddenly kept its colours on a table full of Geisha. In the past, we had been able to improve coffees by two to three points, but this was a momentous achievement and one that we will truly celebrate with our producer Richard Jaramillo from Bosque Verdes Cooperative in San Ignacio.

But how does this feed into our real objective of helping ordinary farmers and cooperatives fight the problem of the low coffee price? Quite simply, a jump in cupping score of five or six points will mean that coffee will command a significant increase in sell price for the farmer that is unrelated to what is happening in the US Intercontinental Exchange.

We sold out of that special sample lot at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo for an incredible $200 per kilogram based on its amazing flavour profile and are passing every cent of that windfall back to that cooperative in investment in equipment to upscale their potential for success. 

So, what’s next?  This July, we have our green bean explorers travelling back to San Ignacio on a more exciting mission. Zest has purchased over 90 square metres of drying facilities for the cooperative, as well as a number of fermentation tanks to increase the scale of our special production. Our goal will be to highlight Bosque Verdes among the top producers in Peru. Keep an eye on the Peru Cup of Excellence results for 2019. 

This article appears in FULL in the June 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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