Transparency means more than disclosure of where a coffee comes from or the price paid for it. BeanScene explores why the use of infused coffees must be transparent throughout the supply chain, and where the responsibility lies.
The first time Ona Coffee Founder Sasa Sestic questioned the cinnamon flavoured coffee he was tasting, was at the 2018 World Barista Championship (WBC) in Amsterdam. Was this unique flavour the result of a specific varietal, fermentation, or due to an essential oil or ingredient added during or after fermentation, drying, storage, or while roasted?
The following year, Sasa was contacted by premier specialty coffee competition the Cup of Excellence, noting their concern about the entry of potentially infused coffees in its national competitions.
When Sasa got his hands on the coffee in question, he says it contained aromatics he had never found in coffee before. “It reminded me of smelling essential oil,” he says.
Sasa called the producer to question whether the coffee was infused with a particular flavour, to which he replied “no”. He said it was the result of a unique processing method.
“I have done more than 1500 experiments in 10 countries with the same method, and I have collaborated with microbiologists about it. I knew it was not possible to achieve the same flavour unless it was infused,” Sasa says.
To test for certain whether a coffee has been infused or not requires the application of sophisticated instrumental techniques such as gas chromatography or Proton-Transfer-Reaction Mass Spectrometry, as done by Professors Dr Chahan Yeretzian and Dr Samo Smrke at the Coffee Excellence Center of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) in Switzerland.
“Whenever a very distinctive profile is perceived that is uncommon in coffee or a specific aroma compound dominates in instrumental data over the green coffee aromas that is otherwise not known to be present, it is possible to say that that coffee was adulterated,” Samo says.
Chahan and Samo recall measuring the aroma profile of a green coffee that smelled strongly of anise. Tests showed a high concentration of key anise aroma compounds, anisole, and anisaldehyde compounds not found in coffee aroma.
“That coffee was either infused with large amounts of anise during processing or sprayed by anise essential oil. This coffee was clearly adulterated,” Samo says.
What’s the difference?
According to Chahan, coffee with additions of components that are part of the coffee itself, can be considered “natural coffees”.
Natural coffee flavour implies that only coffee has been used, with different means of fermentation during processing, such as varying the fermenter cultures or fermentation conditions, such as temperature and atmosphere.
Chahan says there are three natural ways to influence the flavour of coffee in the cup:
- Genetics: the proper selection of the variety
- Terroir: characteristics and composition of soil, temperature, rain, climate. It can possibly include farm management including fertiliser and pesticides; and
- Processing: harvesting, post-harvest-processing, storage, roasting, grinding, extraction.
To optimise and tailor coffee flavour using the natural ways requires coffee expertise. Chahan says the challenge is to master the proper selection of coffee and its technological processing through every single step along the value chain in order to achieve the desired cup profile.
“Exploiting the naturally and locally occurring microflora in fermentation processes is also part of mastering the product and the process. Hence, additions of miro-organisms that are naturally found in coffee or water from a washing station may be considered a ‘natural addition’,” he says.
If the coffee is used in its entirety, with flavour extracted from the coffee itself, such as pulpa with the natural micro-flora or components recovered from the spent coffee, Chahan says it can still be considered “natural”.
Additions during various stages of the value chain that are not naturally from the coffee itself, including adding micro-organisms that are not part of the coffee micro-flora, or artificial material, should be considered “adulterated coffee” and labelled accordingly.
What’s in a name
Up until now, Chahan says food products such as fruits, vegetables and “coffee in general” have been exempt from the word “infusion”.
For example, the soluble coffee industry has strict legislation that allows instant coffee to be called ‘coffee’ only as long as it’s made exclusively from coffee. Otherwise, it has to be called a ‘coffee-based beverage’.
“Most people might not be aware, but essentially all processed foods we buy are adulterated by added aroma that companies buy from large flavour houses. Wine is going in the same direction, although the modulation of the flavour is more subtle,” Chahan says. “Using toasted oak barrels allows tacking-up the toast aroma from the oak wood (French or US wood) which has nothing to do with wine aroma. Furthermore, the acidity of wine can be adjusted as well through addition of buffers, for example.”
If adulteration by addition of novel flavour and texture is transparent and properly labelled, Samo says it is legitimate to sell – as long as it poses no risk to our health.
“Adulteration can happen not only during processing but also during brewing. In particular, the use of water can be problematic, since some [baristas] use synthetic water for brewing, created from distilled water and minerals and could inadvertently adulterate their coffee,” Samo says. “The use of minerals is fine when the same minerals are used as found in natural waters. It becomes problematic when so-called organic buffers are used to adjust the water pH. One such case is citrate, which is a salt of citric acid, found in some products for making water for coffee extraction.”
Citrate will, after a reaction with the acid from coffee, form citric acid, a molecule that can influence the taste of the brew. “It’s like aromatising the extraction water. Here again, the question is where the citric acid was sourced from and whether it is food grade and therefore safe,” Chahan says. “Hence, use of such water is in our view similar as adding some type of flavouring to the water and should be considered adulterated.”
Coffees with unique flavours tend to attract higher prices in cupping competition and higher points in barista competitions. Sasa says the fear is, however, that infused coffees can go undetected and win national competitions.
“My biggest concern is that competitions assessing coffee quality and barista talent will lose their reputation,” he says.
“Let’s say we taste a distinct jasmine note from a Geisha coffee compared to a Geisha with mild jasmine notes. In some cases, that coffee with distinct jasmine notes can achieve a price that is five to 10-times higher, so I understand why producers will try to infuse flavouring with coffee. It is very simple to potentially add more value to coffee. But we need to deliver better value in a transparent way.”
Producer and two-time Panama Brewers Cup competitor Wilford Lamastus Jr from Elida Estate says no such rules exist around the use of infused or adulterate coffees because judges only evaluate competition coffees by flavour.
“The crazy flavour coffees get an advantage in aroma – mostly in Brewers Cup – and flavour descriptors,” he says.
Up until one year ago, Wilford says he was “very naive” about the impact of infused flavours in coffees. He had known about domestic yeast being added to coffee cherries or depulped coffee, but only recently discovered bread yeast was being added to coffee and fed with pounds of sugar to alter favour during fermenting, as was lactose, citric acids, or ascorbic acid.
Wilford says while several natural fermentation techniques can offer unique flavour notes to a coffee, a growing demand for “crazy funky coffees” is motivating some producers to push the flavour boundaries. “The problem is that people don’t really know why those coffees taste the way they do,” he explains.
“Normally, those coffees come from farms that don’t share much information on fermentation and people just feel that is something done without any flavour influence – just coffee fermentation and terroir. If roasters, baristas, and later consumers knew more about those coffees and how they are made, [they] may not be so enthusiastic [in their] demand of them.”
Wilford says without open transparency, baristas and customers will not experience the unique variety and terroir that makes the specialty coffee industry “so special”.
“This new trend of manipulating flavours that are not natural to the coffee has the potential to change the game. It may represent a new flavour, but the coffee will start to lose its identity – the flavour characteristics we love about a unique varietal or specific region,” he says.
Buyers place a huge amount of trust in the coffees they purchase from producers. Wilford says it is therefore the producer’s responsibility to be open and honest with what they do to coffee cherries.
“Every time I sell green coffee, I am selling a representation of our geographical location and a variety that can be manipulated to a point by process, but manipulation of the natural outcome of the flavour is not a real representation anymore,” he says.
“If a producer infuses the coffee in the moment of fermentation with some external flavours and doesn’t say anything, it is unfair to those who are open to exploring new flavours, thinking they come from the terroir or varieties in the farm and that the flavours are reached by a natural fermentation of the cherries. Those people that are supporting specialty coffee are the ones supporting the industry.”
The pursuit of flavour
As a former WBC competitor, champion, and coach, Sasa understands that baristas chase the most unique, special, and distinct coffee. When they find it, it’s exciting, and they become connected to their competition coffee. But now, he says it’s also the barista’s role to dig deeper, to ask questions and do their own testing to see if a coffee has infused flavours or not.
“We all need to understand that what we do today as coffee professionals, is what we are leaving behind for the next generation,” he says.
“Can you imagine if the winners of our competitions used infused coffees? What message are we going to send to future generations? How will we inspire the industry?”
Sasa feels “somewhat responsible” for opening the door to modern flavour experimentation when he developed the Carbonic Masceration (CM) coffee processing technique, which he displayed in his winning 2015 WBC routine. Before this discovery, Sasa says most coffee only used the washed, natural, or honey processes.
“When my team and I introduced CM to the world, it inspired coffee producers to start experimenting with coffee fermentation. It inspired coffee farmers to look at how fermentations can help to enhance more flavours and for some producers, led them to start infusing flavours,” Sasa says.
He believes infused coffees do have their own place in the market. The key, however, is transparency.
“I am all for farmers getting better value for their coffees. I have dedicated so much of my life to supporting this cause and I will continue to do so, but it is important to start thinking that we should have a new category in coffee to represent these infused coffees. One word would fix all the potential issues if we just added ‘infused’ into the coffee title,” he says.
“Why can’t we just do the same as micro brewers and list the ingredients the beer was infused with?”
Sasa is passionate about chasing flavour. He has travelled to Ethiopia to look for 300-year-old coffee trees in virgin forest, searched for lost varietals, and has collaborated with the wine industry and microbiologists to develop fermentations. He has also purchased farms in low altitude and at extremely high elevations, all in pursuit of new experiences, and the perfect cup of coffee.
His commitment remains strong, but says it is now up to all players in the value chain to educate, communicate and work together to solve the issue of undisclosed infused coffees in an honest and inclusive way.
“Let’s inspire the next generations in the most positive way so we can all learn, progress and leave our industry in a better place,” he says.