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Emerging trends in processing

From the January 2019 issue.

Actors all along the value chain are innovating at the coffee processing level to improve production efficiencies, cup quality and their bottom lines. GCR explores the impact of new techniques and whether the risk is worth it.

For a long time, roasting got all the attention. From high-end machines to precise temperatures and variations of brown hues, it was roasters’ way to craft the perfect cup of coffee. Then the barista’s role became more romanticised as they leveraged endless brewing contraptions and specialty coffee. Perhaps even finished with meticulous latte art.

Now, a key stage much further up the value chain is getting much needed attention as producers explore new and modified processing methods and technologies, and the individuals introducing and implementing them become masters of processing.

The emerging trends are happening in two “paradigms”, says Mario Fernandez, Technical Director at the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) – coffee as a commodity and coffee as a specialty product. So depending on the paradigm, the global industry is seeing a variety of new trends, shifts, and innovations in processing that are being driven by relative factors.

“There are two things a coffee producer strives for: better quality and greater efficiency,” adds Carlos Brando, Director of coffee industry consultancy P&A Marketing, which is very active in processing. “If you can achieve both together, great, but you may have to choose one direction.”

He says where producers decide to focus their attention is largely dictated by the particular growing region, productivity volumes, and production costs. Coffee-growing regions with rugged terrain, high altitudes and, thus, higher production costs may not have access to the mainstream market. Conversely, a country with sizable farms and production can concentrate on the commodity market. Other countries, still, can access both.

As such, in the high-volume, low-cost market, “the trends we are seeing deal with technology and a more efficient way to process coffee using that technology”, Fernandez tells Global Coffee Report. “If you’re immersed in this paradigm, you’re not as interested in impacting flavour as much as you are interested in improving efficiency and costs.”

One such technology is optic coffee cherry sorters. While coffee sorters are not new to the industry, using them to sort harvested coffee cherries by ripeness is a newer approach, according to CQI. They are currently being used in Brazil, China, and Colombia. In high-volume regions like those that leverage nonselective picking, the technology allows producers to sort the coffee prior to processing. Rather than ending up with blends of different ripeness levels that ultimately result in commodity-market quality, producers can sort the cherries and process them for different markets.

“The use of cherry colour sorters could very rapidly and greatly change the quality of Brazilian output, for example, because all of a sudden they would be able to get [significantly] more higher-quality coffee from the same farms without much extra work,” Fernandez explains.

“That could really change the face of the greater industry.” Suddenly the global market would have greater supplies of high-quality coffee and certain regions would have access to markets they didn’t previously.

Although the commodity market produces more than 90 per cent of the world’s coffee, Fernandez says most focus and research dollars are directed towards processing in the specialty market. “The specialty segment is still a very small segment, but it’s certainly driving a lot of interest and a lot of innovation because everybody wants to fetch higher prices,” he says.

In the specialty market, processing is being seen as an increasingly important and effective way to impact the quality and flavour at the end of the value chain. From there, producers can better differentiate themselves and ideally earn higher prices. “From the point of view of the Third Wave movement, processing is no longer just a way to obtain green coffee beans out of the cherries. It’s actually a means to impact the final flavour and achieve specific characters in the cup,” Fernandez says.

Because of the limited measures producers can take, he says innovating at the processing level is “the most practical solution they have to differentiate themselves and hopefully fetch higher prices in the specialty market”.

Of course the quality and taste of coffee is dependent on a lot of factors – climate, soil, variety, farming practices, etc – but “you have a full spectrum of qualities in coffee coming from the same tree simply by processing it differently”, Brando tells GCR.

Jamison Savage, a producer in Panama and Owner of Finca Deborah and Savage Coffees, is driven by that quality and flavour potential in his processing experimentation, which has been largely focused on a type of fermentation called carbonic maceration.

“The reaction toward these coffees is very apparent, and it has compelled producers to respond in creative and exciting ways in an effort to bring exciting coffees to market,” he says.

The methods
Overall, the global coffee industry is seeing more producers experiment with alternative processing methods. Because of the greater incidence of innovation, the clear impact on quality, and a specialty market clamouring for more, “producers are much more willing to experiment with alternative processing methods to what they have traditionally done”, Fernandez says. “Producers are no longer limited by their traditional methods and are [increasingly] adopting diverse methods in the hopes of differentiating themselves.”

Although there are many steps in processing, Brando points to three that can be manipulated to impact quality: pulping, mucilage removal, and drying. In doing so, producers have not only tried alternative methods to their norm, but they have also introduced new and modified methods of processing.

According to the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE), which hosted 12 Cup of Excellence (COE) competitions in 11 countries in 2018, more than 60 per cent of producers used washed processing. In this technique, three of five layers surrounding the coffee bean are removed before drying. As such, there is less time for the coffee fruit to influence the flavour of the coffee, resulting in a cleaner, brighter flavour profile with more acidity. While consistency is greater in washed processing, differentiation is more challenging. 

On the other end of the spectrum is dry processing (naturals). Although this is the second-most common processing method, based on ACE data from its 2018 competition entrants, it comprises a significantly smaller share than washed. Natural processing, which is the older technique, originated in regions with limited water resources and dry, hot weather. The coffee cherries are left to dry in full form until about 11 per cent moisture content is achieved. From there, producers may continue processing it or store it until needed. Naturals generally are more bold and full-bodied, with nutty and fruity flavours.

In the middle of the two is honey processing, or pulped naturals, which is a process that has been seeing more adoption lately. Only the skin and pulp are removed after harvesting, and the coffee is dried with some or all of the mucilage layer intact. Although the taste profile of pulped naturals can vary widely, traditionally they are sweeter and more acidic than wet processed coffee and with the body of dry processed coffee. According to CQI, the more mucilage left on the bean for drying, the closer to the natural profile it will be.
The process of carbonic maceration that Savage employs is part of the trend toward controlled fermentation. Specifically, it is anaerobic fermentation aided by the application of carbon dioxide and extraction of oxygen, which slows the speed of sugar breakdown by yeasts and bacteria.

“The process isn’t terribly complex – it’s the technique during this process that truly matters,” Savage explains. “[It’s] quite similar to a traditional fermentation process, but in a closed, controlled, and monitored environment, I’m able to extend fermentation and build different profiles in the coffee that would otherwise be impossible.”

He’s been focused on carbonic maceration since 2016, when his client, 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic, introduced him to it. “It’s a very flexible process, one that requires diligence, but one that can have excellent results in the cup,” he tells GCR. “Carbonic maceration opens the opportunity for these delicious flavours within the fruit to be slowly absorbed into the coffee grain. The most noticeable differences in the cup are a clearer, more balanced acidity, and more pronounced aromatics.”

At the November 2018 Colombia COE auction, Diego Samuel Bermudez Tapia of Finca El Paraiso made history when his double anaerobic Bourbón received the highest bid, despite ranking 10th in the competition. The coffee scored 89.76, but landed a bid of US$54.10 per pound – more than US$46,500 in total value – which was US$4 more per pound than the number-one coffee and much higher than the average price among the top 20 coffees.

Other types of unique fermentation that are being trialled throughout the industry are focused on adding compounds to manipulate fermentation times and resulting flavours, such as lactic bacteria and patented yeasts.

The effects
While processing is definitely seeing some significant improvements and innovation, the experts emphasise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Whether or not an innovation will work is dependent on many factors, such as geography, climate, scale,  and access to resources. Costs also play a huge role.

Something like the optical cherry sorter is currently only within reach for very large mills, but as the technology advances, the cost will gradually come down over time. Though the average smallholder farmer may never be able to afford one, there are relative processing improvements that can be made or innovations that can be implemented, explains Fernandez.

“Other methods or better practices do not have to involve a big investment in terms of money, but rather an investment in terms of personal commitment and work,” he says.
Brando adds: “We have to find technology that’s viable, technology that is simple to use, that produces higher quality and is still accessible to growers.”

What’s more, accessibility may not make a difference in regions where the current practices are centuries old and new ways of doing things are frowned upon, Savage points out. “Especially since production has been incredibly challenging for producers for years, it can be very daunting to try something new.” For regions that already command high prices for their coffee, the resistance to change is often greater because the risks are greater.

This is especially so when it is parties further down the value chain that come in and incite change, another concern of experts. “The roasters and the baristas want to get more involved in coffee processing, but the problem is that most know nothing about processing,” explains Fernandez. “They can express their needs to their producers, but what they cannot do is try to teach processing to producers, the ones who already do it on a daily basis.”

What he has seen happen is those buyers not taking responsibility for the failed outcomes of their advised changes. He has seen farmers – farmers who are already struggling to eke out a living – get stuck with coffee that nobody will buy. As such, CQI urges “foreign buyers to take responsibility for whatever they ask from their producers and, at the very least, buy the lots that are produced according to their whim”.

Additionally, in 2017 CQI launched its Q Processing Program, in three levels, for actors all along the value chain to become more educated about processing.

As a producer, Savage has received his share of pointed suggestions from customers. “I actually embrace the feedback because it gives me a perspective that I wouldn’t have otherwise, even if it’s wildly out there,” he admits.

He’s also seen his share of failure: “Have I ever had an experiment not turn out the way I’d hoped? Absolutely, but rarely is progress seen without taking risk. Experimentation can be costly, but it can also be very rewarding. So one must accept these challenges should they decide to go down the innovation path.”

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