Technology

The cherry on top: Continuous Coffee Cherry processing

Continuous Coffee Cherry processing

A new method of Continuous Coffee Cherry processing could contribute to sustainability and the value chain at origin, while opening a new market to coffee retailers. 

Coffee is a complex product, and in the traditional process, much is lost on the journey from farm to cup. A small amount of the pulp and skin that covers the beans in the coffee cherry fruit is dried and used for cascara tea, but most is discarded. Most of the antioxidants and other valuable components are lost in the drying and roasting process.

But this is not a problem unique to coffee. Roland Laux has decades of experience in the food and beverage industry. Over that time, he saw how much value was lost getting product to the end consumer and set out to change that.

“Our vision is to bring more of the good of the raw materials into the final product,” Laux says.

“Naturalness is one of the big trends in food and beverage. We observe this in the coffee industry, where people wanting new taste experiences and naturally intrinsic functionality.”

One such project of Laux’s food innovation firm Unico-first, involved developing a new processing method for chocolate with Prof Tilo Hühn of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW).

The team processed milled raw cocoa nibs into water, creating a “mousse-like” chocolate slurry, which was then run through a decanter to separate the cocoa into its solid, liquid, and oil phases. Using this method, Laux says the naturally sweet components of the cocoa fruit could even replace some of the sugar usually added to chocolate.

“We don’t bring any heat into the process, which allows the original aroma composition of the green cocoa to carry through into the final product. It’s 80 per cent dark chocolate, but it doesn’t taste bitter. Instead, it’s fruity, flowery, much more complex,” Laux says.

Continuous Coffee Cherry processing
Continuous Coffee Cherry processing offers the potential to add value to the supply side of the coffee chain.

Laux sold the cocoa patents and the investor has built a factory in Switzerland that will start market production this year. It wasn’t long before Laux and his team started thinking about how this process could be applied to a similar product: coffee.

“Coffee has so many beautiful things inside it – natural, intrinsic benefits we want to leverage with this method,” Laux says.

“We founded the company Mastercoldbrewer, filed several patents in 2017 and started industrial production of RE-Coffee, cold brew processing of lightly roasted coffee beans, in 2019. Compared to the standard method, we extract more aroma and at the same time reduce processing time from many hours to only minutes. But there is another application of this technology we’ve been excited to explore, coffee cherry processing.”

Using the Continuous Coffee Cherry process, instead of separating the pulp and skin from the beans, freshly harvested, undried and unfermented whole coffee cherries are wet milled with cold water. Phase separation through the decanter then results in three different coffee fruit extracts: a beverage, an oil, and (once dried) a powder.

This is a similar process to how RE-Coffee produces its ready to drink cold brew, except this beverage is prepared with light roasted coffee beans instead of fresh cherries.

“Traditionally, there’s a lot of waste in coffee production because the goal of the coffee cherry is the coffee bean, which is exploited and leveraged. But mostly the rest is just thrown away,” Laux says.

“It’s been quite interesting to dive more into the coffee cherry fruit, which many people don’t even know exists.”

Of particular interest to Laux is the high antioxidant content of the coffee fruit and other bioactive compounds such as polyphenols and chlorogenic acid, which he says far outweigh other “superfoods” like acai.

“Not drying the coffee cherry leverages the antiox-level to its maximum potential,” Laux says.

“The health benefits of antioxidant-rich foods are becoming more and more recognised and consumers are seeking products out for their antioxidant power. Acai is hyped for its health benefits all over the world, but we have something in coffee that’s apparently better, but people just throw it away.” 

Once the Continuous Coffee Cherry process is at the industrial stage, decanters will be set up on the farm so cherries can be processed within hours of picking. In the meantime, Laux and his team rely on imported frozen coffee cherries to develop the concept.

“When we came up with this idea in 2017, we needed 20 kilograms of freshly harvested coffee cherries for initial trials. We flew to Gran Canaria [Spain], said to have the only coffee plants in Europe, and picked cherries ourselves, froze them, and brought them home in our luggage,” Laux says.

“We’ve since found suppliers in Guatemala who are able to send us organic coffee cherries they’ve frozen right after harvest. But this wouldn’t be a sustainable way of doing business, so when we take this project to the industrial level, it will be important we install the equipment at origin.”

When Laux presented the Continuous Coffee Cherry process to members of the coffee industry, he says many responded to its potential to add value at the supply side of the value chain.

“Farmers are struggling with low prices, and the way the industry’s going now cannot go on forever,” Laux says.

“Processing freshly harvested cherries onsite would boost the part of the value chain at origin. That’s how the coffee industry can build a healthy system for the future and pay people a decent price.”

Laux says the coffee fruit oil this process produces has applications in nutraceuticals or cosmetics, where antioxidant-rich products are valued for their anti-ageing properties. Meanwhile, the beverage solution is very customisable and could offer many possibilities to a retailer.

“Coffee cherries can be very different to one another. Some have more pulp than others, some are sweeter, some are more like tea with notes of cherry, raisins, and caramel. There’s a huge range of complex aroma compositions, which is interesting for beverages,” Laux says.

“Another option is to enter roasted beans into the system alongside coffee cherries to bring in typical coffee notes. It all depends on the goal – do we want a beverage that tastes like coffee, or do we want a totally different, fruity, almost tea-like taste profile?”

The coffee fruit powder produced through Continuous Coffee Cherry processing can be used as an ingredient in other drinks, supplements, or products. It can also be added back into the process to produce a beverage with a higher yield. Other ingredients, like milk, spices, or fruit, can be also be introduced during the extraction process to create new, complex flavours.

The products Continuous Coffee Cherry processing can produce may be very different to how consumers typically think of coffee, but Laux says there is room for a market to develop a new type of coffee.

“This beverage wouldn’t be in competition to hot coffee and for many companies would mean entering a totally new or different market. The coffee cherry-derived product business will grow in the future, and we’re already starting to see that with products like cascara,” Laux says.

“Even larger beverage companies that don’t traditionally focus on coffee, like of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, could embrace this method. They’re looking for healthy, refreshing beverages that embrace sustainability and appeal to millennials.”

With the Continuous Coffee Cherry processing just getting patented and nearing the industrial stage, Laux is excited to see the global beverage industry embrace these trends.

“We’ve had success with this technology in many industries, from chocolate through to wine, fruit, spice and cold brew coffee, and believe the same can happen in coffee cherry,” he says.

“There’s still a lot of education that has to be done regarding the coffee cherry and the public, but there is great potential in leveraging the natural beauty of the whole fruit.”

For more information, visit re-coffee.ch/en

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