PROCESS THEORY: HOW TECHNOLOGY TRANSFORMS FLAVOUR, PART 2

In the first half of this two-part blog we explained what ‘processing’ means when we are speaking of coffee production. At its most basic, processing is simply the necessary steps, whatever they may be, to remove the fruit of the coffee cherry and to dry the seeds (aka coffee beans) to a level that is safe for consumption and ready for export. To achieve this, farmers have come up with ingenious methodologies over the course of several centuries, varying widely from place to place. Some areas, such as the highlands of Guatemala, tend to have access to fresh water, thus their traditional processing techniques rely on water to operate. However, in places such as Ethiopia, where water is in shorter supply, farmers have turned to water-free methods to process their coffee, choices which influence the flavours of the final cup.

Because processing plays such a huge role in coffee’s overall flavour, and flavour is a principal component of quality, processing therefore has a major impact on the final price a coffee receives. For this reason, processing technology is key to improving prices and living standards for farmers globally. With this in mind, our partners at Raw Material have focussed on this subject as one of the most important elements to their education and infrastructure projects, as well as direct services provided to producers. And in Colombia at Finca El Fenix - a farm and community wet mill located in the department of Quindío - Raw Material works with processing in all of these ways.

The community wet mill at Finca El Fenix, under construction in 2017. Photo credit: Raw Material

 

The traditional washed method, the most common in Colombia (detailed in part one of this blog), is known for creating clean, clear, and balanced flavours in the cup. In this method, the relatively short period of time that the bean remains in contact with the cherry following harvest means that fruit flavours are more subdued. This short contact time can be beneficial in other ways as well. Having cleaner flavours and a less fruit-forward cup profile allows for other attributes to come forward, often emphasizing notes of nuts and chocolate, which are considered desirable for many coffees. Additionally, by speeding up and controlling the process of removing and drying the bean, the washed process can also help a farmer avoid coffee defects – something that can ruin the quality of a coffee and therefore lower its price.

There are, however, two other popular methods for processing coffee which – though not as popular in Colombia – are widespread in other regions around the globe. These are what we refer to as honey processing and natural processing, and their names tell us a lot about what they are.

Honey processing is most common in Brazil, where it is referred to as ‘pulped natural’, but has been adopted worldwide in past decades by producers looking to increase body, sweetness, and fruit notes in their coffees, hopefully earning more money in doing so. In honey processing, the first step is similar to washed coffees: removal of the skin of the cherry using a depulper, which at small farms is often a machine cranked by hand. Once the skin is removed, there is a layer of sticky-sweet fruit pulp covering the surface of the bean – the ‘honey’ – which is left on while the coffee dries (as opposed to washed processing, where it is removed). Because the beans are covered in this fruity mucilage, they will dry differently than washed coffees, and are susceptible to other quality issues, such as mould and pests. Done well, honey processing imparts additional body and fruit flavours than washed processing, while remaining more balanced in the final cup than natural processing.

Natural processing is coffee’s original processing method, having begun in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. It requires the least number of resources such as machinery and water. Despite this, natural processing is for many farmers the most difficult to control, presenting a range of challenges totally unique to other methods. As its name implies, the coffee remains in cherry throughout the drying process. Therefore, sorting for ripeness and defects before the coffee is dried must be exacting, as there are less opportunities to remove impurities. Inside the drying cherry, the enzymes and amino acids which control ripening and fermentation continue to work away, meaning that additional sugars and fruit flavours are imparted to the bean itself – giving these coffees their famously exotic, fruit-forward cup profile.

Miguel Fajardo, Raw Material's Head of Operations in Colombia, on the farm at Finca El Fenix. Photo credit: Raw Material

 

Back to Finca El Fenix, where all three of these methods (and more!) are used to add value to the coffees which are sold to their mill by local farmers, and as teaching tools to show producers how they can harness processing to add value to their crops. Now in its 8th year, El Fenix has become a hub for local producers as well as visitors from around the world (in better times, of course). 

When Raw Material was setting up the El Fenix project, they raised funds for its construction by selling ‘lots’ of newly planted rare coffee trees to Kickstarter donors. Caravan was the largest single donor to this crowd funding campaign, having sponsored eight different lots of coffee ourselves. This year, the strongest showing of these were the trees from the Tabi varietal. Tabi is a tall, fast growing, and high yielding tree which also happens to produce great flavours in the cup. This makes it an exciting option for farmers who want to both increase their volumes and their quality. Being faster growing than other varietals also means that we were able to harvest a good amount of coffee this season – whereas their cousins, including the geisha and wush-wush lots that we sponsored, will still need another year to mature.

 

Bending the super tall Tabi trees at El Fenix in order to harvest their cherries. Photo credit: Andrea Jimenez

 

Thanks to our relationship with Raw Material, we have a unique ability to collaborate on projects with their team in Colombia, headed by Miguel Fajardo who runs their operations. Miguel oversaw this year’s harvest at El Fenix, and in conversation with him this winter we decided to create the El Fenix Tasting Set, an experiment in isolating the specific flavours created by processing. Because the coffee is all the same varietal, and harvested from the same lot on the same farm in the same week, the differences in the cup are overwhelmingly due to the differences in processing technique. This is a very rare opportunity to taste the impact of this lesser understood aspect of coffee farming, and to appreciate just how amazingly diverse even just one coffee can be.

Our journey with El Fenix is still in its youth – with more varietals, more processing styles, and more opportunities to travel and meet with producers on the horizon. Our biggest thanks goes out to Miguel and his team for their hard work this season, among exceptional circumstances, to make this year a resounding success. Un abrazo – when we finally can!