You may have encountered coffee packaging in the past which has included terms such as "wet process", or "natural process", or "honey". In recent times, you may have even seen new terminology on coffee packaging, such as "extended fermentation", or "lactic fermentation". You might be wondering what these new words are all about. I mean, in all your years of drinking coffee, have you ever heard of such a thing as fermented coffee? Well, we can tell you something you may not have realised: if you've ever drunk a cup coffee, then you have tried fermented coffee.
Coffee goes through many stages before it reaches your lips. At the very least, your daily coffee has most likely travelled half way around the world, on boats, trucks, and possibly even on the back of a mule. Through thousands of hands, across many months, the journey of your coffee is complex to say the least, not only in sheer distance travelled, but also in the amount of steps necessary to reach you. Before the barista, before the roaster, before the importer, before the exported, before the mill, (and everything else between each of these steps), your coffee begins its life as a seed inside a fruit on the branch of a tree, nurtured by a coffee producer. So, how do we get the seed out to begin its journey the reach you? It's all about fermentation.
Once coffee cherries have been picked from their branches, the fruit needs to be removed, so the seeds can be prepared for exporting. So, how do producers do this in an efficient, scaleable way? You guessed it: fermentation. The fruit around the seeds is fermented so that it becomes easy to remove. Sometimes the cherries are left in the sun to dry, in which case the fruit ferments within the cherries themselves. Other times, some of the fruit is removed mechanically, and the remaining pulp is left on the seeds to ferment in tanks. Either way, fermentation is a crucial, unavoidable step in coffee processing and production.
As well as the practical advantages of coffee fermentation, this process also presents its own opportunities to coffee producers. The topic of fermentation is undergoing a renaissance of late, with renewed focus and research by both producers and consumers alike. Exactly how producers ferment their coffees will change the quality, flavour profile, and characteristics of their crops more than any other step in the supply chain. Deciding on the conditions of fermentation, such as temperature, time, and microbial additives (or "fermentation design" as it's now referred to), is the best way for producers to have meaningful impact on their coffees.
The next time you pick up a box of timely, have a look at our "post harvest" information. Here, we include as much information as we have available to us. From this, you can taste different coffees, and begin to understand how fermentation impacts flavour. Maybe you'll notice you prefer longer fermentations of 20 hours or more. Or, maybe you'll like coffees fermented underwater. The more you know, the better equipped you are to buy coffees you will enjoy more often.
So, the next time someone asks you "Have you ever tried fermented coffee?", you can say "Of course I have. All coffee is fermented".
Until next time.