The coffee industry is a very complex beast – fast moving, constantly changing and always evolving. It is this facet of the job which is perhaps the most difficult to keep up with but, at the same time, is the most stimulating. We often think of innovation as something that concerns only technology and, in fact, in the last 10 years this part of the supply chain has certainly been catapulted into hyperspace and the changes in methods of extracting an excellent coffee have reached light speed.
The opposite end of the spectrum is no less true however, somewhere where we see the coffee producing countries as protagonists. And for this reason, continuing to talk today about "single-origin" has increasingly less and less meaning, almost as vague as ordering an "Italian" wine rather than a "French" one in a wine shop.
So what IS the tangible difference in terms of variety and quality?
As with many other food products, the complexity is determined by the botanical variety, the care taken in its cultivation and harvesting phases, not to mention post-harvest processing.
In fact, we will focus on this last phase, or rather the different methodologies and techniques with which the coffee fruit produces the seed which finally become our beloved green coffee bean. These processes differ from one another in many respects yet have one fundamental thing in common: fermentation.
WHAT DO WE EXACTLY MEAN BY FERMENTATION?
Well, firstly, the term was introduced by the French scientist Louis Pasteur in the 19th century and refers to the process by which many organisms extract energy from sugar as a survival mechanism. Unlike breathing, these transformations take place in total or partial absence of oxygen and differ according to the microorganisms involved, and the resulting by-products. The study of fermentation in coffee harvesting processes is a very recent area of interest and derives mostly from studies of other products such as wine and beer. Unfortunately, it is a rather controversial term that needs to be freed somewhat from its many mis-interpretations.
First of all, fermentation in coffee initially had a functional purpose that derived from climatic conditions. In fact, around the end of the 1800s, when coffee production became widespread and large scale, it was almost impossible for many of the coffee producing countries to produce large volumes since the rainy climate during the harvesting phase did not allow the coffee to dry out quickly enough. In those early years the “dry” or "natural" method of working was applied where the fruit was dried immediately after harvesting. A faster system that did not compromise the quality of the product became necessary. Hence the arrival of the pulping machines and the first "fermentation tanks" where the coffee still in parchment was deprived of the mucilage through immersion in water: thus the “washed” method was born.
The ambiguity around the term "fermentation" (in coffee), which was associated only with the washed method and fermentation in the tank, soon came about, albeit involuntarily. By definition we know very well that this process takes place wherever and whenever there is a certain amount of sugar, at a certain temperature, in the absence or partial absence of oxygen. This is why today we talk about fermentation (which can even be double or triple) also for the natural method, because in fact it is what happens to the sugars that are contained within the pulp of the drupe in the same moment in which this is collected from the tree.
BRAZIL TODAY, LEADER OF INNOVATION
Brazil is known to most as the country that produces natural or semi-washed coffees with a predominantly one-dimensional aromatic character, that is to say it is rich in body but without any complex, fruity aromas. The development and the forward momentum toward the search for more, or less, extreme fermentation methods made a greater variety possible creating aromatic notes that until now seemed to be the domain of only African or Central American coffees. It is in this way that floral notes, more or less marked by acidity and distinct hints of tropical fruit, can be created simply by controlling the different stages of fermentation and subsequent drying.
If you insist on holding on to the myth that you can't have coffee from Brazil that is not commercial and monotonous, I suggest you think again!