What is fermented coffee?
Andres Latorre has been sourcing, buying and processing green beans for 12 years under the banner of Latorre & Dutch. However, it wasn’t until Latorre founded wine importing business Vidocq that he began questioning the processing methods used by the coffee industry.
He wondered what practices could be transferred, asking winemaker and friend William Downie: “If I processed coffee in a stainless-steel tank and inoculated it with specific yeasts and bacteria, would it improve the quality?”
Downie said it was theoretically possible, but it would be important to back the hunch up with science. Latorre went back to his native Colombia and met with the Dean of Microbiology at the National University of Colombia in Medellin.
The Dean agreed it was worth pursuing, so Latorre hired one of the Dean’s assistants, who was studying a PhD in fermentation, and commenced trials. Throughout 2014, a total of 96 trials were conducted controlling different temperatures and times.
The fermentations were initiated using off-the-shelf, lab-cultivated winemaking and brewer’s yeasts, as well as lactic bacteria. The results were positive: the cupping quality of coffees increased by four to six points. “We realised that through microbial control we could improve the coffee,” says Latorre.
The highest-scoring coffees were chosen from the 96 trials for mass-processing in 10 hectolitre stainless-steel tanks. In 2016, the first production batches were produced at a Latorre & Dutch co-owned mill in Cañasgordas, Antioquia, Colombia, and the project was dubbed Pura Cepa. There’s now washing stations in Colombia, Uganda, Indonesia and one on the way in Ethiopia.
Latorre & Dutch has continued to work with a team of microbiologists, developing and improving a range of different fermentation methods: Aqua, Mel, Naturalis, Carbonic Maceration, Cherry Aqua, Skin Contact Aqua.
The goal is to use the methods, alongside the right equipment, to improve two key factors in coffee processing: fermentation and drying.
Traditionally, a number of variables make these stages high-risk — adapting wine science has helped eliminate them. Under the Pura Cepa methods, variables such as pH, temperature, sugar content and microorganism populations are controlled.
Any of the Pura Cepa fermentation methods can be used for any coffee. “What we like to do is a mix of all in each station with each given harvest,” says Latorre.
All methods entail the inoculation of coffee with a culture of yeast and lactic bacteria, with fermentation processes varying from anaerobic (sans oxygen), mixed (with and without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen). A major breakthrough came through the realisation the yeasts and bacteria found naturally on the cherries interact better with coffee than those used in beer and wine fermentation.
“When we arrive at a new origin, we get a sample of cherries from the area and do a microbiological analysis on the sugars,” says Latorre. “Then you get a population count and choose which microorganisms to use.
“Inoculating just overpopulates the mass with positive bacteria killing all the unwanted bacteria, molds and fungus, enhancing only the positive flavours. So it’s a ‘controlled’ natural fermentation.”
This means the natural characteristics of different coffees remain intact. Just like wine fermentation, the aim is to create expressive coffees that honour terroir and variety. However, the six fermentation methods — which can all be used on any coffee — will result in distinct outcomes. “Each process will change the taste of the coffee,” says Latorre, likening it to the difference between rose, red wine and Brut wines made with the same grape.
None of this progress would really be progress if it didn’t reshape the landscape of the coffee industry. The immediate aim is to increase the cupping quality of coffee, however, the long-term game is economic, environmental and social sustainability.
“Pura Cepa started as improving fermentation,” says Latorre. “But we slowly came to realise that through science, innovation and relationships, we could improve every step. Then we realised the biggest impact we could have is un-traditional origins for specialty coffee; [origins] that are selling commercial coffee.”
The lower the starting point, the more room for improvement. “If we got to Panama and use Pura Cepa on a 90-point coffee, we will probably only be able to improve it to a 91 or 92,” says Latorre. “If we take commercial coffee that’s cupping 75-78, we can improve that to 84-86.”
While the original trials improved the cupping quality of Colombian coffees by four to six points using brewer’s yeast, the current generation of Pura Cepa project coffees are seeing much greater gains in regions such as Uganda.
“When we started working in Uganda five years ago, the coffee in the areas we were working was sold as dry Ugandan naturals,” says Latorre. “They’re sold for 90 cents a pound, or 10 cents under market value. Making that coffee score 85 means it can range from 160 cents to 200 cents a pound.”
The technology means Latorre & Dutch can sell the cheapest 85-87-point-scoring coffee on the market, making it possible for roasters to buy container loads. The prices and consistent quality make the product attractive to brands such as Nespresso and Starbucks, which have both bought Pura Cepa Uganda this year along with specialty roasters such as Sydney’s Single O, who currently have the exclusive rights to sell Pura Cepa Uganda in Australia. “When you’re buying container loads, you’re benefitting hundreds of families with every container you buy,” says Latorre.
The scale of production was what caught Wendy De Jong’s eye. As director of coffee at Single O, De Jong is concerned not only with showcasing exceptional coffees, but with the industry’s long-term sustainability. It’s difficult to do both when high-grade coffees are usually produced by a handful of producers and sold in 60-kilo bags.
“People know we will pay a good price for [beans] because our customers will buy them,” says De Jong. “It’s just a bit frustrating because you can’t move the needle of people’s overall lives in the community when you’re talking about [buying from] one or two guys at the top.”
Ultimately, the innovations mean coffee producers are able to sell more beans at a better price — and that means more funds for projects that move the industry closer to full circle sustainability.
Next on the cards for Latorre & Dutch are economic, environmental and social sustainability projects, some of which will leapfrog on the technology, while others will focus on ensuring whole communities benefit from coffee production.
Image credit: ICT