At her class in Seattle during SCA expo in 2017, I helped Lucia Solis present a cupping of two coffees she processed 14 months earlier at an estate in Hawaii. The difference between the two was staggering: one tasted like wet cardboard with a dry finish and little acidity or structure (hallmarks of past crop coffee), and the other tasted intense, round, bright and sweet (they scored 80.5 and 84 respectively on the Q scale, for those of you keeping score at home). Both coffees had been processed, dried, milled, and shipped at the same time, and for their entire life in the U.S. sat in a plastic bag at room temperature (full disclosure: they sat forgotten on my desk until we needed to put together a cupping for her class: a happy accident, like bubblegum or microwave ovens)—not vacuum sealed, not really protected in any way.
So what was the difference between the two?
One of the the coffees—the 84—was inoculated with a selected strain of yeast during fermentation, while the other coffee underwent a spontaneous “wild” fermentation, like most coffee fermentations. This is a curious effect of yeast inoculation that Lucia and I have talked about for years: it seems to cause coffee to fade more slowly.
Importers, particularly specialty importers dealing with ever-changing consumer demand, often face the issue of their positions getting long: coffee sitting in storage, unsold, growing older and more faded. Eventually, they’ll need to discount the coffee to sell it, eating margin just to clear the position rather than continuing to pay financing on dying inventory.
But what if you could slow fade?
The potential upside for buyers like me would be enormous: I could purchase larger positions of coffees from a producer without worrying about the quality of the coffee dropping off over the life of that position. This means I could spend more time and energy on fewer coffees. I could travel less. I could spend less money and time consolidating and shipping fewer containers. I wouldn’t have to worry about timing the changing of my blend components nearly as often.
Coffee as an industry doesn’t exactly have a robust training system—disciplinary, interdisciplinary or otherwise. Knowledge is handed down between generations of baristas or roasters like totems or folklore. We’re not the craftspeople or blacksmiths we romanticize ourselves to be; instead of spending a literal lifetime learning to properly make sushi rice we accept half-baked pop science and fully baked roasts as the signatures of our trade.
I came of age in coffee in that same system. Most of what I learned during those early days of the “third wave” I taught myself from posts on coffeed.com or learned from temperature surfers shredding the gnar on a heat-exchanger machine during morning rush. And when I became a buyer, no one ever taught me why coffee faded. Hell, it was barely acknowledged that it did (do you ever wonder why the coffee that an importer is trying to sell you spot and says is an 86.5 doesn’t taste like an 86.5? Here’s a hint: They probably haven’t re-cupped it recently.)
Not in the CQI’s Q course, nor on any of my buying trips, nor in talking to any of my importers, nor in reading even pretty good industry material such as Cafe Imports’ water activity study was there really a sufficient explanation for the obvious attrition of cup quality over time exhibited by green coffee. People talked about how coffee needed to “rest” in parchment for some arbitrary period of time, or how coffees tasted “fresh” and implied some sort of connection to shelf life, but it was all anecdotal. I knew that coffees from Ethiopia seemed to last longer than coffees from Peru, and coffee from certain regions of Colombia seemed to lose quality slower than others. But I never really knew why.
Fade was always sort of presented in the following way: “some coffees fade faster than others and it seems to have to do with origin or density, and definitely with moisture.” Maybe we’d throw in some hand-waves, or woo-woo mysticism, or some romantic, neo-colonialist bullshit for good measure or to make it sound like we really gave a shit about “quality” however we defined it.
Studies conducted by manufacturers of barrier bags such as GrainPro (and validated by researchers like Flavio Borem) demonstrated the ability of GrainPro and Ecotact to retain coffee quality over time versus control (jute only) samples, supporting the relationship between moisture stability and shelf life.
Prior to shipping coffee, coffee is dried ideally to stability, whether processed using wet or dry methods. It’s quite simple: not only is it more economical to ship a product without moisture (water is heavy—coffee begins as around 60% moisture if cherry or 45% moisture if parchment), but drying protects the coffee from molds or toxins (such as Ochratoxin A) that require a high moisture and high water activity environment to grow. Additionally—and directly relevant to the point of this post—dehydrating coffee prior to storage or shipping, just like with other seeds or grains, renders it relatively inert and prolongs its shelf life.
According to ICO (International Coffee Organization) minimum export standards, coffee must be between 8% and 12.5% moisture content at time of export, “with the proviso that this should not affect established, good and accepted commercial practice. Thus, where moisture percentages below 12.5% are currently being achieved exporters should endeavour to maintain or decrease these.”
Broadly, though, ICO recommends 11% moisture for coffee at time of export.
Over time, as I developed my own protocol for green-coffee analysis (a topic for a later post), I began to notice patterns in the several thousand points of data I’d accumulated from hundreds of coffees. Indeed, a few trends that were suggested by Holy Coffee Doctrine seemed to emerge:
- Coffees with higher density exhibited less fade, and
- Coffees with moisture content between 9.5 and 10.5% exhibited less fade, particularly if their water activity was between 0.45 and 0.55.
(Also, coffees with less UV fluorescence exhibited less fade—but that, too, is a post for another time)
Density as a prophylactic against fade makes sense, particularly if you view fade as quite simply a loss of organic material. Extraction of coffee solids during brewing requires the presence of those solids in the first place—the result of transformations during the roasting process predicated upon the initial presence of those chemical precursors in green. Density is related to nutritional development of the seed, and the more starting material you have the more tolerant it is of somewhat predictable rates of decay (since theoretically coffee that has a bulk fill density of 0.68 g/mL won’t decay more slowly than one with bulk fill density of 0.73 g/mL if stored under the same conditions, though the organoleptic difference between the two is quite divergent).
Then I had a thought—one that you can read between the lines of the FAO’s report about mycotoxins in coffee (tl;dr: it’s not really a concern in specialty coffees, and inoculation makes it even less so), and one that occurred to me after I watched Aimee Dudley’s (fantastic) talk at Re:Co in Seattle in 2017 (seriously, take the time to watch it). What if moisture isn’t the primary cause of fade—it’s just the environment for the things that make it possible?
What if it’s the microbes?
Is it just coincidence that drying past 11% moisture seems to prolong the shelf life of coffee and that many yeast and bacteria remain active only until ~11% moisture?
And why do coffees that are “too wet” but that have been inoculated with selected yeasts during fermentation hold up better over time than their wild-fermentation counterparts?
I must reference my earlier comments about coffee’s reign of amateurism and caution that all of the following should be approached with some appropriate level of caution: I am not a microbiologist. Fuck, I didn’t even take organic chemistry—I’m just a dude with a microscope and broadband connection (I see your woo-woo and raise you a bit of Google-fu).
Let’s take a step back.
If you were to take a swab of a coffee cherry during a dry process, or swab a fermentation during wet process, for example—like how Silva et al. did (2000, 2008a), you’d find somewhere in the realm of: 2.5 x 105 colony forming units per gram of bacteria, 200 types and 15 species of yeast, and 100 colony forming units per gram of other fungi.
There are literally millions of different microorganisms present on pulped coffee.
And, if you were to continue to swab the coffee as it dried to monitor microbial succession, you’d find that as coffee gets drier, it moves from being primarily dominated by bacteria to being dominated by yeast and other fungi—and that yeast and fungi including fermenters like Saccharomyces Cerevisiae continue to be active all the way to 11% moisture. Meaning, their metabolism continues. In the case of S. Cerevisiae, for example, this means consuming glucose and converting it into alcohol, carbon dioxide and secondary metabolites (some of which feed other microorganisms).
But where does that food for the microbes come from? That’s right: the coffee itself.
If coffee is not dried to a stable moisture content of below 11%, microbes will continue to consume available nutrients from the seed and slowly, over time, produce what we recognize as “fade” and “past crop character.” But if we dry it to 10 or 10.5%—the microbes go into a state of suspended animation. It’s like giving everyone you’ve invited over for dinner an aperitif laced with melatonin and Ambien right before you pull the meal out of the oven (can you imagine the Yelp review?). They might eat a few bites but won’t get very far.
And of course, different microbes feed on different molecules—so if you have a diversity of them living on your coffee, it’s like you’ve invited carnivores, omnivores, vegans and cannibals to your dinner (someone please turn this into a short film). Everything on the table is sure to get wrecked. This means, no leftovers: nothing for us to roast and extract later on—other than the cellulose the meal was served on (paper plates! Delicious. And classy).
But what if instead of inviting everyone, you had a very exclusive guest list—you only invited one organism with a very particular diet—and didn’t leave space for others?
(You could give them the sedative cocktail and dry to 10.5%, too, for good measure. No brussels left, but mashed potatoes for weeks!!!).
In order to test this theory of mine, I plated two samples using the method described by Dr. Dudley and her collaborators and cultured coffee on CHROMagar Candida media for three days at 30°C and then examined them to determine, at least visually, what sort of activity was present.
The idea was to show contrast—the easiest, most direct way to do this is to select a sample that challenged conventional wisdom. The coffees I chose landed in the U.S. over 5 months late, and with a moisture content over 12% upon arrival. These are red flags to any coffee buyer as they would tend to be associated with faded coffees. But, they were from Ethiopia, a country renowned for producing high-quality, high-grown, dense coffee with a long shelf life.
And sure enough—one of the coffees did taste faded, with its hallmark papery taste and lack of sweetness. The other, though, did not: it had been inoculated during its fermentation with a selected strain of yeast.
The samples selected were:
- WILD: A coffee from a single estate in Ethiopia picked and processed between December 2018 and February 2019, pulped, fermented underwater with wild microbes, washed, and dried on raised beds. At the time of this experiment in January 2020, the coffee registered 12.5% moisture. This coffee exhibited faded character.
- CIMA: A coffee from the same farm in Ethiopia and processed at the same time but fermented using an inoculation of a selection of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae marketed by Lalcafe as CIMA. This coffee registered at 12.4% moisture but did not exhibit fade character.
Bulk fill density: 0.75 g/mL
SCA Defects (primary/secondary): 0 / 0
UV fully glowing (# / %): 0 / 0%
UV speckled (# / %): 24 / 3.6%
Moisture content: 12.5%
Water activity: 0.56
SCA Cupping score: 85.5
Bulk fill density: 0.76 g/mL
SCA Defects (primary/secondary): 0 / 0
UV fully glowing (# / %): 0 / 0%
UV speckled (# / %): 25 / 3.9%
Moisture content: 12.4%
Water activity: 0.56
SCA Cupping score: 86.75
After 3 days in the incubator at 30°, the plates did, indeed, show contrast.
Holy shit, right? The difference between the two is stunning.
The CIMA inoculated plate only shows one color of colony and relatively little activity. The color is lavender (which according to Dr. Dudley, is how Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, the species we inoculated with, will present). This suggests that the only micro-organism present on the coffee (that could grow on this plate preparation, anyway) is whatever appears lavender on the plate. We only invited the vegans so we could greedily save everything with butter for later.
The wild fermentation however, showed a frenzy of activity—including similar activity to the singular activity on Sample B (but more so), and also fuzzy brown and mauve structures and whitish fuzzy growths. We invited the cannibals to dine with the vegetarians.
There’s no food left. Just the paper plates on which it was served.
Let’s play with microscopes
Under a microscope, I saw the same phenomenon— just one type of structure in the CIMA plate and multiple (including a diversity of structures that appeared to be fungus, yeast and bacteria) in the WILD plate (note that I didn’t use any antibiotics in this treatment so it’s possible I contaminated the sample from the outset, though the results proved consistent across replicates):
This supports the notion that microbes may be implicated in fade to a greater degree than previously acknowledged and that inoculation may serve as an effective means to reduce the speed or overall effects of age on green coffee quality.
NB: I’m not discounting the role of moisture—remember, giving your dinner guests Ambien will save the meal for later, too—but I’m hoping to merely offer other tactics for producers, exporters and importers to protect the quality of their coffee over time and retain value in a volatile marketplace.
Other thoughts, limitations and conclusions
There are limitations and challenges to this approach. Coffee production is an unpredictable (and often unprofitable) enterprise. Sometimes, trucks break down while coffee is still wet. Sometimes it rains when there’s no one around to cover it. And not everyone can afford a moisture meter or a platform scale.
And sometimes roasters use the C-market as a price index to negotiate the price they’re willing to pay for coffee, so how is a producer supposed to afford the extra labor or infrastructure?
Unless you, as a buyer, are willing to pay (significantly) more and guarantee the purchase of your requested lot or process (yes, I’m asking that you share in the risk and forfeit your rejection rights), it’s unlikely that a producer is going to somehow magically be able to afford the raised beds or solar house or steel tanks or microbiology lab or whatever-the-fuck-it-is you’re requesting—up to and including drying to 10%.
The price that everyone around the world is used to paying for coffee was established when coffee was produced using slave labor. We need to think about that—we need to engage with how we buy coffee differently (more on this another time).
And yeast is expensive. The yeast we used for this experiment was subsidized at significant expense by the importer who guaranteed purchase of the lot as well as roasters who pre-contracted the coffee. CIMA is almost $0.12 per pound of green coffee, not including shipping or customs fees, when applied at the standard 1g yeast to 1kg of pulped coffee ratio. While that may not seem like much to us in consuming countries (what’s another GrainPro charge?), it might increase a producer’s cost of production by 10% in and of itself—and it’s not even necessary for producing high-quality coffee (and might not even change or improve the quality, at least in the short-term).
There are other strains of yeast that are much more affordable (Red Star Premier Cuvée, for example, or Laffort Rosé or Spark, to name a few) and I happily use those at their lower cost of $0.03 per pound to extend the shelf life of the coffees I buy (caution: not all yeasts work well with coffee, and not all coffee yeasts are right for you)—but it’s really just insurance for producers I have been working with for years. And of course, I pay for the yeast myself, bring it in my luggage, and do what I can to share in that risk (including giving up that lovely SAS-NANS language).
And this inoculation strategy doesn’t work with every coffee. Coffee that has been dried too hot and thus no longer has a viable germ, or coffee that isn’t super dense—let’s call it 0.72 g/mL or below (based on my observations)—is going to fade no matter what you throw at it (hell, I’ve got one of those on my sheet right now). But it won’t fade as quickly, and at the end of the day, the question is: what will be left? If you’ve still got acid, and you’ve still got structure—that might be a coffee that still has value in the marketplace.
That's just, like, your opinion, man
Written by Christopher Feran