When Blueprint began our relationship with Ana Vizcaino at Finca Esperanza, the goal was and remains to share risk in order to improve consistency and quality. I feel sharing risk is a major obstacle to innovation and learning, especially for specialty coffee relationships.
In our conversations regarding how Esperanza and Blueprint wanted to approach processing and managing the coffee, we landed on fermentation. This was a daunting task for Ana and me. First, because Ana and I had no direct experience with fermentation. Ana always sent her coffee to a washing mill for processing and I had not gone through the whole process myself, having only observed the stages. Second, Ana did not have a mill to process the coffee. Ana is actively building the infrastructure for her farm, so we were working with very rudimentary conditions:
- a single pulper
- 3 – 50 gal barrels
- 3 – 30 gal barrels
- a bunch of baskets to sort and move the coffee during processing
- sheer excitement and determination of her crew – Luis, Milton, Martin, Huayo, Lencho
Ana and I also agreed to postpone building her mill so we could discuss what to expect and what would be needed in the future.
We had agreed early in 2016 on the “Blue-Bird” section of her farm and now Blueprint was committed to processing and buying the coffee, so I went to work looking for advice from colleagues and mentors trying to learn and establish a plan to process the coffee. Serendipitously, I was listening to the Opposites Extract podcast featuring Lucia Solis and contacted her to discuss her work with yeast. What caught my attention, more than her insight and expertise with fermentation, was her vision. Lucia’s vision was to help bring a level of consistency and quality to coffee that paralleled the evolution of the wine industry’s use of technology and specific yeast.
Yeast was one aspect of many investments in technology and technique that helped wine achieve its current place in our culinary landscape. When winemakers started using specific yeasts for fermentation, they did have as many bad batches due to poor production, which ensured better margins on their product. Better margins simply provided more money to allow for investment and development. Better and more consistent results helped to establish and grow a new consumer niche that was less intimidating to an inexperienced wine drinker.
These variables can have a similar affects on the coffee industry. Wine has had thousands of years of development, not to mention the capital to invest in the tools and research to take these steps and the consumer willing to pay for the costs.
A young coffee tree in the Blue-Bird section of Finca Esperanza.
A fresh collection of cherries from the Blue-bird section.
Floating cherries to separate less dense coffee.
Vineyards and winemakers also took control of the marketing and overall perception of their product, which is apparent even from an outside perspective. My point is that coffee can learn from this process in order to accelerate and focus its future. Fermentation is not the only step of the process for coffee producers, but it is an important phase that can strongly influence the direction of a taste profile. As with wine, understanding the elements and the variables that influence fermentation is a vital step in a relevant transition towards consistency and quality. In addition, the use of specific yeasts can help us understand how the fermentation step influences the final product, brewed coffee.
Ana and I had found common vision in this approach, so I contacted Lucia with Scott Laboratories and we discussed ideas for the project. One of our goals was to come away with a better understanding of relevant data that can be used to provide a solid feedback loop between Ana and me. Also, during my conversations with Lucia we discussed a few new techniques to try:
1) To include the macerated cherry in the fermentation barrel during the fermentation phase
2) Using a salt-water float before pulping.
Including the macerated cherries served two purposes. The first was to increase the amount of sugar in the effluent fermentation bath to provide the necessary sugar for the yeast to consume. Coffee cherries do not have a lot of flesh/fruit compared to other fruits like wine grapes, whose sugar is food for the yeast. When the sugar runs out, then the yeast begins to die off. The second was to change the nature of the coffee pulp as an ingredient for compost.
The salt-float was intended to provide a consistent baseline between the two different yeasts and the non-yeast experiments. During harvesting and delivery, coffee can tend to get pretty dirty, so in an effort to prevent unwanted organisms from taking over the yeast or contributing to bad flavors, we thought the salt would kill off the unwanted organisms. This isn’t too strange because in Hawaii it is used after the coffee has been fermented to improve parchment buoyancy to separate coffee affected by Brocca (an insect that bores into the coffee fruit) before drying and milling. Finally, in an effort to learn more about what is happening during fermentation, we rented a meter that recorded dissolved oxygen, temperature, and pH.
Arriving at Ana’s farm in January of this year, I encountered a crew that was
Preparing the yeast to add to the fermentation barrel.
Adding yeast to the fermentation barrel.
Drying the coffee on raised beds.
eager and motivated to learn. We surveyed the equipment and the procedures they were using to process coffee and decided to reorganize a bit. Then, we started cleaning. Since there was only one pulper and a few barrels, it did not take long and we were soon ready to receive the following day’s harvest. We established a sequence for the processing:
1) Separate harvest into smaller baskets to sort over-ripe, under-ripe, and damaged cherries
2) Float the cherries in the salt-float and skim off the floaters
3) Rinse the cherries in fresh water and skim any more floaters
4) Pulp the cherries in the Eco-pulper catching all the fruit and seeds
5) Transfer fruit and seeds into fermentation barrels
6) Add yeast
In listing the steps, it seemed simple, but 600-800 pounds of cherries took three to four hours to complete and we were always wrapping up well into the evening. For the test lots, I took measurements with the meter every two hours for 32 hours. For a few tests early in the morning, one of Ana’s guards helped me out, which was much appreciated. Having brought a microscope for our compost and Actively Aerated Compost Tea work, I decided to look at the actual results of the different fermentations at 32 hours.
The pictures simply demonstrate that the yeast was successful in growing and dominating the fermentation versus the non-yeast effluent, which was dominated with a type of fungi. I collected the data from the meter, which provided some insight into the process – that will be addressed in a later post.
The coffee was now being processed, fermented, and washed, which meant we now needed to focus on drying. Before leaving, we discussed and agreed on a moisture specification and the approach to drying the coffee. Her crew took on the task with determination. With a month of harvest still remaining, the workers began constructing raised beds for the rest of the harvest, ending up with 70 newly constructed beds. This was not only for the Blue-Bird section, but also for the remaining coffee on the farm. They were eager to learn new approaches and to solve for the problems they encountered.
Esperanza is the first of many new partnerships where we hope to assist the producer(s) to gain new knowledge and expertise. We aim to assist the producer by sharing a bit of the risk and committing to learn together. This will build trust in each other and confidence in the quality of the product from year to year. We hope you enjoy the coffee and look forward to sharing the results with you.