October 6, 2021

Infused coffees: Answering some common questions

A few weeks ago, we published an article on infused coffees in partnership with Saša Šestić, which received a huge number of responses and questions on social media. After reflecting on some of these, it’s easy to see that this is a contentious topic for the entire sector.

To respond to some of the more common questions and continue the discussion, Saša has put together another article. Here, he explains more about infused coffees and his aims for the sector.

Read on to learn more about what infused coffees are, what you can consider to be infused coffees, and why they can actually be beneficial for some producers, roasters, and cafés.

Before reading this, check out our previous article on infused coffees.

Sasa and a farmer checking cherries

Beginning the discussion

First things first: this discussion on infused coffees is just beginning, and every experience, opinion, and question you share helps to continue that discussion. 

To that end, I need to clarify my opinion on infused coffees: as long as they are clearly labelled and transparent, then they are an exciting new avenue for stakeholders in the sector to pursue. 

However, these added flavourings are not an expression of the inherent mastery of the process of growing and roasting coffee. Therefore, they are not allowed in Cup of Excellence, Best of Panama, barista championships, and Brewers Cup competitions.

But this immediately raises another question: what should be considered infused coffee? What about the addition of fruit during or after fermentation? Or storing green coffee in barrels? 

Going forward, I expect the discussion about infused coffees to be fluid. I anticipate that it will change and evolve as we learn more about its complexities. But I must also acknowledge that there are things I currently do not know, and that more research and discussion is necessary. 

As a result, I will use the findings from these articles and outside research to develop a toolkit for working with infused coffees. One will be a sensory education tool, while the other will be an analytical platform designed to detect infused coffee.

Again, while infused coffees themselves are not a problem, my focus here is on clarity and consistency. I believe this will be necessary to set the benchmark in specialty coffee for generations to come.

In the wider food and beverage industry, you can add anything you want to a product as long as it is legal, not harmful, and transparently declared on packaging. It remains a common practice to add flavourings, new ingredients, food additives, or processing aids.

However, there is also a code of conduct which governs how we should label products. This specifies when you need to declare additives, and when you don’t. All I believe is that we need to adapt this for the coffee industry, too.

fermented coffee

Do I like infused coffees?

I have been asked this a lot in the last couple of weeks. A number of people may be under the impression that I have a problem with infused coffees, which isn’t the case. My problem is with the transparency of infused coffees.

Back in 2015, I myself used “infused coffee” when I won the Australian Barista Championship. For four weeks, I left Sudan Rume coffee in a French oak barrel to infuse it with a new flavour for my signature drink. This barrel-aged coffee was used as a signature drink ingredient only.

More recently, ONA Coffee featured a gingerbread inspired coffee as part of its Winter Wonderland blend. To get that ginger note, we added some ginger bitters to a French oak barrel and let it dry before adding the coffee. We have labelled this coffee as barrel-aged, so consumers are aware.

I believe that infused coffee beverages often provide an easy gateway for consumers to learn more about specialty coffee. I do not at all want to speak about infusing coffee as something that’s “taboo”, nor do I want to limit experimentation with it.

In fact, there are several benefits that infused coffees can have for producers and consumers alike:

  • Producers who grow coffee of a lower quality – that would otherwise fetch lower prices – can add value through infusion. 
  • Producers with fruit, flowers, or herbs growing on their farm can add value to their crop through infusion, and be more sustainable by intercropping.
  • Reaching new consumer segments can increase the size of the overall coffee market, and get more people drinking coffee.
  • Infused coffee can also introduce new and distinct flavours to markets that otherwise would not be open to coffee. Many people start drinking coffee with sugar, sweeteners, or syrups, but infusion gives us another option.
  • Infused coffees can work well as a component of both cocktails and mocktails.
washing coffee

What classifies as an infused coffee?

In the last article, this was a grey area. Where do we draw the line? When is coffee infused, and when can it be considered “authentic”?

After discussing with Cup of Excellence teams in more detail, consulting the rules from World Coffee Events, conferring with scientists, learning from experts in food labelling, and listening to other professionals, here are some answers. I think these will help us develop a code of conduct for labelling infused coffees in the specialty coffee industry.

Infused coffees

So what should we consider infused coffee?

It all comes down to the addition of ingredients and flavourings. This could be essential oils, spices, acids, herbs, fruits, vegetables, or any other ingredients that end up in the final cup once brewed. This can happen during fermentation, in drying patios, at the warehouse, or during storage, in aromatic barrels. 

Coffee doesn’t just have to be infused when it’s green, either. It can be infused after roasting or when the coffee is ground. 

For example, if we add rose water flavouring to the coffee during any stage of processing, and then taste rose water in the final coffee, it can be considered to be flavoured or infused. Similarly, if we add tartaric acid and find that tartaric acidity is present in the final coffee notes, it’s infused.

However, if we add citric acid to support fermentation, and this ingredient is not present in the final product, and it cannot be tasted, this is considered a processing aid. It therefore does not need to be declared – again, standard practice in the food and beverage industry.

We can detect these factors by the aroma compounds that are present, by the components in the oil matrix, or both. Any addition of flavouring during fermentation which transfers directly to the aroma compounds in the green coffee, survives roasting, and still ends up in the cup should be considered infusion. 

We are in no way blaming farmers, but clearly, this discussion is critical and needs to be brought into the mainstream for all who care about coffee. We need to discuss how we will approach it going forward.

Fermentation experiments

For those unfamiliar with coffee fermentation, here is a quick rundown. Coffee fermentation is driven by enzymes that naturally occur in the coffee cherry, while yeasts and bacteria break down the sugars in the mucilage.

There are thousands of species of yeast and bacteria that live on fruit, flowers, soil, and even in the air. These different microorganisms thrive in different conditions, such as in warm or cold temperatures and anaerobic or aerobic environments. Some are considered to be negative, while some are considered to be positive.

Because of these differences, the way we ferment coffees in Colombia would differ from how we would do it in Ethiopia. This is because we need to consider the different climates and conditions. 

Darrin Daniel from CoE says that, according to their standards, microorganisms that are not part of microflora should also be considered a processing aid. So, even if we use starter cultures of yeast and bacteria or enzymes, this is considered processing aid, and therefore does not need to be declared according to food labelling law.

Let’s look at the cheese industry as an example. Around 90% of cheese is made with inoculated microbes. Information about which species are used isn’t available on the label, and furthermore doesn’t need to be declared, as it is a processing aid.

However, when cheese is made with truffles, this information is disclosed and printed on the label, as truffle is an ingredient which is added separately and not as a processing aid.

In contrast, for a cheese to be classified as Parmigiano Reggiano, it must come from particular regions of Italy, and contain only certain approved wild microbes that are found in that specific region. Adding other external inputs or flavours will mean it is refused a denomination of origin.

Processing coffee with fruit

This is a slightly more complex area. More research and clarification from food scientists, food labelling law experts and industry experts is needed. Ultimately, if coffee is processed with fruit, it can be classified as infused or as a processing aid, depending on precisely how it is used.

Fruit as a processing aid

In fermentation, producers sometimes add fruit to support enzymatic reaction. Fruit can also be added to support fermentation with yeast, bacteria, and sugars.

If, at the end of fermentation, we cannot find any remains of the fruit left in the final product (green beans), it can be considering a processing aid and does not need to be declared unless it is an allergen.

For example, if we add pineapple in fermentation, it adds new microbes and sugars, which are used during the fermentation process. By the time it’s completed, the pineapple will be consumed and will no longer be present.

This leads to the formation of different aroma compounds that wouldn’t be present without the pineapple, but because there is no pineapple itself present in the final product, it is a processing aid; not an infusion.

Using fruit for flavour

However, if we add fruits or external ingredients during processing, and they remain present in the final prodcut, this can be considered flavoured or infused coffee.

Let’s take an example. We work with Rodrigo Sanchez (a producer) and Vicente Mejia (a coffee exporter and the founder of Clearpath Coffee).

With one of their coffees, they add fruit, herbs, spices, yeast, and sugar during and after fermentation, with the direct aim of enhancing the coffee’s flavour with these added ingredients. This is an infused coffee.

For example, with their “citrus washed” coffee, they use orange, tangerine, lemongrass, panela sugar, and yeast. These are all added during and after fermentation to flavour the coffee.

The coffee clearly tastes citrusy, and not with citrus notes that we usually get in coffee. It has flavours of lemongrass and other citrus characters that have been introduced to the coffee. They are present in the coffee, and it is labelled as infused.

The team at Clearpath are a perfect example of how we should label and sell these coffees. They clearly say which ingredients they add in coffees, and all flavoured lots that they process come with a certificate to this end.

In this case, the coffees actually use the name of the added ingredient on the bag; such as “citrus washed” or “passionfruit washed” processing.

sasa sestic

How & why should an infused coffee be labelled?

Any infused or aromatised coffee should be labelled. This is for a number of reasons:

  • Transparency. It should be clear that the coffee has been artificially flavoured or infused, as legally, these additives need to be declared.
  • It should also be made clear that the coffee has been infused with food-grade equipment in a safe and monitored environment.
  • Allergen issues. Some foods and food ingredients or their components can cause severe allergic reactions and therefore need to be declared. If we use allergens as a processing aid, this also needs be declared. There are 14 allergens recognised globally, and others that differ from country to country.
  • Religion. For instance, Islamic countries that operate under Sharia law such as Saudi Arabia and Brunei forbid the consumption of alcohol. Therefore, coffees sold to these countries must be alcohol-free throughout processing. While alcohol will evaporate during the roast, we should still declare if the coffee is infused or barrel-aged with alcohol.
  • Any other potential religious or cultural reasons (has the coffee been in touch with non-kosher food products, for instance?)
sasa sestic and farmers

What’s next?

Our goal is to encourage work to begin on a code of conduct for labelling coffee. In the meantime, I am looking forward to organising sensory education. Many coffee professionals commented on the previous article, saying that they would like to have such an opportunity.

My goal is to take coffee from the same farm and of the same variety, and show how its cup profile differs with washed processing, natural processing, when we add yeast, bacteria, or enzymes, with fruits, with spices, and with essential oils.

To this end, I will be holding a live cupping soon to guide people through a fun and educational event to help hone their tasting skills and help them identify infused coffees.

The profits from this event will go towards studies on how to standardise and test for infused coffees. Right now, we need all the experts in the sector to start a process that may lead to some kind of consensus.

In the meantime, we will also develop a platform to detect the direct addition of aroma compounds. We will also accelerate research to better understand microorganisms’ role in fermentation.

sasa sestic

Of all the questions I’ve received in the past few weeks, perhaps the most important is a simple one: whose responsibility is it to ensure that infused coffee is made more transparent in the future?

I genuinely believe it is up to us all. As coffee professionals, whether coffee producers, green bean buyers, roasters, baristas, coffee scientists, microbiologists, or judges, we have a responsibility to make sure other people know when a coffee has been artificially infused.

This is a delicate subject that I believe needs to be managed effectively. We should not point fingers at one another, but rather work together to standardise this new category properly. We also need to show a lot of respect to coffee producers and everyone involved. That’s how we move forward – not just as individuals, but as an industry, together.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on fruit fermentation in the coffee sector.

Photo credits: Saša Šestić

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Please note: this article was edited at 11:07AM BST to add further information about the practice of processing coffee with fruit.