March 13, 2023

Is there a difference between infused and flavoured specialty coffee?


There’s no doubt that experimental processing methods have changed the trajectory of specialty coffee. 

Traditionally, coffee is processed using washed, natural, and honey processing methods. In certain Asian countries, other processing methods such as wet hulling (or Giling Basah) and Monsoon Malabar have also been in use for decades.

However, now more than ever, there are a seemingly endless number of ways to process coffee. From anaerobic fermentation to carbonic maceration, these experimental processing methods help to enhance coffee flavour – and even create new ones.

Flavoured and infused coffees are also part of this conversation. This is when producers purposefully introduce other ingredients when processing coffee so that the green beans absorb or take on certain sensory attributes.

But as part of the broader discussion on how these coffees can fit into the specialty sector, it’s important that we differentiate between the two. To learn more, I spoke with three coffee professionals. Read on to find out what they had to say.

You may also like our article on issues with infused coffees.

Sealed plastic barrels with valves used for fermenting coffee.

What are flavoured and infused coffees?

It can be difficult to define exactly what infused and flavoured coffees are. There are no formal industry terms for these coffees, so definitions are largely down to personal opinions.

Nanelle Newbom is the Sales West representative at Equal Exchange. She is also a roaster and green buyer at Torque Coffees. She explains what she considers to be a flavoured coffee.

“It’s when you add other separate ingredients to either green or roasted coffee in order to create a new flavour,” she says. “In my opinion, altering the flavour of a coffee by adding yeast strains or controlling the levels of oxygen during processing doesn’t create a flavoured coffee.

“However, I think adding certain ingredients, such as cinnamon sticks, to the fermentation tank during processing results in a flavoured coffee,” she adds.

Another important point that Nanelle raises is whether the ingredients added are natural or artificial.

“For many coffee professionals, the difference between adding natural and artificial ingredients is more of a sliding scale,” she explains. “The answer is not always so clear because what we define as a flavoured coffee can differ greatly, it doesn’t necessarily make a conflicting opinion incorrect.”

Comparisons to infused coffees

Saša Šestić is the founder of ONA Coffee and Project Origin. He is also the 2015 World Barista Champion and an expert in fermentation processing techniques – particularly carbonic maceration. In 2021, Saša wrote two articles for Perfect Daily Grind: one about issues with infused coffees and the other answering common questions about infused coffees.

Saša explains his definition of an infused coffee. 

“It’s the addition of particular ingredients and flavourings,” he tells me. “These could be essential oils, spices, acids, herbs, fruits, vegetables, or any other ingredient. We must be able to detect the presence of these ingredients or flavourings in the final beverage.

“Infusion can happen during fermentation, when the coffee is drying on patios, during storage, or in barrels,” he adds. “Coffee can be infused when it’s green, or after roasting, or even once the coffee is ground.”

Nanelle, meanwhile, believes that infused coffees are mainly created when you add ingredients or flavourings during processing.

What about barrel aged coffee?

Barrel aged coffee is another form of flavoured coffee. This involves placing green coffee inside of barrels which have been used to manufacture beverages such as whiskey, wine, rum, and other alcoholic drinks.

Steven Restrepo is the Head of Coffee at Café de Colita. He explains the purpose of barrel ageing coffee.

“You want the green coffee to absorb some of the flavours of the barrel,” he tells me.

As green coffee is highly susceptible to a number of environmental conditions, the wood of the barrel will influence the flavours in the coffee. Typically, this practice results in fruity, fermented and more “funky” flavour notes which are often indicative of the product which was previously made in the barrel.

“I roasted a few batches of barrel aged coffee a few years ago,” Nanelle says. “People were really interested in it, and it sold very well as both retail bags and by the cup.

“Personally, I prefer smelling this coffee over drinking it, but it certainly generated a lot of interest,” she adds.

A pile of red coffee cherries.

So what are the differences between infused and flavoured coffees?

The definitions of both flavoured and infused coffees largely rely on the opinions of coffee professionals. In turn, gaining a clear understanding of the key differences between the two is difficult.

“Flavoured coffees are those which have been modulated using fermentation and the addition of yeasts and bacteria, as well as by adding artificial flavours,” Steven says. 

While Saša believes that infusion can happen at any stage of the supply chain, Steven thinks otherwise.

“Infused coffees are ones which have been infused with artificial flavours after roasting,” he explains.

Nanelle, meanwhile, provides another perspective.

“There are many coffees which include added supplements like CBD or collagen, for example,” she tells me. “These are often referred to as ‘infused’ coffees, but whether they are infused after roasting to avoid denaturing or otherwise destroying the additional supplement is relatively unknown.”

However, Nanelle further explains that the line between infusing and flavouring coffee can be blurred.

“For example, you can add yeast used for beer production into the fermentation tank, which I consider to be controlling the fermentation process, but not infusing the coffee,” she says. “But, I would consider adding hops during processing to result in infused coffee.

“People can also add different fruits, which blurs the line even further,” she adds. “Fruit is fermentable and produces different sugars which yeast strains feed on, but fruit also imparts its own flavours, so I would say it results in infused coffees.”

It’s clear that there are many challenges when it comes to defining the difference between infused and flavoured coffees. However, Saša expects that this will change in the future.

“I anticipate that as we learn more about the complexities of infused and flavoured coffees, the definitions will change and evolve,” he says.

Head of Coffee at Café de Colita Steven Restrepo stands on a farm.

Are these coffees beneficial to the specialty sector?

There is certainly an argument that infused and flavoured coffees can cause a number of issues, especially when it comes to a lack of transparency.

Nanelle says that ultimately, it comes down to whether or not the addition of flavour adds value.

“Any flavour or infusion added once the coffee reaches its export destination takes away value from producers,” she says. “It removes all the intrinsic value of terroir, farming best practices, and processing.

“Instead, it adds value for roasters by removing it from producers,” she adds.

Steven, meanwhile, says infused and flavoured coffees allow producers, traders, and roasters to offer a new kind of product.

“You can enhance flavour profiles without adding any ingredient to the roasted coffee,” he explains. “Our clients ask for personalised, unique products, so why not support farmers to achieve this? 

“As long as there is demand for these types of coffee, we will create them,” he adds.

Ripe red coffee cherries being sorted.

Is there a market for these coffees?

Although opinions and preferences on flavoured and infused coffees are divided among industry professionals, Steven says that there is clearly a market for these types of coffees.

“What started our journey into fermentation processing techniques was our clients in China asking us to look into whisky-infused coffees,” he tells me.

After initial success, Steven explains he experimented with adding different ingredients.

“We used apple, orange, strawberry, chocolate, chewing gum, and lemon,” he adds. “But our best-selling infused and flavoured coffees are passion fruit and cinnamon.”

In addition to these coffees, Steven believes there is significant demand for extended fermentation processing techniques.

“Prolonged, controlled, or newer fermentation processing methods are all the rage in specialty coffee – demand is high and continues to increase,” he says. “China, South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are some of the leading markets for these coffees.”

Nanelle agrees, saying that demand from roasters and consumers alike is growing.

“Some of these coffees are more targeted towards the end customer, while some are geared more towards roasters,” she explains. “Even small or relatively newer roasters want to drive innovation and want to differentiate themselves.

“This puts producers in a strong position to market a newly expanding range of products – potentially at a higher price, too,” she adds.

Transparency is key

Many coffee professionals are in agreement that in order to obtain the most value from these coffees, there needs to be complete transparency about how they are flavoured or infused.

“For instance, if a roaster uses additives to flavour or infuse the coffee, then there needs to be open communication about this process so that no value is stripped from producers,” Nanelle explains.

Steven agrees, saying: “In my experience, some people aren’t transparent enough about their flavoured or infused coffees.

“We are open to sharing our techniques because it takes years to learn how to do it successfully – and even longer to master them.”

However, he emphasises that complete transparency about flavouring and infusion processes would be beneficial to the coffee sector.

“People who don’t fully understand the work that goes into these procedures – and thereby the uniqueness of these coffees – can often be quite negative about them,” he says. “But it’s a labour of love – you can’t create these coffees just to make money.”

Honey processed coffee beans.

While the coffee industry could certainly benefit from outlining a clear definition for both “infused” and “flavoured” coffees, it’s also evident that we need to understand more about both to assess their future in the coffee sector.

“Establishing clear industry standards is helpful, so as to not defame or devalue these coffees,” Nanelle concludes. “Moreover, we can increase people’s awareness of the coffees they are buying, selling, and consuming.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on answering some common questions about infused coffees.

Photo credits: Steven Restrepo

Perfect Daily Grind

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