Inside Thoughts | Infused Coffees with Michael Bell
Infused coffees. What are they? Where do they belong in an industry that prides itself on authenticity? What does the future hold for them within the world of speciality coffee? Through this series of blog posts we explore this topic of debate by asking some leading industry experts and observers on their thoughts and opinions.
Before we dig in, it's probably best to identify what we mean by infused coffees. When we speak about infusion we are talking about the addition of wine yeasts and fruit pulp that is added to fermentation tanks during processing at origin. This addition to the anaerobic fermentation process allows producers to further manipulate the flavours that are associated with specific varieties and origins. While this has been commonplace for producers within different industries for many decades it is something that is relatively new to specialty coffee.
Michael Bell - SCA UK Cup Tasters Champion 2021
HHCo - What are your personal views and experiences of infused anaerobic fermented coffees?
MB - I unfortunately haven’t tried them yet but it’s definitely a conversation starter! For me it raises a few very important questions: What are we doing by providing coffee’s like this, is it what we as roasters want, or is it what the consumer wants? Is it taste related, as in, do customers buy high grade coffee because it tastes of strawberry/raspberry/tropical? Is it Q score related? Are we as an industry saying that all you need to do to command a higher fee is ferment fruits with ‘lower grade’ coffee and it instantly commands a higher price? Is a 55 score commodity coffee that’s fermented with strawberries now as good as geisha? How does this affect good farming practices? Will farms start doing as a quick sales fix? It’s a can of worms for sure!
HHCo - What do you feel is the long term value created by infused coffee for the speciality coffee industry?
MB - It’s very hard to tell right now. It raises a some very interesting topics of conversation, some of which are impossible to answer due to how new it is!
HHCo - Do you feel that infused coffees change access and audience to speciality coffee and if so, how?
MB - At the moment I think it fundamentally adds another layer of confusion within an industry that is already very difficult to understand for the average coffee consumer (and fast moving!). This is something that will need to be tackled by good training and education, which would start by breaking down the difference between ‘infused’ and say ‘tasting notes’ - which in itself is a way off yet! I definitely feel like it has it’s place, but by no means do I feel like it will remove the desire/need for high scoring well sourced coffee that taste of the ‘infused’ flavours/tasting notes.
HHCo - Where do you see parallels in other industries and how does this impact speciality coffee?
MB - I think of Coke. They fundamentally have a drink which people like, sometimes love. It’s changed slightly over the years but it’s still fundamentally coke (open to philosophical semantics as always!). They try and add flavours (Lime, Vanilla, Cherry, Seasonal favourites) but they will never truly top the favourite which is coke. For me this is because it’s essentially changing the essence of Coke (whatever that may be!). Interesting you could also ask what is the difference between a synthetic compound that mimics the real version - is there a problem here? Is it the same? I think if we have clear cut standards for these things the questions become easier to answer.
HHCo - How do you feel infused coffees impact Cup of Excellence and can these coffees exist within the same categories?
MB - Yes. But it’s a complicated scenario and one which only works with defined criteria. Currently my opinion is that infused coffees are essentially what ‘doping’ is to sports. It’s giving a completely unfair advantage to something, but only when you know what it is you are gaining from it. Currently I think it’s too soon to call, but I know from personal experience and seeing the impact of the wonderful world of Fermentation from likes of Noma etc that it’s definitely going to be a market to watch! I just fundamentally worry that creativity in it will be trumped by commercial aspirations; rather than it coming naturally off the back of something brilliant and ultimately tasty and good for the planet.