Fermented Coffee: Why It’s Healthier AND Tastier Than Regular Coffee
Anyone who has watched “The Bucket List” (2007) starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson will surely remember the portable kopi luwak brewing station Jack Nicholson’s character carried everywhere, boasting that it was the most exclusive and expensive coffee in the world. Only at the end of the movie did Morgan Freeman finally tell his recent acquaintance that that particular sort of coffee, also known as kopi luwak or civet coffee, owed its incredible price and particular flavor to the unique way it’s produced: it’s called cat poop coffee for a reason. As the foremost experts on kopi luwak know, it’s the fermentation process that occurs during the Asian palm civet cat’s digestion system that gives this fermented coffee its unique taste and aroma. This was one of the funniest moments in the movie, even lending the name “Bucket List Coffee” to kopi luwak, but for the coffee lovers out there, it was also an intriguing one. How does kopi luwak taste, anyway?
Well, there’s a good reason kopi luwak is one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Fermented coffee is quickly becoming known as some of the most desirable coffee on the planet.
What Is Fermented Coffee?
Imagine you walk into a store and ask for ground coffee. The grocer, in return, asks you, regular coffee or fermented coffee? Which one would you choose? To help you decide, let’s cover the basics of fermented coffee, known to some as “cultured coffee.”
What Is Fermentation?
Fermentation is a natural biological process in which certain types of microorganisms called bacteria and yeasts—which are found naturally in the environment, fruits and many other places—degrade or break down sugars and starches and transform them into nutrients they can use. The byproducts of this metabolic process are a series of organic compounds, among which are organic acids (like acetic acid, found in vinegar), alcohols (like ethanol, which is in every alcoholic beverage) and gases like carbon dioxide (the gas responsible for the bubbles in carbonated drinks like soda and champagne). As you can imagine, most of these byproducts of fermentation have been used by mankind for centuries.
Fermented coffee is, simply, coffee put through the fermentation process. Obvious, isn’t it? Nevertheless, there’s a bit of confusion around the term. Some say that the concept of fermented coffee is nothing new because, after a traditional coffee harvest, coffee cherries naturally ferment due to the high sugar content of the pulp. In fact, coffee producers normally take advantage of this natural fermentation process to help soften and remove the hard husk that protects the coffee beans (called parchment) which are later roasted, ground and brewed—whether via pour over, cold brewed or using an AeroPress—to make the delicious drink we love and cherish so much. This “regular” fermentation is common practice among all coffee producers worldwide, and therefore doesn’t give “fermented” coffee its distinctive name.
Instead, fermented coffee, also known as cultured coffee, refers to coffee that has been fermented not right after the harvest, when it’s still in cherry form, but after it’s been pulped and the husk has been removed, prior to the roast (green coffee). It’s a specially treated type of green coffee that, when roasted, ground and brewed, yields aromas and flavors different (many would say better) from those of unfermented coffee.
There’s also another type of fermented coffee, which is regular coffee fermented after brewing. This is achieved by inoculating the brew with a mixture of certain yeasts and bacteria (called a culture starter), and letting it sit for several days in a similar way to how fresh yogurt is prepared. One popular example of this type of fermented coffee is coffee kombucha, which owes its name to the particular starter solution used (those solutions are called SCOBYs, an acronym for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast). However, since this fermentation is carried out after brewing, this type of fermented coffee is not what you should have in mind when the grocer offers fermented, roasted coffee.
How Is Fermented Coffee Made?
As mentioned before, this special type of coffee is prepared by fermenting either parchment coffee or green coffee. The process involves a few simple steps.
Step #1: Soak
Soak the green coffee beans in water. This makes it easier for the microorganisms that will ferment the beans to come into contact with them, and it gives them a medium to grow in.
Step #2: Inoculate
Inoculate the soaked beans with 1+ types of bacteria and yeasts. Inoculation is a lot like sowing seeds, though instead of seeds you toss a handful of bacteria and yeasts in the form of a liquid “solution” called a starter solution (the same sort of SCOBY we mentioned above) into the soaked beans. You can buy different starter solutions with different types of bacteria and yeasts, each of which ferment the coffee beans in different ways and produce different flavors and aromas. It’s a lot like aging cheese with different microorganisms: some produce roquefort, while others produce camembert.
Step #3: Wait
Let the beans sit and wait for a couple of days, usually 24-48 hours. This is where the actual fermentation takes place. Over these couple of days, the bacteria and yeasts will work their magic and transform the chemical composition of the beans. The result: improved flavor, aroma, digestibility, etc.
This part of the fermentation process also takes the most know-how, since controlling things like temperature, air and light exposure, and time (knowing when to stop fermenting) is quite tricky. If you wait too long or set the temperature too high, you’ll get a vinegary-tasting coffee. Most people find the right starter solution and the best fermentation conditions through trial and error, though there are some producers who take a more scientific and systematic approach.
Step #4: Wash & Dry
Wash the beans with fresh water to remove residues from the fermentation process, and then sun dry or machine tumble dry the fermented beans prior to roasting. This is done to avoid further fermentation or spoilage in storage before the roast.
Step #5: Roast
The roasting process oxidizes many of the organic compounds inside the bean to produce the chemical compounds responsible for the taste and aroma of the brewed coffee. The way the beans are roasted has a significant impact on how the coffee tastes, which is why we pay so much attention to this step. We give our kopi luwak beans a special roast to extract even more of their unique flavor while maintaining their shelf life without using any added preservatives.
Step #6: Grind
In some cases, fermentation can be performed on moist (not wet) green coffee beans with natural fungi, such as in the “monsoon process” in India. There is plenty of ongoing fermentation research currently underway to determine the best microorganisms to use, the best temperature and fermentation time, and so on. The possibilities are endless, which make it exciting to think about all of the different flavors and aromas of coffee to come.
Benefits Of Fermented Coffee
Fermenting coffee isn’t just trendy. There are a number of reasons for choosing fermented coffee over regular coffee. But first, a word of caution. You might think that, since the coffee is fermented, it would be full of probiotics (the good bacteria that help your digestive system) like yogurt. But keep in mind that the fermentation process in coffee occurs before roasting the beans, so all the probiotics present after the fermentation are actually eliminated during the roast.
Probiotics aside, here are just five of the benefits fermented coffee has to offer:
Benefit #1: Easier To Digest
Fermentation transforms many hard-to-digest substances into simpler molecules which the body can handle more easily. It also has a lower concentration of certain chemical compounds associated with gastrointestinal discomfort, which makes it easier to digest than regular coffee.
Benefit #2: Easier On IBS Patients
Regular coffee can be irritating for people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), whereas fermented coffee is usually not.
Benefit #3: Cleaner And Safer
Specific microorganisms used in fermentation inhibit the appearance and growth of fungi in the beans, making them last longer without spoiling and ensuring a cleaner, safer drinking experience.
Benefit #4: Improved Taste And Aroma
By controlling fermentation conditions, producers can alter the taste and aroma of the coffee to decrease bitter off-notes and increase the overall quality of the coffee.
Benefit #5: Fewer Tannins
The tannins you find in coffee, tea, wine and other foods, turn your teeth yellow due to their unique chemical structure. However, fermented coffee has significantly lower levels of tannins, drastically reducing the harm done to your teeth and maintaining your pretty smile. Kopi luwakhas especially low levels of tannins, since its fermentation process occurs inside the Asian palm civet cat.
Does Fermented Coffee Taste Different?
The simple answer is YES. Many people agree that the flavor and aroma of fermented coffee is significantly superior to regular coffee. Coffee aroma is the consequence of a mixture of many volatile (easy to evaporate) compounds; more than a third of the substances that give coffee its aroma are produced during the fermentation itself. These aromas wouldn’t be there if the beans hadn’t been fermented. In terms of flavor, fermentation also eliminates many of the bitter off-notes of coffee, producing a sweeter, less bitter drink that most people prefer.
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