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Is Coffee Science Plateauing?

Posted by Nathaniel Fleming on

With a limited range of brewing, roasting, and processing technology (and ways of using them), coffee science needs innovators and breakthroughs to grow our collective knowledge. Just like any innovation in science, without breaking the rules, our coffee knowledge could plateau and fizzle.

Without new innovations, we are reaching a plateau with traditional brewing methods: espresso, drip coffee, and everything in between. Sure, there are some bright minds who will blow us all away with genius takes on traditional methods, such as Tetsu Kasuya’s 4-6 Pour Over Method, but there is a human extent to perfection when using the same tools and ideas over and over again. Where we should be experimenting and prodding with our caffeinated minds are the other checkpoints in the coffee supply chain and industry rather than mostly brewing.

Is this due to the volume of people involved in each node of the coffee supply chain, where there are vastly more people with expendable time, interest, and income involved in the brewing stage? Maybe.

Thankfully we are beginning to tinker with the other steps of the cycle, not just fulfilling industry demands that historically turn a profit— a conservative approach that lacks diversity and only really makes sense in an endless growth market. Diversification and R&D is where breakthrough innovations are born, and will be where the next best thing comes after gesha or instant specialty coffee.

We are processing coffee in ways that have really begun to shift coffee science sideways. Anaerobic processing has opened up a world of funky flavours attributed to coffee, only unlocked after fermentation occurs in a zero-oxygen environment. The process is an extremely volatile petri dish of variables and outcomes, with so much to learn. In contrast, the complexities of naturals (aerobic fermentation) is already appreciated and recognised worldwide. Another new processing method in specialty coffee called carbonic maceration involves the tenderising of cherries in carbonated water that increases the volatility of the fermentation process. This was a technique appropriated from wine processing, although achieves a different result in coffee, as you’re influencing flavours in the seed of the fruit rather than the fruit itself (wine grape seeds are removed). The endless possibilities of how fermentation affects a coffee is sure to keep us busy for a while.

On the consumer end, coffee drinkers and baristi are looking to history first, as the Espresso Romano is making a comeback, and baristi are perfecting old brew methods such as Turkish Coffee with a specialty coffee treatment. Crafting specialty coffee into coffee-tails is the sophisticated marriage of two artisan craftspeople: the mixologist and the barista. Even more so, the wine buyer now must consider the pairing of coffee with their menus. A coffee buyer for an esteemed restaurant can’t just buy whatever’s convenient for them if they want to uphold a standard of class in their menu. They must work with coffee flavour profiles and beverage types to pair the right coffee to the right dish. E.g. Espresso and ice cream versus filter and ice cream… There's an obvious answer to which one works better.

Shade-grown coffee is making a comeback. After decades of monocrop through western farming the traditional approach to growing coffee in the shade is finally back. As coffee is a shrub, it naturally grows well in shaded areas, under a forest canopy. This means that you can expect the healthiest crops to be thriving in similar conditions. And so shade-grown coffee was “rediscovered” by specialty coffee growers (although it existed in traditional agricultural methods in coffee’s native lands of Ethiopia, and is the natural state of coffee in the wild). Despite the inevitable homecoming of this growing method, which is arguably an agricultural appropriation, it seems to be the best option for farmers who value biodiversity in their crop. This sort of innovation in coffee science may be the purest form: re-learning traditional methods and understanding them through the original perspectives that have used them for generations. Only when one has fully understood and appreciated these methods, can you begin to successfully appropriate them.

So we have identified three different learning styles in coffee innovation: firstly re-learning and appropriating the past, such as the comeback of the Espresso Romano, all the way to shade-growing crops. Secondly, we are innovating borrowed methods from other industries like carbonic maceration of coffee cherries (a practice taken from wine processing). Finally, we are innovating something completely new each day, in places we didn’t think it was possible to innovate any further, like Tetsu Kasyua’s 4-6 Pour Over Method.

What’s an area of coffee science you want to learn more about? We have the tools to conduct experiments at Barty Single Origin, and are always trying new things. Take our batch-brew canning process for example, and taste for yourself here!


About Nathaniel Fleming

Write ✍️ Design 📐 Brew ☕ Barty Single Origin's resident Coffee Expert & Coffee Quality Assurance Officer. Nathaniel's understanding of coffee and culture comes from his international background of the United States, Australia, Europe, and Asia. His approach to sustainable design in the specialty coffee industry is driven by a biocentric perspective and a passion for excellent coffee. He is currently based in Sydney, Australia.


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