The fermentation game
By Rhew Deigl
The lunch crowd was larger than usual. Besides Wilford Lamastus and me, the regulars, were Wilford, Jr.; commercial photographer Paul Castillero; the newly arrived Franz Zeimetz, brewer at the leading craft beer outfit of Panama City; and Ben Put, four-time Canadian Barista Champion and co-owner of Monogram Coffee in Calgary. As Wilford, Wilford Jr., Paul, and Franz chatted rapid-fire Spanish, Ben and I exchanged glances, his of something between awe and abandonment, and mine of amused sympathy. Our high-school-level Spanish seemed a different language to this Maschinengewehr exchange.
Eventually, the conversation shifted the business of our gathering: fermenting coffees. Franz, who’d already been doing lab-work on some of our coffees, had just arrived from Panama City with a master plan. He led us out to his car.
In the trunk was piled a dubious collection: three half-kegs, three oak barrels, a 10-gallon Styrofoam cooler overflowing with sciencey-looking plastic containers, four kilos of raw sugar, and an obscene number of pop-art wrapped craft beers.
“Good thing you didn’t get pulled over,” Wilford Jr. quipped. I wasn’t sure if a “Smokey and the Bandit” joke would land with the foreign audience, so I kept quiet.
Franz dragged a keg out of the trunk and pulled the pressure release valve, blasting us with a jet of strawberry-scented carbon dioxide. His home-cultured yeast, ready to tangle in the tanks with our coffees.
Though a relatively new development in specialty coffee, Natural fermentation has taken over the luxury market. While all coffee undergoes some incidental fermentation, natural fermentation is distinguished as the intentional process of exposing the coffee, still contained within its fruit, to yeasts or bacteria. This is done, in the case of Elida Estate, by tossing the coffee in a sealed plastic container for five to 10 days. Allowing microbes to work on coffee for prolonged periods of time can offer unique, exotic fruit flavors that draw extreme prices—$800, $1,000, even $5,000 per pound. Already dominant in the Asian super-specialty markets, fermented coffees are even trickling into the recalcitrant United States through outfits like Onyx Coffee Lab and Black & White Coffee Roasters.
However, the rapid rise of fermentation dismayed many obstinate producers, especially those in Panama who believe in the superior terroir of their farms. At its best, fermentation enhances the terroir’s distinguished flavors, and at its most controversial it totally alters these flavors into a profile unrecognizable as coffee, much less as the already divine Panama Geisha.
Adding to farmers’ reluctance, fermentation is a risky game. It takes time, money, and coffee in order to discover what processing choices—with or without oxygen, native or lab-grown yeasts, hot or cold storage, etc.—maximize the quality of a crop and which turn it into a hellish stew of cough-syrup-like phenols. For the established “Crown Jewel” farms like the Lamastus family’s Elida Estate, this is less of an issue; their elite name brand means every pound of coffee will sell no matter how funky, alcoholic, or medicinal it tastes, provided it passes quality control. But for small farms that only attract buyers by proving their outstanding quality, there’s less coffee to hurl at experimentation.
The afternoon following Franz’s arrival, Wilford Jr., Ben, Franz, and I drove two hours with the trunkload of yeasts and supplements to the town of Volcán, the western hub of Panamanian coffee production. We met Carlos Aguilera, a coffee processor and good friend of the Lamastus family, at his fermentation facility, where a thousand pounds of Geisha from El Burro, Wilford’s side project farm, were waiting for us.
We came to Carlos because he’d offered us the use of his custom-built fermentation tanks; these Italian stainless steel, temperature-controlled monsters put our plastic tubs to shame. I asked Wilford Jr. what the plan was. “Ask these guys,” he replied, gesturing to Franz, already elbow-deep in a bucket of pectic enzyme.
“We’re trying three types of yeast,” said Ben. “Champagne, Saison, and… what’s the other one, Franz?”
“Lactobacillus,” said Franz as he dumped a keg of the stuff into the tank.
“And what’s it gonna do?” I asked.
Ben shrugged. “Aiunno.”
“It’s gonna ruin my coffee,” said Wilford Jr.
This was only partly a joke. Of course, Franz knows exactly what each of these yeast species would do to a beer wort, but here we were flying blind. Experimenting. He selected Saison and Lactobacillus for the desirable tangy flavors they can impart to beer, and Champagne for its wicked intensity, but no telling whether they’d have the same effects on coffee. And maybe someone has put Saison yeast in a coffee before, but never in this coffee. Through fermentation, we get to play scientists and pioneers, gamblers and artists.
“It might ruin his coffee,” agreed Franz. “Wilford Sr. won’t like it.”
Each farmer in the Panama coffee community takes his own position on the spectrum of progressivity. Nobody—not even the old purists —has resisted the lure of the fermentation game, but some, like Wilford, frown upon the more extreme flavors, especially those of violently funky Geishas. No need to mask the flavors, he maintains, of the coffee variety that’s known world-wide for its delicate, floral qualities. No need to add foreign substances to a naturally beautiful product. I tend to agree with him on this; I’d much rather my coffee taste like a fruit salad than a cave-aged cheese.
“We’ve been around,” he says of his experience with different fermentation techniques. “We don’t break records by accident.” He makes a point; his processing methods bring in critical acclaim and around a half-million dollars a year without the hassle of designer yeasts, fermentation curves, and minute-by-minute temperature control.
Fully embracing these technologies, on the other hand, are Joseph Brodsky and his team at Ninety Plus Coffee, a name synonymous with natural fermentation.
Ninety Plus is widely known not only for their processed coffee but also for their severe secrecy. No one knows what goes into Ninety Plus’s famed processes, but it’s evident from their consistent, unique output that they approach processing methodically and without the fear of creating a product totally unlike traditional coffee.
By combining mystery and intrigue with completely baffling coffees, Ninety Plus have captured the top buyers of the super-specialty market, recently selling a single kilo of their fabled Lot #2703A for $10,000. Despite the market response, not everyone is convinced that Ninety Plus is selling the new way forward. The prestigious Best of Panama competition rejected a Ninety Plus-processed submission because the fermentation totally masked the trademark Geisha flavors of jasmine, orange and lemongrass. In doing so, the establishment held a line of tradition against the progressives.
The night before Franz left the farm, the two of us sat down to discuss the potential future of processing and our opportunities for growth at Elida.
“You need one of those big plastic coolers they use for fish,” Franz imagined, “so the coffee bags never have to touch the ground.”
“Is there a way to sterilize the coffee before it goes into the tank?” I asked him.
“I’ve heard of some people using salt. You could do citric acid, too. But he’ll never do that,” Franz said of Wilford, Sr.
I feared he was right. Wilford, though willing to humor us for a week, remained unenthusiastic about our dreams of scientific coffee conquest. The investment of time and capital had not yet shown dividends. His senses of tradition and respect for the natural integrity of the coffee still stood unchallenged.
Franz nonetheless coached me on some “small steps” to take in his absence, to keep things moving—monitoring pH, experimenting with 2-pound microlots—as if the intern’s subtle encouragement could succeed where the guru had failed. But Franz recognized the solution to our problem, and the problem of all Panama coffee in general, in Carlos’s fermentation tanks in Volcán, tanks that held not only Geisha coffee and lab-grown yeast, but also the first and final judgment for the future of Elida Estate.
If those coffees—we haven’t tasted them yet—are an undeniable success, unique without being overpowering, Wilford will see their potential in an instant. They will allow us to explore the world of fermentation more deeply and more thoughtfully, to push through the unknown and hopefully, find the next wave of coffee production therein. If they’re bad, we’re stalled, and probably broken down, at square one.
Franz gave me the look of a man who had something to lose. “They have to be good. They have to.”
Rhew Deigl is a native of Orange and a 2020 graduate of Woodberry Forest School. He is writing from Elida Estate, a 160-acre specialty coffee farm on Volcán Barú, in the province Chiriqí, Panamá where he is learning about coffee from world-renowned producer Wilford Lamastus.