The coffee industry is rife with commentary on raising coffee up to the level of wine, where the final product sells for hundreds of dollars and tiny plots of land are revered for their microclimates and soil characteristics. But few on the grower side are dabbling in the advanced science and experimentation that is commonplace in the wine industry. Enter Emilio Lopez, the beer brewer turned coffee grower from El Salvador who has been wowing North American roasters with his in-depth experiments for the last few years. Last week, Emilio visited Sustainable Harvest® in Portland, as part of our presentation series that introduces the most innovative coffee producers to the Portland roasting community.
Emilio explained the difference between the pacamara, yellow bourbon, and red bourbon varieties from his farm Finca el Manzano in El Salvador.
Emilio explained to us his drive for experimentation at the farm. Emilio believes that experimentation is useful for removing the “I hope” from coffee farming. In his mind, any risk factor that he can remove from the production equation gives him one fewer area for problems to arise. For example, determining and eliminating the root of over-fermentation defects means that there is one fewer quality risk in the supply chain. In addition to removing risk, Emilio has a natural curiosity for coffee experimentation and we were lucky to have him here to learn about and taste his latest coffees.
Processing Method Experiments
On day one, three cupping sessions were divided by arabica varietal. Emilio brought samples from one particular area on his farm, Finca el Manzano, where he planted different coffee varietals right next to one another and at the same time. The plot is called El Palmero, and the idea is to create a growing area where the only variable is variety. El Palmero contains two hectares each of pacamara, red bourbon, and yellow bourbon.
The purpose of these cuppings was to taste the influence that a processing method has on cup quality, as evidenced through four different methods: natural, pulped natural, machine washed (mucilage removed mechanically), and fully washed (mucilage removed by fermentation). We found similarities among the different varietals processed with the same method, and were impressed by how clean and sweet each of the coffees was. Emilio proudly told us that yellow bourbon natural was the coffee used by Daniel Méndez in his winning presentation in the 2012 El Salvador national barista competition.
Beans in the glass on the left had the enzyme applied to them. The right glass was the control. After an hour, there was barely any mucilage left on the enzyme-treated beans.
Two elements are infamously scarce at many of the world’s coffee farms: water and flat space for drying. In El Salvador, the second half of the coffee harvest is during the dry season, and yet washed coffees are the norm. Emilio told us he has to pay for trucks to come up to his farm, loaded with water to use for processing. So he was especially interested when he discovered he could add wine enzymes to depulped coffee and it would strip off the mucilage without using any water. The enzymes that Emilio tested are pectinase blends that came from the wine industry, where they were developed to break down the cell walls of unripe grapes to neutralize any potential herby taste and to clear the wine of any cloudiness from lingering pectin.
When Emilio applied the enzymes to depulped coffee, they broke down the mucilage layer in about two hours, compared to an average 12 hours in unassisted fermentation. When we cupped the different enzyme-processed coffees next to a control sample, there were marked differences. The enzyme coffees were really bright and somewhat thin, while the control was sweeter and had a bigger body. I asked Emilio if he sees a potential to use enzymes on his coffees to save water and time during the harvest season. He’s going to keep experimenting and tasting to see if he can improve cup quality with the enzyme fermentation. The potential for applying more advanced techniques to coffee processing is great and I’m excited to see what Emilio will explore next.