Infused coffees will find a longer term home in emerging markets

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  • Infused coffees took specialty coffee by storm, but has the trend run its course?
  • Market data analyses reveal that high-scoring coffee varietals have the greatest impact on price, while processing methods have the least
  • Demand however remains strong for infused coffees, led by emerging markets like Asia and the Middle East 

IN 2015, whispers of new “infusion” processing methods echoed across the specialty coffee industry. The hook? They satiated the sector’s never-ending quest for the next best thing and could potentially raise cupping scores to boot.  

Since then, coffee has been infused in many ways: through artificial flavouring and essential oils, barrel-aging, co-fermentation with fruit and spices, and adding unusual ingredients like resveratrol, CBD, and paraxanthine. But has the trend run its course?

Coffee professionals are divided on their definitions of infused coffee categories. The methods are vastly different and can be implemented on the farm, after roasting, or anywhere in between. The lack of definition and transparency about how coffee is flavoured recently caused so much tension in the specialty scene that many competitions started banning certain infusion techniques

The trend was actually kickstarted by producers – starting with Costa Rica, and then picked up by Colombian producers who spearheaded experimental co-fermentation and culturing methods. Today, producers continue to drive the trend in response to increased consumer demand and roasters seeking specific flavour profiles.

Funky flavours became a way to craft unique sensory profiles, and to potentially increase cupping scores – but they can’t hide inherently bad coffee bean attributes. 

“Producing excellent experimentally processed coffee requires ripe coffee cherries with good brix and a dense seed to withstand such strong fermentation,” says Vicente Mejia, Founder and CEO of Clearpath Coffee

“The bean doesn’t require very nuanced terroir or genetics, but it does need good basic characteristics – good acidity, sweetness, and body. Coffees that score around 83 when wash-processed can be elevated a few points with co-fermentation or culturing.” 

However, trying to save bad batches of coffee using experimental processing methods is a risky game for producers, because of the high cost of adding fruit, yeasts, fermentation tanks, and extra labour. 

Does this producer-led market trend still serve them?

Apart from the risks of failure, experimental processing is a capital and labour-intensive endeavour that produces relatively low volume. Producers need access to the right infrastructure and time to tightly monitor and control fermentation variables. 

Experimentation with new recipes also inevitably entails sacrificing cherries. Producers hopping on the infusion train need advanced fermentation knowledge and a high financial risk tolerance.

It does have its advantages though. “Co-fermented and cultured coffee fetch almost twice the price of washed or natural coffee for producers,” says Vicente. 

Infused coffee has additional potential benefits. It can up the score of coffee varietals that usually score lower on the specialty end, but are more pest or climate-resistant than other high-scoring yet delicate varietals. Producers can also intercrop fruit, herbs, and other ingredients for co-fermentation, offering ecological and economic benefits for their farms.

While these novel coffees currently fetch high prices, time will tell whether experimental processing is a good long-term investment. 

“Chasing novelty is a dangerous game with a heavy investment and a really high risk,” says David Paparelli, co-founder and CEO of M-Cultivo, “There’s no guarantee that what you create today will be in demand tomorrow. I remain wary of the ‘early adopter’ buyers who sacrifice loyalty to producers in their hunt for the next fad.”

“M-Cultivo analysed market data to assess the variables producers can tweak at origin to increase their earnings, and found that high-scoring coffee varietals have the greatest impact on price, while processing methods generally have the least.”

Demand for coveted experimental flavours tends to wane and attention settles back toward varietal and terroir over time. 

David recommends that producers try experimental processing only as a marketing investment, and with long-term commitments from buyers to back it up. However, this may be tricky if the coffee industry decides to move onto the next best thing. 

Infused coffees may last longer in emerging markets

Early adopters of the infusion trend were primarily the Middle East, China, South Korea, and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan and Japan. 

“I think the infusion fad in the Middle East has to do with its consumer demand for low volumes of ultra-novelty coffee, and at the same time to high volumes of lower-quality coffee,’ says David. 

Today, markets like Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Malaysia are showing the most interest

In Japan for example, “coffbucha”, a traditional blend of Asian kombucha and coffee, has become popular. The flavours that fermentation processes create tend to appeal to Asian consumers and those who find conventional coffee too bitter.

Whereas Chinese and South Korean coffee drinkers are more likely to trade some balance and cleanliness for fermented notes, many North Americans consider those experimental flavours to be over-fermented and sour, and tend to be more value-oriented when shopping for coffee. 

“Europe and the U.S. have been rapidly expanding markets for experimentally processed coffee since 2023,” says Vicente. 

While buyers might only buy small volumes of these coffees, the demand remains in other ways. Some brands are adding small amounts of infused coffees to their blends in efforts to spruce up their flavour profiles at a lower cost and satisfy customer demand at the same time.

“The infusion market is the Wild West,” says David. “With its opacity coupled with a lack of cost and quality standards discernible for consumers, it remains to be seen if they continue to judge experimental coffees as worth the price.”

A method that allows producers to play with flavours, potentially increase the cupping score, meet consumer demand for new explosive tastes and make more money seems ideal. That is, if the coffee and the economic conditions are good in the first place.

However, one factor to bet on is that the specialty coffee industry moves on to the next trend fast. It appears that infused coffees may no longer be “flavour of the month” in many so-called traditional consumer markets.

But markets like Asia and the Middle East appear to have a more permanent weakness for them. As they pick up speed, this could mean that infused coffees have a longer term future in those emerging markets.

Coffee Intelligence

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