Why infused coffees still divide the industry

infused versus terroir coffee debate
  • Expo and WoC events this year were underscored by an ongoing debate of “terroir” vs “infused” coffees
  • The most recent Best of Panama competition disqualified “infused” coffee entries
  • While infused coffees can level the playing field for lower-scoring lots, some consider it unfair

WORLD of Coffee this year saw participants largely split into two camps – team “infused” and team “terroir.” Quite a few “no infused coffee” stickers and t-shirts were spotted. Meanwhile, at the cupping tables, the preference for one or the other was strongly felt.

The specialty coffee industry finds itself at a crossroads as a contentious debate rages on between proponents of “terroir” coffees and advocates for infused or co-fermented varieties

This divide has fuelled discussions around authenticity, flavour manipulation, and market competitiveness, leading to contrasting perspectives within the industry.

The latest prestigious Best of Panama competition is a strong case in point, where infused coffees were notably excluded from the entries. Organisers cited a desire to maintain the integrity of a competition focused on showcasing the distinct characteristics of coffee origins without external flavour influences. 

This decision sparked mixed reactions within the industry, with some applauding the emphasis on “purity” and “terroir” expression, while others lamented the limited scope of recognition for innovative and experimental coffee techniques.

“When a group of people run their own organisation and make their own rules, they can include or exclude whatever they want,” says Karl Wienhold, Researcher Phd Candidate at the University of Lisbon.

“Those who don’t agree with how decisions are made or support the exclusion can stop engaging with the organisation. It’s not like infused coffees were made illegal. I say if you like them, or sell them to people that like them, who cares if a contest disqualifies them?”

Some say infused coffees are a welcome innovation and experimentation that yield exciting and explosive flavours, but others maintain that it is one extra processing step that makes coffees taste synthetic. The factor of older specialty coffee generations versus younger groups with new taste preferences and more curiosity for experimentation also comes into play.

Panama has a vested interest in protecting their terroir, they don’t want to lose their value as a premium origin. However, fruit infused or co-fermented coffees can help coffee farmers from less premium origins command higher prices for their coffee.

On one hand this levels the playing field for them, but on the other some argue that it is cheating – an easy way to score more points and win the market.

“I find it ironic that in a free-ish market that has generally punished smallholder farmers for a generation, as soon as some people find a way to get an edge that threatens the traditionally dominant players, they pull out all the stops to discredit it,’ says Karl. 

“If someone wants to squirt strawberry syrup into a pourover of washed gesha they paid for, no one will stop them. If they want to squirt it into a fermentation tank, that’s cheating?”

Value addition and market transparency

Infused or co-fermented coffees go one step further in processing – and it is unclear whether this constitutes value addition or not.

“In my opinion, infused coffee is a derivative product of coffee itself,” says Alberto Berchmans Perangin Angin, General Manager of Opal Coffee Indonesia

“However, it causes difficulties in categorising them as products, commodities (raw material or roasted bean), or processed products. Infused coffee can elevate the value of coffee, but it also affects the coffee bean’s originality and authenticity.”

One major point of contention surrounding infused coffees pertains to transparency, particularly regarding the methods used to create these unique flavour profiles. 

Critics argue that the co-fermentation of coffee with other substances in tanks or the addition of artificial flavours could pose health risks and undermine the natural essence of the coffee bean. 

Calls for market transparency and consumer accountability have been raised to ensure that information regarding the production process and ingredients used in infused coffees is readily available to buyers and consumers.

“There is a current trend in which producers allow food to ferment alongside coffee beans, resulting in the coffee absorbing flavours from the fermenting food,” says Miguel Hoyos Uribe, CEO and Founder of Flor a Fruto in Colombia.

“While this practice can create distinct flavour profiles, it can be a wasteful practice and requires full transparency from producers engaging in fruit cultivar fermentation processes. When customers are fully informed about the methods used, they can make an educated decision on whether to purchase such products.”

The market value implications of infused coffees have stirred debate within the industry, ever since “Cinnamongate” for example. While the manipulation of flavours through infusion or co-fermentation can enhance the taste profile, quality, and market competitiveness of a coffee, it also raises questions of fairness and equity. 

Some argue that the rising demand for infused coffees may overshadow traditional “terroir” or “heritage”-driven varieties in the market, creating competition that could potentially undervalue or marginalise premium single-origin coffees.

“Using the concept of ‘heritage’ hits my ear as a unique claim to authenticity based on generational wealth and the authority to decide what real specialty coffee is and is not, regardless of what consumers prefer,” says Karl.

“Coffee processing, food preparation and tastes have always evolved. Most markets have been dramatically liberalised over the last 30 years. Whether good or bad, it does allow for product innovation and customisation to meet any taste and sell for any price.”

Missing the forest for the trees – are there more pressing debates?

The ongoing discourse surrounding terroir versus infused coffees raises the broader question of whether there aren’t more pressing issues facing the coffee sector today. 

While the debate over flavour manipulation and market dynamics is important, there are more urgent matters that demand industry focus, such as sustainability, climate resilience, supply chain transparency, and farmer livelihoods.

Focusing excessively on the “terroir-infusion” debate risks overshadowing critical issues that affect the entire coffee value chain. 

“Not letting infused coffees into your private clubhouse because it kills the vibe you like is one thing, but creating a whole campaign against them seems kind of petty,” says Karl.

Embracing a holistic approach to industry challenges, which includes promoting sustainable practices, supporting coffee producers, ensuring ethical sourcing, and enhancing industry resilience against climate change, is vital to the long-term viability and prosperity of the specialty coffee sector.

“In the same coffee industry, the livelihoods and safety of millions of people and a significant portion of the earth’s land and water are already jeopardised.” says Karl.

“Almost half of the world’s coffee farmers are in poverty. And here we are, arguing over whether mixing stuff with coffee to make it taste different is good or not. Memes are the only way I can deal with the absurdity.”

For Miguel, another pressing issue that deserves more focus than whether or not an infused coffee is “pure” and worth its price is that of labour.

“The ‘generational shift’ is not helping growers to remain in agriculture,” says Miguel. “People prefer to be Instagram influencers, YouTubers, or engage in any other activity rather than something that is hard work and poorly paid.”

While the debate between terroir and infused coffees continues to spark dialogue within the specialty coffee industry, it is necessary to consider both sides of the coin from different perspectives.

As the world grapples with increasingly urgent matters, and the coffee industry moves rapidly towards a tipping point, it’s also important to ask whether “team infused, or terroir?” is the right question to be asking right now.

Coffee Intelligence

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