Experimental Fermentation in Specialty Coffee

This article was adapted from a thread on X, which was in response to the article titled “Have coffee flavour profiles become too “funky”?” by Thomas Wensma.

In specialty coffee, the surge of experimental fermentation processes has sparked both fascination and controversy. Coffee enthusiasts are increasingly encountering flavors in their cups that might be more at home in a jar of kimchi or a bottle of kombucha than in a coffee pot. How does this shift impact the identity of a given coffee, particularly when it comes to beans that claim a specific geographical origin?

Traditional vs. Experimental: What’s in a Flavor?

Costa Rica has a strong tradition of coffee production and coffee consumption. A large portion of the coffee produced by Costa Rica is consumed by Costa Ricans—a rare thing for most producing countries. The coffee industry there is also highly regulated by the government. For example, coffee growers are required to grow only arabica coffee as opposed to robusta, which is generally of lower quality flavor (this is slowly changing).

This strong coffee culture results in disciplined coffee production and processing, which in-turn produces a clean and predictable flavor profile. This predictable profile is so integral that it has almost become a hallmark of Costa Rican coffee. However, when mills in Costa Rica—or anywhere else—begin using experimental fermentation methods or commercial microbes that radically alter the flavor profile, it begs the question: Can these coffees still be considered true to their origins?

This is not just a theoretical debate but touches on the very practical aspects of how coffee is marketed and understood by consumers. If a Costa Rican coffee loses its typical flavor profile due to experimental processing, does it lose its identity—and thus its marketability—as Costa Rican coffee?

The Role of Tastemakers in Coffee Innovation

The push for innovation in coffee processing is essential for the industry’s growth, but it brings with it a host of challenges. Producers and processors that experiment with what are essentially new products must understand and accept the risk involved with not finding a market for the new product. Processors (mills) that are already struggling to market and sell industry-accepted coffees such as washed-process or natural-process, will likely find it even more difficult to market experimentals. But tastemakers can help.

Tastemakers in the industry play a crucial role in steering consumer preferences. Tastemakers include the well-established, specialty coffee companies that have the ability to bring to market radically new coffees and introduce them to an established customer-base that is receptive to new things. But there is risk involved, even for tastemakers. They need to find a flavor profile that is acceptable to a broad enough customer-base that it is economically viable. If the flavor profile is too radical, customers may not buy it repeatedly. If the coffee is too difficult to describe and market, customers may not try it at all. In both cases, the market essentially does not recognize the quality of the product as the tastemakers do.

As experimentation becomes more common, the industry must navigate these changes carefully to ensure that innovation does not compromise the inherent qualities of the coffee.

See also: In Defense of Tastemakers

Balancing Innovation with Tradition

The debate over experimental fermentation in coffee also highlights the risks involved, particularly for smallholders. As quoted in a recent article on Perfect Daily Grind, Ildi Revi of Purity Coffee remarks, “You can dive down a rabbit hole of flavour exceptionality, but it can be too easy to lose sight of the nuts and bolts of your business”.(Wensma, 2024) This comment underscores the need for producers to weigh the benefits of innovation against the potential costs, ensuring that any new methods enhance rather than detract from their business.

For coffee producers, the goal should be to maintain optionality. Experimentation needs to be manageable and should not overwhelm the basic needs of the business. In this way, innovation can proceed without jeopardizing the livelihood of the producer.

See also: Producer’s Optionality


As the coffee industry continues to evolve, the interplay between traditional processing methods and innovative techniques will undoubtedly continue to provoke discussion and debate. For coffee lovers and producers alike, finding a balance that respects the heritage of the coffee while embracing the possibilities of innovation will be key to the future of coffee.

This exploration into the changing flavor profiles in coffee due to experimental fermentation processes shows just how dynamic the coffee industry can be. As we venture into these new tasting territories, the community must remain thoughtful about preserving the integrity and heritage of traditional coffee flavors while embracing the new and unusual.

  1. Wensma, T. (2024). Have coffee flavour profiles become too “funky”? https://perfectdailygrind.com/2024/05/funky-coffee-flavour-profiles/

Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.