“It tastes exactly like a cinnamon bun. You have to try it.”
Coffees often don’t entirely live up to their description, but this was different — a coffee with an instantly recognisable flavour of warm, sweet, cinnamon, like nothing I’d tasted before. I had joined the small crowd queuing up to taste Stephen Houston’s 2017 World Brewer’s Cup coffee, and the general mood was astonishment — how could coffee get such a distinctive cinnamon flavour?
If you remember the first time you tasted a so-called anaerobic with this particular flavour as clearly as I do, perhaps you also remember coming to the same realisation: that cinnamon seems to be one of the generic flavours of anaerobically processed coffee, and that while delicious, that first experience wasn’t actually unique.
Cinnamon-tasting anaerobics appeared — and were successful — in the WBC and Brewer’s Cup multiple times over the last few years, raising the profile of this processing method. Just when it seemed that every roaster was offering a coffee with this profile, Dmitry Boroday, from Double B Coffee & Tea, created ripples in the industry by announcing that he could achieve exactly the same flavour at home, by soaking green beans in a bucket of water laced with cinnamon. Boroday is mildly allergic to cinnamon, and had been promoted to experiment with this, he said, after having a similar allergic reaction to a coffee. Cinnamon-tasting anaerobics were ‘#fakecoffee’, he claimed, nothing more than the result of throwing a few cinnamon sticks into the fermentation tank to boost the flavour.
What is fermentation boosting?
It turns out that adding extra ingredients, including cinnamon, to the fermentation tank has been an occasional practice for many years. “We haven’t seen or bought any coffee that was marketed as ‘cinnamon’, [but] we’ve seen some with tangerine fermentation, and other tropical fruits,” says Sofie Nys, who looks after quality control at the green coffee importer 32cup.
Adding additional ingredients can be a way to boost the flavour of less good coffees. “I know that Carmo Coffees in Brazil have been adding cinnamon to cheap beans to boost the price for years,” says Stuart Ritson, former Director of European Sales at Cafe Imports. These were sold as a novelty product though, rather than to the specialty market, he points out.
Left: fermentation tub, right: cinnamon sticks used as an additive.
More recently, the practice has been applied to speciality coffee too, with additives like kombucha, sugar cane, and yes, cinnamon, being added to produce specific profiles during fermentation. However, negative perceptions about using additives to flavour coffee mean the market for these is limited. “We experimented with cinnamon during the anaerobic fermentation processes performed at Pedra Branca Mill,” explains Hugo Silva from Carmo Coffees, a Brazilian coffee producer and exporter. “We have not continued such process due to the lack of demand.”
Is the cinnamon flavour achievable through processing alone?
The controversial question then, is whether that cinnamon flavour can be created purely by fermentation, or if all such coffees have simply had cinnamon added. Under pressure from historically low coffee prices, and with feverish demand for unique tasting coffees, the temptation to boost the flavour must be strong. Would a farmer use an additive in fermentation to boost the cup score, but not label it as such?
“I don’t think so,” says Ed Brown, from green importer Ally coffee. “People have been describing cinnamon as a characteristic in anaerobic coffee for a long time,” he points out.
Sofie Nys agrees: “From the samples we’ve cupped here from different origins and farms you could come to the conclusion that cinnamon is quite a universal flavor characteristic for a good anaerobic process.”
Ralf Rueller, owner of The Barn in Berlin, bought an anaerobic processed coffee recently with a distinctive cinnamon note, from Juanachute in Costa Rica. He spoke to the farmer directly, he says, and was assured that they didn’t use cinnamon in the process. They were reluctant to share much detail on how they achieved that flavour though, to avoid being copied by their competitors.
And what of Dmitry Boroday’s cinnamon-soaked coffee? We spoke to Vincenzo Bellone, who tasted the results of his tests at Coffee Roaster’s Guild Camp in Annecy earlier this year. “It was pretty obvious which ones were infused by Dmitry,” he says. While this doesn’t rule out his theory, it suggests that more direct evidence is needed before accusing farmers of adding cinnamon on the sly.
How does the industry perceive additives in fermentation?
Whatever the truth of #cinnamongate, it’s certainly true that some coffees are being processed with additives and openly marketed as such. At Barista Hustle, we’re fairly relaxed about this — as long as it’s transparent, anything that makes the coffee taste better is fine by us. However, many don’t see it this way. “Usually once a buyer finds out that fruit has been added, they lose interest in the lot pretty quickly,” says Brown. This contradiction lies at the heart of #cinnamongate: many roasters are willing to pay extremely high prices for cinnamon coffee — but only if they believe no cinnamon was used to make it.
Steve Leighton, owner of Has Bean, bought a cinnamon processed coffee for the UK Brewer’s cup last year but now regrets his choice. “It can detract from what the coffee is,” he says. “We want to taste the terroir, we want to taste the origin, we want to taste the coffee’s properties in the cup … I was quite pleased in a way that I didn’t take this coffee to [the world] competition.”
Steve Leighton shares his opinion on cinnamon used in fermentation.
Whether such coffees are appropriate for competition depends on the interpretation of WBC rule 3.1 C: “Coffee may not have any additives … added at any point between the time the coffee is picked (as cherry) to when it is extracted in to beverage. Substances utilized during growing, cultivation, and primary processing of the coffee are permitted” (emphasis added).
While competitors have used cinnamon-fermented coffees in the WBC despite this rule being in place, perhaps they should avoid doing so, suggests Andrew Tolley, WBC judge and founder of Taylor Street Baristas in London. “I think the rule is in place to keep the focus on specialty coffee. If new ingredients are added to the water to infuse the flavours we could end up with all sorts of artificial additives that could detract from the raw quality of the coffee and the expertise of the producer.”
And in a competition where many of the points available are for accurately describing the coffee, having such a prominent added flavour detracts from that, Leighton argues. “If you’ve got cinnamon sticks fermented with it — of course you’re going to taste cinnamon.”