An interview with Jamison Savage from Finca Deborah
Some of the finest coffee on the planet grows around the foothills of the enormous The Volcán Barú (also known as Volcán de Chiriquí) in Panama — 3,475 metres (11,401 ft) high. And of the many outstanding farms on the side of this famous mountain, one of the most loved is Finca Deborah.
Finca Deborah is an extremely high altitude farm with coffees growing at 1950 m and they were one of the first farms to adopt this method of processing. In 2016 Berg Wu used Finca Deborah’s washed Geisha to win the World Barista Championship in Dublin, Ireland. Here is an incredible list of competitors who have used this coffee in national and World Coffee Events finals. We were lucky enough to interview Jamison Savage as part of our mission to understand how carbonic maceration works with coffee.
BH – Can you tell us the story of how you became interested in processing the coffee from Finca Deborah with carbonic maceration (CM)?
JS – It was during a visit in 2016 with friend and colleague Sasa Sestic from Ona Coffee, Australia. We had just completed a late night cupping and I’d asked in passing, “What’s this carbonic maceration process you won WBC with? How does that work?” He then shared the general concept with me and I let it simmer for a few weeks. I’m a curious soul, so I started digging around the internet and kept coming across references to the wine industry. From there I felt compelled enough to give it a go and began ordering what I thought made sense to conduct the initial experiments. When the hardware arrived intuition and retrofitting began. The initial experiments were rudimentary compared to what I’m doing now, but it was enough. As I progressed the following year, with a multitude of experiments, it became evident this process had legs and lots of room for growth. Controlled repeatability and consistency are the hallmarks of this process when executed with the proper discipline and formulas.
BH – In winemaking, producers seem to think that certain grape varieties, such as grenache, suit the method more than others. Do you think some coffee varieties work better with the CM method than others?
JS – I’ve found the CM process works well with about any variety. Interestingly, whatever is inherent in the grain will be magnified through this process. So, for example, if you’re starting with a coffee known to be a highly floral, fruity coffee, as in the case of Geisha (If grown in proper terroir) those qualities will be magnified. So, essentially, whatever your starting with will be amplified, for better or worse.
BH – How important is it to be able to control the temperature during CM? Have you found a particular temperature that you think works better and can you tell us a bit about the equipment you use for this purpose?
JS – Maintaining consistent tank temperature, internal and ambient, is very important as well as keeping PH levels within a determined curve. This process is technical and consistency in the final product will depend on the accuracy of the formulas. I say formulas because over the years I’ve dialed in many formulas that create radically different results ranging from higher/lower aromatics, levels of acidity, body, etc. This comes from more than 5 years experience working with this process and there is still plenty of room for further variations.
BH – Our research suggests that yeast and bacteria populations are more numerous on cherries/parchment that have not been in contact with water before the start of fermentation. Does it make a difference to the CM process if the cherries have been cleaned or floated before the CM process begins?
JS – Absolutely, and I would add one would garner various results depending on the water quality and composition as well. An example would be an aggressive water, that is water with lower TDS and pH. This water will strip flavour as the water is looking to bind to something. I’d recommend a quick rinse for coffees having soils or other possible contaminants, otherwise, I do not recommend soaking or floating. A quick note on floaters; machines are very advanced now. At times a healthy grain can still remain in a floating cherry. Typically, floaters are discarded and in doing this one risks losing a perfectly viable grain then add the labor and it becomes an expensive undertaking.
BH – Is there a limit to how much cherry you can process in a single tank? (We have read that with wine you cannot pile too many grapes on top of each other or else too many of the skins burst.)
JS – Yes, size matters! I’ve learned there is a limit to tank size when it comes to consistency of the product. From my experience, to achieve consistency in the process, and to limit the risks of a bad outcome, tanks under 100 gallons are optimal. This may dovetail into your question about the volume of cherries negatively affecting the final outcome. The answer is affirmative.
BH – Does juice come out of the cherries during this process or do they most remain intact?
JS – Yes, a fair amount of juice does fill the tank towards the end of the process. I would imagine as the cherries continue through the fermentation process and the fruit’s cells decompose an inevitable consequence is a “juicing” effect. Of course, I’ve tasted this juice with several varieties and it’s delicious, each different according to their variety and formula. No, I would say most cherries have opened up particularly those on the bottom largely due to the weight of cherries on top.
BH – How do you know when it is time to stop the fermentation?
JS – When one has a crash in pH or when one reaches a certain pH level specified in the formula. A crash can occur when a tank hasn’t been sealed properly, infusion hasn’t been properly adhered to, an increase in ambient temperature, or for reasons unknown, all of which I’ve experienced.
BH – Is the coffee dried usually as whole cherries?
JS – I dry my coffees both naturally and washed. I don’t dry the coffee as a semi-washed [pulped natural] as the results are undesirable. My experience is when dried as a semi-washed the coffee reveals a bitter result. What is left on the grain is no longer fruit as the yeasts have consumed the vast majority of the sugars, leaving a sour, bitter residue that must be rinsed as in the case of a washed CM.
BH – Have you experimented with pulping or soaking after the CM process is complete?
JS – As mentioned, I’ve found soaking the coffees to be counterproductive in several ways. (Our water has a very low TDS, 35. It’s beautiful water, but very aggressive)
BH – We know quite a few producers have started doing bag or tub fermentations which are very similar to the semi-carbonic maceration process used in wine where no additional CO2 is added to the tank. What is your opinion of this technique with coffee?
JS – I think it’s an excellent way to participate in this coffee processing revolution, particularly if one is on a limited budget, in a remote area, or simply wants to experiment for fun. Coffee cherries begin to ferment the second they are extracted from their tree. Through this fermentation process CO2 is emitted or released. Simply add coffee cherries to a plastic bag, seal it hermetically, and off you go. Depending on headspace, bag size, ambient temps, duration, etc., these factors will all play critical roles in one’s success. Through trial and error one can dial in what’s best, but it takes time and discipline to truly ascertain what works best. Don’t forget to take copious notes during and after the experiments.
BH – CM wines are usually less tannic/astringent than wines that have undergone conventional maceration. Have you found anything similar to be the case with CM coffees?
JS – I’ve found the CM process allows me to dial in aromatics and acidity, with precision.
It’s two of the primary reasons I have focused on this process, in earnest, over the last 5 years. Yes, the CM process can “polish” the coffees in the sense that they can be more elegant in the cup, reducing bitterness and astringency.
As someone once told me, “CM is to coffee what digital is to music.”
BH – What do you think about the claims some people make that fully washed coffees reveal the terroir of a coffee more clearly than naturals or other experimental processes like carbonic maceration?
JS – Great question. My answer is a definitive, yes. Washed coffees, when processed correctly, reveal a plantation’s terroir and a producer’s talent, like nothing else can. They are a lucid reflection of everything that matters.