It is difficult to grow high-quality coffee. It takes a lot of devotion from the maker, and there are a lot of elements that determine the end product’s cup quality.
Cherry ripeness is one of these many variables. It is widely acknowledged in the industry that completely ripe cherries create higher-scoring coffees.
But what if we could get more flavour out of immature coffee cherries? What does this mean for customers? What would it taste like, and would it have any other advantages?
I met with stakeholders from various parts of the coffee supply chain to understand more. Continue reading to find out what they told me.
Cherry ripeness and cup quality
Lucas Venturim is the director of Fazenda Venturim in Espirito Santo, Brazil, and an award-winning speciality coffee grower. Fazenda Venturim cultivates high-quality or “fine” robusta that has been cultivated and processed to produce desirable flavour qualities.
Unripe cherries, on the other hand, yield cup profiles that aren’t as sweet and complex, according to Lucas.
“When the fruit isn’t totally ripe yet,” he continues, “it hasn’t developed all the sugars it could.” “The fragrances and flavours do not reach their full potential since it has not transformed all of its energy into sugars.”
Despite this, as previously said, it is not always easy for growers to harvest every single cherry at peak ripeness.
“We never seem to be able to harvest all of the fruits at the optimal maturation period,” he explains. “Instead, you have a window known as the ‘harvest window.'”
“Even if you give yourself 100 percent to choosing all the cherries at the perfect stage, some fruits will still be selected before or after the perfect point.”
Professor Flávio Borém has been teaching at Minas Gerais’ Federal University of Lavras (UFLA) for about 25 years. He is regarded as a coffee science expert both nationally and globally.
“The amount of ripe and unripe grapes at harvest is directly related to final cup quality,” he explains. “As the percentage of unripe fruits increases, so does the astringency; the presence of disagreeable flavours (such as herbaceous and peanutty overtones) also increases.”
Health benefits of coffee consumption
There is little doubt that customer demand for higher-quality food and beverage items has increased in recent years. According to a YouGov America survey, 80 percent of millennials in the United States consider quality when purchasing food and beverages.
While this shift can be ascribed to a variety of variables, health and happiness are arguably at the top of the list. According to Mintel, 78 percent of US consumers believe that consuming healthy food helps them feel better emotionally.
This trend isn’t restricted to the United States; it’s getting more prevalent all across the world. UNICAFE Inc., a Japanese coffee roaster, employs Isao Takahashi as the General Manager of the CM Department Raw Procurement Division.
“Lifestyle-related diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are deeply tied to the causes of death among Japanese people,” he says, “and we believe that prevention of lifestyle-related diseases is a very significant issue in light of the expanding older population.”
Isao also mentions that coffee is becoming more popular as a healthy beverage. “Many studies have demonstrated that drinking coffee helps to prevent certain lifestyle-related ailments,” he says. “As a result, we’ve been concentrating on the [function of] polyphenols found in coffee.”
“The good health effects of coffee are often attributed to its strong antioxidant activity, which is primarily associated with its high quantities of polyphenols,” says Professor Borém.
Chlorogenic acid, which occurs naturally in coffee, is one example of these polyphenols. At high concentrations, chlorogenic acid produces unpleasant, very astringent flavours in the cup. It has, however, been linked to a number of major health benefits.
To begin with, chlorogenic acid is an antioxidant. Antioxidants keep cells from oxidising, which reduces free radical formation. Free radicals (unpaired and unstable atoms) that are allowed to “roam” the human body have been linked to a variety of long-term disorders, including arthritis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Furthermore, chlorogenic acid is a natural anti-inflammatory and has been found to inhibit the hepatitis B virus.
What about unripe cherries?
Despite the terrible flavours that unripe coffee cherries often generate, they are safe to consume and, in some cases, even healthier than ripe cherries.
“Even though the beans from young cherries have been labelled as faulty for decades, they are healthy and pose no health risk,” explains Professor Borém.
“This is in contrast to beans that have been harmed by pests or illnesses, which can result in lower cup quality and pose health hazards to the customer.”
“Coffee beans from immature fruits have a bigger number of active antioxidant chemicals than those from mature fruits,” he adds.
A cutting-edge nutraceutical coffee project
Matthias Koenig is the Head of Agri Value Chain Specialties Businesses of Syngenta, a global agricultural supplier. The Syngenta group operates the Nucoffee coffee platform in Brazil.
Matthias explains that Nucoffee launched a research with partners from across the industry to investigate the possibilities of immature coffee cherries.
“The objective has always been to connect Brazilian coffee producers and international customers in order to improve the value chain, increase transparency, and encourage the development of quality and sustainability on farms,” he explains.
“Because chlorogenic acid tends to decrease after roasting, we questioned if it was possible to make green coffee beans [that were] rich in chlorogenic acid in coffee producing areas like Brazil, which was our theme at the moment,” Isao continues.
Matthias claims that after five years of research, the study has produced a new, experimental post-harvest technique that can improve the quality and complexity of beans picked from immature coffee cherries. Professor Borém came up with the idea for the research, and he developed the technology that underpins the technique.
Syngenta has invested in this research not only to improve the final product’s value and quality, but also to help farmers. There is typically only a limited window during which coffee cherries can be collected at their ripest, and having pickers monitor the same locations repeatedly is neither possible nor cost-effective.
The project’s concept is straightforward. Unripe coffee beans are more astringent by nature, but they are also higher in antioxidants. You can use unripe cherries to generate a coffee that is more marketable to health-conscious consumers by leveraging this unique technological breakthrough to counteract the astringency and create a more appealing cup profile.
While the approach was initially utilised with a 70 percent ripe to 30 percent unripe cherry ratio, it has subsequently been refined. It is now possible to obtain good results with a full batch of 100% unripe coffee cherries using this unique technology.
“The post-harvest technique developed at UFLA and licenced to Syngenta Nucoffee was able to enhance the cup score of the treated coffee by up to five points,” Professor Borém continues.
“Research has shown that this makes the cup sweeter, somewhat acidic, and adds more nuanced flavours, frequently of fruits or spices.”
Lucas Venturim, who participated to the research by conducting experiments on his farm, was astonished by the findings. “We made an outstanding improvement in quality,” he says.
“We utilised an untreated coffee as a control group in the first experiment, and it scored 78 points.” The treated coffee, on the other hand, received a score of 85 to 86. It’s a massive increase.
“But what’s truly interesting is that it produced a sensory profile that was unlike anything we’d ever encountered on the farm.”
“The high antioxidant activity of immature coffee cherries has been known for a long time,” Matthias explains, “but the ability to manipulate the sensory profile of these coffees is unique.”
“While we are still carefully considering the superiority of the high chlorogenic acid levels,” Isao concludes, “the quality of nutraceutical coffee was high because of the distinctive, bright acidity, sweetness, clean taste, and pleasant finish, which reminded us of the quality of specialty coffee.”
What does this mean for the supply chain?
According to Lucas, this strategy might be extremely beneficial to producers because it is nearly impossible to collect every single cherry at its ripest moment.
“The aim is not to encourage anyone to pick immature cherries using this procedure,” he explains, “but rather to take use of the inevitable proportion of unripe cherries and therefore gain more value out of them.”
“Then, if the farm’s average income rises, it will be better positioned to make investments and compensate those who work on it.” I believe it is revolutionary for this reason: you start with a product that had previously been undervalued in the market and realise you can turn it into a new product with a really high value.”
According to Matthias, the evidence is there. “We’ve seen the reactions of potential purchasers and other value chain partners, and the feedback has been extremely exciting,” he says.
“There are various ways to employ this approach to make coffee healthier and more sustainable, while also establishing new market segments for Brazilian coffee.”
“This is certainly an innovation,” Isao adds. The coffee’s worth will rise, and if immature coffee cherries can [increase in value], we should expect beneficial impacts such as improved producer quality of life, increased drive to grow coffee, and ongoing quality improvement.”
“I consider the most important feature of this research to be the challenge of an old paradigm that most people did not feel was achievable,” Professor Borém said of the study.
“It is now possible to investigate both the health benefits and the quality of coffee.”
Coffee manufacturers face numerous obstacles in order to sustain profitability. One of them is the issue of what to do with unripe cherries, as every green cherry collected traditionally signifies lost potential cash.
However, a world in which immature coffee cherries produce higher-quality, more marketable coffee might be far more sustainable for the grower while also benefiting others in the supply chain.