Braden Mosley Processing Native Root Craft Coffee on the Liz family farm

Probiotic coffee? How fermentation affects taste, health, and the farmers

When I was in Colombia visiting our farms, I tried a coffee that had been fermented for 600 hours. It had a bit of a vinegar smell to it. After it was masterfully brewed by one of the baristas at Coffeestylers in Bogota, Colombia, it tasted unlike any coffee I had ever tried before. The only thing I could compare it to was kombucha, the fermented drink that recently exploded in popularity. I could distinctly taste the fermentation, and I loved it! It has a sharp, almost salty, vinegary taste.

As a guy who loves strong flavors, I wanted to learn more! I had heard a bunch of buzzwords in health realms, like probiotics, microbiome, and gut health — and I knew they were related somehow to fermentation. I also knew a few of our coffees at Native Root ferment for 70-80 hours.

So, I set out to learn exactly how this process impacts the farmer and the consumer. Are there extra health benefits to fermented coffee? Is probiotic coffee a thing? How do farmers actually ferment the coffee? Is it worth it?

Braden Mosley and Ben Hermann making coffee at Coffeestylers in Bogota Colombia
Braden Mosley and Ben Hermann preparing coffee at CoffeeStylers in Bogota Colombia with Dubas.

What is fermentation?

First, let's lay a little bit of groundwork for the rest of this post and answer 2 important questions; (1) what is fermentation, and (2) how does it happen?
Since I'm not in high school anymore and don't have to worry about being graded on my sources, I looked up fermentation on Wikipedia, and it says: "fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms".
The process of fermentation is, of course, involved in the making of beer, wine, and liquor. In these cases, sugars are converted to ethyl alcohol. Fermentation has also been driving a recent "gut health" movement in American health. Many studies have shown, according to healthline.com, that: "Fermentation promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics. Probiotics have been shown to improve immune function as well as digestive and heart health."

These live bacteria and yeasts supposedly regulate your microbiome. Your microbiome is all the bacteria, fungi, and other strange little organisms in your body that help you maintain proper bodily functions. The clearest benefit of probiotics is improvement of your digestive health, which houses an estimated 100 trillion bacteria. Just imagine an entire UNIVERSE of organisms living in your gut!!!


Probiotics

Probiotics can help increase the number of "good" bacteria and decrease the amount of "bad" bacteria that may cause health issues like irritable bowel syndrome, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. According to healthline.com, gut health has also been correlation to mood. "One study followed 70 chemical workers for 6 weeks. Those who consumed 100 grams of probiotic yogurt per day or took a daily probiotic capsule experienced benefits for general health, depression, anxiety, and stress." A few other benefits include heart health, skin health — like reducing acne and eczema — and a decrease in bloating.

So, what have we learned so far about fermentation?
  1. It promotes the growth of probiotics
  2. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can regulate your microbiome
  3. Your microbiome affects many aspects of health, including digestion, skin, and mood.

Fermented coffee process

Now that we have a good idea of what fermentation does, how do we ferment coffee?

First, I'm going to blaze through some of the basics in coffee production. Coffee starts as a cherry that grows on trees. These cherries are picked (our farmers carefully pick them by hand to made sure they do not damage the tree), and once you have bins of cherries, you will either begin a "wet" or "dry" process.

A wet process is where you use water to remove the cherry pulp and layers outside the beans before they are laid out to dry. This usually makes a clean, crisp cup. A dry process is where you will allow the beans to dry with the cherry still intact. This process is typical with African coffee and usually makes a fruitier cup with more body or viscosity.

This is when the fermentation will occur during the processing. Some natural fermentation occurs during wet processing as the water soaks the beans. However, if we want to take this a step further, we can use anaerobic fermentation.

Anaerobic means "without oxygen," so we must place the beans in an environment where they will not be in contact with the air. To do this, people put the beans in large vats full of either water or carbon dioxide. Our farmers use water because that's the equipment most available to them.

Over time, as the beans are deprived of oxygen, they will begin to ferment and form probiotics inside and out. Once the beans have been fermented for a period of time, they are laid out on drying beds where they will finish fermenting and dry out.

Braden Mosley and Ben Hermann picking coffee cherries in the togoima reservation Colombia Nasa indigenous land
Braden Mosley and Ben Hermann picking coffee cherries at the Liz family farm in the Togoima Reservation in Colombia

How does this affect you, the coffee lover?

So, now that we know about fermenting, probiotics, and the process behind fermenting coffee, how does this affect you as a coffee lover and the farmers who work hard to make such an amazing product. As the consumer, you care about taste and health benefits. Surprisingly, these two are also strongly linked, and here's why.


Taste

With a truly tasty coffee, you don't need to load the drink with syrups, sugars, and creamers. Many of our customers wonder why we don't have these items at sampling events, but they come to find out (much to their surprise) that they don't need it.

If you usually use cream or sugar, I guarantee there is coffee out there that you will like without it. I used to HATE coffee. I used to put cream and sugar in all of it. Then, I met our founder Ervin and tried specialty coffee for the first time. It was incredibly smooth, it didn't bite my tongue, and I could taste distinct flavor notes!

Then, when I went down to Colombia, I met some of the best roasters and baristas on Earth, and I quickly realized there is an entire world of preparation methods and processing strategies that can provide smooth, tasty coffee. Fermentation is one of those methods. It can smooth out the taste, reduce acidity, and bring out unique flavors that you may not get otherwise.

Maybe it's obvious, but pure coffee is healthier than coffee loaded with cream and sugar.

health benefits of Pure coffee vs Starbucks coffee loaded with sugar


Are there probiotics in fermented coffee?

As we discovered earlier, fermentation produces probiotics, which have all kinds of health benefits. However, it's hard to say without lab experiments exactly how much probiotic content remains in these beans throughout the entire roasting and preparation process.

Studies show that probiotic bacteria are killed around 115 degrees Fahrenheit. So, to be honest, it is very unlikely that any probiotics remain intact through roasting and brewing. Even if you were to make a cold brew, the beans must be roasted, which raises the internal temperature of the bean between 400-460 degrees F. So, keep in mind; any coffee that claims to have probiotics would have to be fermented AFTER roasting.

There are ways to ferment your coffee AFTER it has been brewed. It would be similar to making kombucha. If you want to try that out, check out this articleAt the end of the day, unless you are fermenting coffee after is it roasted and avoiding high temperatures, you are most likely not getting probiotic bacteria from your coffee. However, I believe the fermentation process can affect the flavor enough to make the process well worth the extra time and effort.
light medium dark coffee roast temperatures farenheit


The farmer's perspective

Finally, what does this process look like from the farmer's perspective?

First and foremost, anaerobic fermentation takes time, labor, and equipment. These are all resources that directly correlate to revenue for these farmers. In order for this process to be worth it for them, they must receive more money for these efforts. If they do not, there is no point. That is why Native Root's fermented coffees are a little more expensive. The more time, labor, and equipment the process takes, the more volume the farmer is sacrificing.

According to an article by Garrett Oden, "Ethical coffee will most likely run you $15-25 per bag." And that is excluding special processing methods. So, if you want these unique, smooth flavors, you are going to have to pay for it.

Luz and Dilmer Muchicon farmers in the Togoima Nasa native indigenous reservation Native root Coffee
Luz and Dilmer Muchicon: a few of our farmers in the Togoima Reservation in Colombia

That's a lot of info... here's a recap

Fermentation is a process that brings about probiotics, which are bacteria that have many health benefits. However, due to the fact that probiotics are killed around 115 degrees Fahrenheit, there would most likely be few to no probiotics that survive the roasting process.

Probiotic coffee is most likely used as a buzz term for the "health hackers" to use to sell you more of their products or get more views. Although I am not a scientist, I do not think probiotics would be able to survive the heat needed to roast coffee beans. However, I do believe that fermentation can be done after the coffee has been roasted.

Although there may not be as many health benefits from the fermentation process as I had hoped, I personally love the different taste profiles fermentation can produce. And if it helps people put fewer unhealthy products in their coffee, I am all for it!

If you are curious if you will like the taste of fermented coffee, and would like to see for yourself if it is easier on your stomach, try our Bourbon Yellow Honey or Tabi Yellow Honey! These are both single-farm, single-varietal coffees that come directly from the Togoima Reservation, an indigenous land in southwest Colombia.

Bourbon Yellow Honey is a floral coffee with a nutty aftertaste and flavor notes of vanilla, almonds, coffee flowers, and jasmine.
Bourbon Yellow Honey with flavor notes Native Root Craft Coffee

Tabi Yellow Honey is a bit fruitier with flavor notes of caramel, green apple, and yellow fruits.
Tabi Yellow Honey with flavor notes Native Root Craft Coffee


Both of these coffees have been through a honey process to bake more flavors into the coffee, and they have been anaerobically fermented for 80 hours. Note, neither one of these coffees will have a strong kombucha/vinegar taste. Those typically start to appear once you have fermented the coffee for more like hundreds of hours.

We are constantly experimenting with different processes, and we will most definitely work to ferment our coffee for longer periods of time. If you want to know when we come out with those coffees, make sure to follow us on social media!

Finally, if you learned ANYTHING in this post, send it to the biggest health nut or coffee lover you know!

That's it for this one! Thanks for reading.

May the microorganisms in your gut be fruitful and multiply.
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