In the early 1950s, the ice cream parlor chain Baskin-Robbins unveiled a new slogan. Its iconic “31 flavors” tagline reflected its commitment to a menu so vast, customers could order a different flavor every day for an entire month. The Baskin-Robbins vision was ahead of its time, and prefigured our current culinary obsession with diversity of flavor.
The growing appetite for new sensory experiences has driven important changes in the coffee sector. In the marketplace, coffee roaster menus have exploded with single-origin offerings. At origin, growers have planted new varieties to produce a broader range of flavors. But more than 60 years after Baskin-Robbins introduced its 31 flavors to the world, it is hard to imagine a single coffee roaster offering 31 different single-origin coffees on its menu. And it is all but impossible to imagine a single farm producing that many flavors. Enrique López of Finca Chelín is coming awfully close, and he is doing it the hard way.
Finca Chelín sits high in the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca, near the southern coast of Mexico, nestled in a quiet grove near Candelaria Loxicha. Since he took over the 123-year-old farm in 2012, Enrique has gotten steadily closer to the 31-flavor standard, relying only partially on the strategy of varietal diversification that represents the shortest path to expanding a farm’s flavor potential. Most of the progress has been made through relentless and wildly creative experimentation in post-harvest processing.
Nearly all the coffee traded in the specialty marketplace is processed in one of three ways — natural, washed, or honey. This season, Enrique managed 22 different post-harvest processes. Twenty-two. And every one of them begins with a practice that challenges a central tenet in the coffee processing canon: the belief that cherry should be processed within hours of being harvested.
None of the cherry harvested at Enrique’s farm is processed the same day it is harvested. Instead, each lot of carefully harvested, hand-sorted cherry is subject to a “pre-fermentation” process in one of two controlled environments: either a sealed cylinder with a one-way valve for carbonic maceration, or a tile-lined tub where temperature is carefully managed to avoid excessive microbiological activity. There are four prescribed times for pre-fermentation (12, 24, 36, and 60 hours), each of which corresponds to specific primary and secondary processing methods, final products, and desired flavor profiles.
After “pre-fermentation,” Enrique directs each lot toward one of the three core processing categories (washed, natural, or honey), or a fourth process Enrique calls “hydronatural.”
Within each of these categories, Enrique is always experimenting, adopting the most promising innovations as part of his growing catalogue of post-harvest processes. He hasn’t just got a “washed” coffee, but one washed coffee processed using a blend of commercial yeasts and vitamins and another specially processed to achieve a pH of 3.8. His honeys are red, black and purple, colors that refer to the fruit flavors each process reliably evokes. But Enrique’s creative approach to processing is fully unleashed in the hydronatural process.
After they emerge from pre-fermentation, Finca Chelín’s hydronaturals start down the path reserved for the farm’s natural-process lots: they spend a day drying on a sheet of mesh in full sun and two days on a shaded, raised drying bed, before being returned to the mill and submerged overnight in cold water. The next day, Enrique decides whether to process the cherry, which now look like soggy oversized red raisins, as a natural, honey, or washed lot.
Finca Chelín offers a choose-your-own-adventure approach to post-harvest processing, with a truly dizzying array of alternatives to choose from. And just think — these are only the processes. Enrique has a half-dozen high-quality cultivars in production on the farm today (and a few more mind-blowing varieties waiting in the wings). Each one of these varieties creates a discrete set of flavor possibilities; if the flavors of each one are refracted differently through the lens of each of Enrique’s post-harvest processes, then the Finca Chelín flavor spectrum explodes to create more than one hundred subtle distinctions in taste.
We are proud to support Finca Chelín’s experimental approach to coffee processing, which is pushing the frontiers of flavor, and we are delighted to offer a few of the best lots from this season’s “22 flavors” menu.
Take a few runs through the process map above to see where your post-harvest decisions take you. Bring the glossary below along on the journey so you don’t get lost. And try this season’s Finca Chelín coffees to see for yourself what a difference these groundbreaking processes can make.