Taming Wild Yeast
Martins Cafe’s uniquely flavored coffees.
SAO PAULO, Brazil
By Dan Bolton
When his father, a fifth-generation grower, phoned to announce his decision to abandon coffee farming at the family’s Fazenda Santa Margarida, Mariano Martins might have shrugged and continued his successful banking career. Instead he left the city and let his imagination take him to a largely unexplored coffee segment — naturally flavored coffee.
Think cardamom and anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, all-natural ingredients blended into a line of 100% arabica coffee grown on the 1600-acre farm located in São Manuel, about 150 miles from Sao Paulo. Martins, who has a business degree from Fundação Getulio Vargas, along with Fabiola Filinto who has an MBA in business from Harvard University, teamed up with Maíra Lopes for a two-year experiment to develop artisan blends that challenge the conventional.
The two years have since passed. Revenue from the Martins Café line have restored the farm to profitability. Still Martins and Filinto continue to push the envelope of coffee flavor using a well-known but difficult to manage additive – yeast.
Fermentation techniques are not typical in Brazil, explains Martins yet the process is ever-present. One of the great challenges growers of pulped naturals face is the early onset of rain. Coffee cherry dried on the branches enhances coffee quality but if the coffee gets wet it begins to ferment and when cherries fall to the earth they are lost, devoured by fungus, bacteria, and yeast.
“We first experimented with beer and wine yeasts,” he explained. Adding highly refined commercial varieties produced “some beautiful aroma and flavors, but the effect was subtle, not strong enough to withstand the roasting process.”
“We needed to find something slightly different that enhanced the coffee, something in nature stronger than what we could buy,” adds Filinto. The answer was at the foot of the plants where wild bacteria flourished.
Six cultivars of yellow bourbon are grown on the farm and “there are natural fungicides and yeasts associated with every variety,” she said. “We decided to let nature be nature.”
Martins cultivated wild strains, stripped the mucilage from the cherries and replaced it with food “sugars” in a solution that allowed only one test per year.
“We did not know how the coffee would respond to fungus and bacteria. We introduce sugars at the fermentation state that we found to enhance aroma, acidity and texture,” said Martins.
“Sometimes that fails,” said Filinto but gradually they learned to control the process, taming the wild yeasts for consistency. The result is a sophisticated chemical change in the bean that survives the roasting process, yielding complex caramelized sugars and pleasing aromas.
“Flavors are not controlled solely by terroir,” he said, adding. “We don’t deny that is important, but we are adding so much variety and flavors by simply relying on nature.”
This year Martins is plowing under the sugarcane fields that sustained the farm at a time when prices dipped and his father was in despair. The fazenda (farm) will generate 10,000 60-kilo bags on 600 acres planted in arabica. He can now afford to plant in shade which lowers yields from 55 sacks to an average of 40 but produces better coffee and greater biodiversity.
Innovation continues to motivate their effort, he says, next up is his most enzymatic coffee Coldbrew de Guaranóia da Martins Cafés carbonatada (loosely translated as weird bottled coffee, he laughs).