While we all love the variety and complexity of differences that coffee beans possess, from fruity flavors like watermelon to blueberry or rich hues of chocolate or caramel, sometimes we just have a hankering for a particular flavor that’s missing from our favorite bean.
Coffee houses and coffee producers the world over have also shared in this dilemma and have gone to great lengths with experimenting with infusing new flavors to coffee beans using a variety of esoteric and complex techniques to attain this. Fear not, you don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment to achieve the same results that roasteries use to infuse new flavors to their coffee beans.
What Does Infusing Coffee Do Exactly?
Put simply infusing coffee beans means adding flavors that are otherwise not present in the bean itself. This process can elevate the bean’s natural flavors by creating a sharper contrast between the new flavor and the pre-existing flavor profile. It could also further round out the bean’s flavor profile by adding a certain taste that compliments the coffee bean’s inherent essence.
There may be some confusion here as there is a difference between infusing coffee and infusion brewing methods. Infusion is a method of coffee brewing that has the coffee beans being submerged in water for the brewing process. Sometimes this method is called immersion brewing. Particularly methods that fall into this category are the French press, traditional drip brewing, pour-overs, and even cold brews too.
So, What Does the Infusion Process Look Like?
The infusion process can look radically different on a case-by-case basis. There is a multitude of techniques and processes that roasteries, coffee shops, and enthusiasts have used to achieve the results they are looking for.
Some infusion techniques occur before roasting like soaking freshly washed green coffee beans with flavor additives such as cinnamon sticks or other spices. A similar technique would be fermenting the coffee beans. Even wine-making techniques like carbon maceration, basically an advanced fermentation technique, where the coffee beans are fermented in a carbon-dioxide rich environment.
Other infusion techniques find adding flavors after the roasting process, like soaking the roasted coffee bean in another liquid before brewing. Another technique that large commercial roasteries use is adding different flavored oils that will coat the freshly roasted beans and then be absorbed into the beans.
Finally, steeping freshly brewed coffee alongside a flavor additive like butter, spices, and even eggs is another way of flavoring your coffee.
Whatever method you choose is up to you and your comfortability. If you have never fermented anything, the learning curve may be steep. Or perhaps you have a few cinnamon sticks lying around and soaking your recently arrived green coffee beans in them isn’t too much of a challenge.
Whatever the method, part of the fun here is experimentation and finding what techniques and flavors you like and how they can complement your favorite beans.
Coffee Industry Complaints
While infusing and flavoring coffee beans isn’t a new practice by any stretch of the imagination, the practice has received criticism from those within the coffee industry for a variety of reasons.
One of the common complaints is that adding new flavors to coffee beans negatively affects or rather skews the coffee cupping experience by altering the natural flavors by presenting to the coffee grader what essentially is an inaccurate profile of the bean. This criticism is often folded into the additional charge that “enhancing” the coffee bean with flavors that aren’t already present within the bean gives the coffee an unfair or unnatural advantage in coffee competitions.
Similarly, because of the vagueness and labyrinthine nature of coffee trading, growing, and producing, flavoring coffee beans has led to transparency issues as coffee roasters are under no obligation to advertise or disclose that they infused coffee beans with additional flavors. This lack of transparency can negatively affect the perceived trustworthiness of the coffee producer.
While these criticisms do carry water given the competitive nature of coffee tasting competitions and Q grading, if you are just a humble home roaster these criticisms shouldn’t be of particular interest to you. After all, adding some outside flavor to make a great-tasting cup of coffee isn’t the crime of the century. Nevertheless, there is something to be said that adding additional flavors not present within a bean can affect the perception of what the coffee bean’s naturally occurring flavor profile should be.
What to Infuse & Flavor Your Coffee Beans With
Coffee industry politics, contested opinions, and hot takes aside if you find yourself wanting to experiment with infusing your coffee there are a few tips we can give you.
The major rule of thumb is what is called the 3% rule. This rule boils down to only adding 3% of whatever flavor you are using by the total weight of the coffee. So, for example, if you have 1lb of green coffee beans (16oz), then you would want to add 0.48oz of the flavor additive you plan on using.
So, at this point, you may be wondering want kind of additives you can use to infuse and flavor your coffee beans. This depends on your preferences and what you want to add to your coffee beans. Generally, this falls into four broad categories.
Common coffee additives found the world over are spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. Other spices such as cardamom can be used as well. Spices can be added at a variety of stages, whether soaking alongside the beans, being roasted alongside them, or being added after the brewing process itself.
Coffee flavoring oils such as mint, mocha, and vanilla are common flavor additives. These are usually added after the coffee beans have just been roasted. The oil will absorb into the coffee bean and impart its flavor during the brewing process.
If you like the flavors of alcohol, soaking roasted coffee beans in liquors such as whiskey, bourbon, and even tequila is a common practice. If you prefer wine, red wines like merlot often pair quite well with coffee beans. The best part is that not only do your coffee beans get infused with the boozy goodness of your favorite liquor, but your favorite liquor in turn also gets infused with your favorite coffee bean. A double win in our book if you ask us!
Like flavored oils, flavored syrups can be used to flavor coffee beans, but syrups tend to be used in larger, more commercial roastery environments. That’s not to say that you can create your flavored syrup. Making syrup is very easy as it is equal parts of water and sugar.
Simply combine the sugar to boiling water and stir until dissolved. You can add whatever additional flavor you want to impart flavor to the syrup itself.
Flavored Coffee Around the World
Flavored coffee isn’t anything particularly revolutionary or new to the industry. Flavored coffee has existed around the world and has been a part of different coffee-drinking cultures throughout history.
For example, Senegalese people enjoy their coffee with cloves and West African pepper-like spice often called Guinea pepper. Moroccans sip their coffee with tons of spices ranging from cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and clove which creates a spicy morning brew!
Arab countries include saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom in their morning cup to create the drink called qahwa. Yemeni coffee includes a spice blend called hawaij which includes similar spices. In Malaysia, coffee is roasted in palm oil to impart additional flavors. In Mexico, there’s a coffee drink that’s brewed with cinnamon sticks called café de olla that is brewed in the mountainous regions during the winter.
There are more than the above examples, but we figured it's best not to belabor the point. Perhaps some of these examples can serve as a seed of inspiration to get you started in flavoring your coffee beans.
Infusing and flavoring coffee beans doesn’t have to be a highly technical process bordering on winemaking, but it can be as simple as adding some spices to your morning cup. Hopefully, we’ve given you some ideas and techniques that you can try and experiment with your coffee beans to give some needed kick your fruit-forward morning brew or a spicy zing to your chocolatey Colombian pour-over.