The world’s best coffee makers turn moldy beans

Chefs generally want to keep mold out of their kitchens, but Koji is an exception. For nearly a decade, mushrooms have been a secret weapon of pioneering chefs like Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, used to ferment grains, cure proteins, and impart umami into sweet and savory dishes.

Now, the most popular bar in the culinary world is poised to become the biggest trend in the world of specialty coffee. Enterprising producers believe that the multi-purpose ingredient can improve the average coffee bean, and produce a better-tasting caffeinated cup.

It is a good time to increase the quality of coffee beans. The price of Arabica beans, the world’s most popular, has more than doubled in the past year and a half.

“The most important thing that makes koji great is the potential to increase the sweetness in coffee that’s lacking, or enhance the coffee even further,” says Mason Salisbury, co-founder of Nevada-based Luminous Coffee. Koji coffee lovers. Salisbury began selling its fermented beans this spring. A 200-gram bag is $30.

A few specialty coffee shops around the world have started releasing bags of koji coffee, including Phoenix’s Coffee in Ohio, and Manhattan Coffee Roasters and Hatch, in Ontario, Canada. Manhattan coffee roasters sold out of stock quickly, moving 100 kilograms (220 lb) of koji coffee in 72 hours.

Whether it’s prepared via the filtering or pouring method, part of the appeal of the koji process is that when done properly, it doesn’t add its own flavor. For industry professionals, coffee is revolutionary for its ability to enhance the quality of a basic bean and transform it into a better version of itself. For the consumer, koji means a rounder, silkier, and sweeter drink.

The process received a lot of attention after Finnish barista Capo Pavolainen from Helsinki fermented unconventional koji beans in public for the first time at the World Barista Championships in Milan in October.

“The leagues… are so big that they can define whole crops of coffee for years to come,” says Pavulainen.

El Vergel Estates, a boutique coffee farm in Colombia known for its upscale and exotic varieties, is credited with producing the successful first batch of processed koji beans. The farm teamed up with a team of koji enthusiasts to use mold — a strain of Aspergillus, best known for its ability to turn rice into grains and soybeans into miso paste — to make coffee. Among them was Salisbury. Christopher Ferran, Director of Phoenix Coffee; Chef Jeremy Umansky (Cleveland, Ohio Daily Larder, sells products like pastrami koji); and Koichi Higuchi, a seventh generation koji spore producer based in Osaka, Japan.

The process is deceptively simple. It begins by sprinkling fresh coffee cherries with yellow and white koji powder—a flour-like substance—and then gently blending with a paddle. The berries then sit for two days, producing fluffy white fur, before being sun-dried for two to three weeks. They are ground to remove the outer shell, and shipped to open-minded roasters.

This process, which Ferran dubbed the Supernatural Koji Protocol, resulted in the production of the world’s first coffee beans processed using koji in 2020. Pavolainen brewed the second harvest on stage during last year’s World Barista Championships.

After the demonstration, “there was a great deal of interest in the treatment among my colleagues,” says Pavulainen. Many were skeptical that the quality of the coffee bean could be improved by using mold.

The concentrated sweetness of koji coffee is created when fermentation produces enzymes that break down the proteins in the coffee cherries into amino acids, and the starches into fermentable sugars, Ferran says. He adds that these help “increase coffee’s perception of sweetness, fruitiness, and complexity.”

“Koji has the power to transform even the most mundane of ingredients,” Umansky says. This process allows the coffee to “get more lustrous than the original bean,” says Rabih Awwam, founder of the Spanish company Kima Coffee, and one of the first to adopt this method.

Fans wanting to try the drink can expect a slightly more expensive cup of coffee. In general, koji coffee costs about twice as much per pound than regular coffee, which ranges from $5 to $7 per cup at most stores. Coffee is now creeping into menus in places like Luminous in Brooklyn; In Bristol, UK, Sweven sometimes stockpiles grain. And as koji processing expands to farms in Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Brazil and Indonesia, brewed coffee is set to become widely available worldwide this fall.

For Paavolainen, it’s easy to encapsulate the transformative potential of koji coffee: “Be all you can be,” he says.

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