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Bob & Max’s Note: If you are a coffee roaster doing wholesale business with any number of large-format retailers in the United States, you’ve probably been hearing the phrase “HACCP” with more regularity. In an effort to provide the best customer service we can, even after we’ve sold you the coffee, Royal is taking steps to educate and assist our clients with this Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points compliance. We’ve recently created a new “Certifications Specialist” position, in-part to do just that. As Royal begins fielding questions about HACCP, we’ve redoubled our efforts to pay attention to (and avoid) the kinds of situations both here or abroad that can put coffee at risk. Below, Chris Kornman, our Education and Lab Manager, shares Part II of a two-part series on mycotoxin in coffee, and how its associated risks can be minimized.

PART II – Staying Safe While Consuming Coffee

In Part I of this 2-part series on mycotoxins and coffee, I focused on science and research to help understand that the risk of coffee-related Ochratoxin-A affliction is minimal at best. However, we do have to acknowledge that OTA presence in coffees is possible. Part II will focus on preventative measures for both casual consumers and coffee professionals.

Avoiding Potential Risks as a Roaster & Consumer

So, what are your best bets when it comes to avoiding Mycotoxins in coffee?

First and foremost, look for quality-focused suppliers. Whether it’s the farmer, the mill, the exporter, the importer, or the roaster, if there’s an emphasis on environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and product excellence, it means they’re paying attention. The kinds of things that will negatively affect the quality of the coffee are actively avoided by stewardship of resources and motivated employees who recognize that the production and distribution of high-quality coffee results in a better quality of life.

When it comes to consuming coffee, establishing a level of trust with your supplier is crucial along each level of the chain. Royal’s extensive history in the importing industry has led to a number of producer relationships that extend multiple generations and have lasted for decades. Transparency regarding the conditions under which the coffee is grown, harvested, processed, and exported will result in a higher level of understanding of both intrinsic quality and the intangible value of knowing and trusting the names and faces involved in creating the product.

Palate training is also valuable in this regard. An educational environment under which you can be exposed to the full spectrum of available flavors and learn to recognize flaws will undoubtedly aid your ability to detect and avoid potential risks. The long and the short of moldy green coffee is that, even after roasting, it generally tastes like mold. I’d encourage you to avoid that flavor in your coffee.

Lastly (and likely the most important choice the average consumer can make on this subject) avoid coffees of questionable quality. Traditional instant coffees and the bargain bin pre-ground cans of old-school grocery store coffee are inexpensive for a number of reasons, among them a general lack of consideration for the kinds of safety-nets I’ve described above. These are the kinds of coffees tested in studies that strike fear into the hearts of the coffee consuming world.

Pay a little more for your coffee, spend the extra time it takes to know the people behind it, and use a few common sense tools to avoid risky products. The reward will be a tasty cup that’s socially and environmentally conscious and does your body more good than harm.

Where and How Mycotoxins Can Occur, and How They May Be Prevented

The rest of this article will illuminate a few ways risks can be reduced in the field at before they reach the consumer. Ochratoxin-A contamination is a preventable condition, and understanding its tendencies will lead to an understanding of how it can be avoided during production and consumption alike.

OTA is not considered a field contaminant, which means that the mycotoxin-carrying fungus results from post-harvest conditions like poor storage or poor drying techniques. We know how to prevent mold occurrence in coffee: proper drying, clean processing equipment and storage conditions, and in general best practices. There’s solid evidence that high quality cleaned and graded coffees are safer than low grade coffee that is sold at steep discounts. Recorded observations have concluded that if coffee is mixed and turned frequently when it is drying after harvest, the result is significant reductions in OTA contamination.

Established protocols exist for coffee drying and storage. Both in the field and in labs, methods of measuring moisture in the coffee, for example, are frequently employed that can give us indications of risk. I noted in my recent article on water activity that favorable conditions for mold growth can begin as low as 0.60, but that OTA-carrying molds typically favor readings at 0.78 and higher. In the course of a number of years taking water activity readings on coffee, I have never seen a green coffee sample exceed 0.70. It should be noted, however, that when the coffee is fresh off the tree and beginning to dry, it almost certainly will exceed 0.78 so properly and quickly drying the coffee during initial stages post-harvest is absolutely critical.

I’ve heard it claimed variously that dry-processed coffees, sun-drying, and/or fermentation can cause mold. This is a scientific absurdity: mold is fungal activity, whereas fermentation is bacterial. This is an important distinction, and it’s equally relevant to note that regardless of processing or drying method, practically all coffee undergoes some form of fermentation. Whether in a controlled tank prior to washing, or inside the cherry as it is sun-dried, bacteria are actively at work fermenting the flesh of the fruit that surrounds the seed. The notion that there might be “a proprietary method” of processing for eliminating OTA contamination is nothing less than an outright impossibility.

Dry-processed coffees have come under fire for increased risk because they have a reputation for being of lower and more inconsistent quality. Similarly, coffees from uncommon origins, wet-hulled coffees, or those with a history of risk (like Rwanda/Burundi with the potato defect, or Brazil with Rio or Phenol) can deter roasters because of a perceived endemic problem. The catch-22 here is that a history of low quality reduces expectations, and lowered expectations fail to motivate improvements in quality. Knowing the producer, and the conditions under which the coffee is harvested, processed, and stored is critical in these scenarios. There are exceptionally clean and delicious dry-processed and wet-hulled coffees, as there are pristine, elegant coffees coming from Burundi, Brazil, and Rwanda.

Green coffee shipping and storage can present challenges when it comes to the temperature and relative humidity of the air, and the way these environmental factors influence coffee and mold. Generally, a stable coffee won’t be put at risk by an unstable environment like a hot, humid port city or warehouse. However, coffee quality can be preserved better when stored (once fully dried) in parchment until the coffee is ready to mill, as green coffee is more susceptible to environmental factors than parchment. Likewise, GrainPro, Ecotact, or similar semi-permeable storage media has a positive effect on improving the shelf-stability of many coffees.

A recent trend in small-batch barrel-aging green coffee has gained a lot of attention in recent years, and the naturally occurring collaborative efforts of roasters and brewers make accessibility to wine, whiskey, and other types of barrels relatively simple. However, these conditions are far from ideal. While the flavors produced by aging a coffee for a few months in an alcohol barrel are unique and unrivaled in traditional pre-shipment processing methods, utmost care should be taken when employing this method to test regularly for unwanted microbial activity.

While OTA contamination may occur either during processing or storage, roasting won’t eliminate the molds. However, roasting has been shown to reduce the level of OTA in coffee by a significant margin. Furthermore, even after harvest and processing, systems are in place to detect mold: in addition to the water meters we use, we taste coffees to approve them. QC labs exist as a filter: trained tasting professionals actively seek not just amazing flavors, but also the really bad ones. Cupping protocols in countries of origin, at importers’ offices, and at roasters’ headquarters act as firewalls for insidious molds and other unpleasant defects.

So if you’re curious, give us a call, ask us how it cupped… we’re more than happy to play cupbearer.

Edit: you can find a list of minor corrections to this article here.