In 2018, the Franco family, the owners of Natucafé (Antioquia/ Colombia), told me about a distiller from the United States who had visited them. This distillery owner was interested in distilling the Franco’s coffee mucilage concentrate, but it didn´t end up in a collaboration. When I called Vodkow, a dairy distillery in Almonte, Ontario, Canada, asking for a test run with my small amount of mucilage concentrate from Natucafé, Omid McDonald told me about an American distiller who also tried to distill it, and who was just sorting out how to make the whole process less expensive. In 2019, when I was in Chinchiná, Caldas, Colombia, someone told me that his company is collaborating with an American distiller who uses coffee mucilage. And then, in late 2021, when I called Mark Byrne from Good Vodka*, I learned that it was him and his partner Tristan Willey who were behind all of these stories!
Mark was spontaneously open for an interview. There are already several articles written about Good Vodka**. To avoid redundancy I have asked only questions that I couldn't find answers for in those other articles. Here's the interview:
Mark, let´s go right away in medias res. Why Colombia?
Hi Hans! Well, firstly, we looked at various coffee countries. What we wanted was a very large coffee region where we had room for scaling up. Secondly, we looked at a country with good export abilities. Colombia has ports both on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific, and this would be valuable to go either to the west coast or the east coast of the USA. This was attractive. Thirdly, in Colombia we can source our by-products almost all year round. And last but not least, right away we had great talks with the Colombian Coffee Federation. They were really excited about the project and were eager to help us to build up everything, especially the logistics. After our initial talks with the Federation we decided it´s Colombia where we will start this.
The Federation is a huge and complex organization. It's astounding that you very quickly found the right people!
Yes, they were really enthusiastic. We have worked with the entire organization at this point. We have worked with the president, their head of the R&D department, their North American subsidiarity etc. The way we have always framed this project is that this is a benefit to coffee farmers. Something that obviously creates a product for us, but at the beginning of the supply chain it's a nuisance to farmers. If we can solve this nuisance for them, it benefits everybody in the chain. I think the people from the FNC were very receptive to that point of view.
Ok, you had that crucial support from FNC. Were the coffee producers open to your idea too?
We travelled more than a dozen times to Colombia, but also to Guatemala and Costa Rica for research. While we were in Colombia we realized that we needed to do a test run on this project. This was about five years ago. So, we sent a little craft hobby distiller down to an Airbnb that we rented in Santa Marta in the northern coffee region. We set it up in the kitchen, rigged this kit on a hotplate, and worked with a farm called Cincinnati, basically to do some pilot stage distillation techniques. At that point it was incredibly hard to get any kind of coffee by-products into the United States through customs; but it was impossible to get them in fresh. We realized that we had to do some research on the fresh material and fermentation trials. I would say after about a month we just did that. We just experimented in Colombia in this rented house with different distillations.
We went back to Colombia about a year later, in 2017, rented a warehouse down there and did several months of trial where we tried to preserve the material. We worked again with the Cincinnati farm. They sent us drums of mucilage every morning which we tried in different ways to preserve. So, concentration techniques, boiling off the water to get it to a certain concentration level, different grinding techniques etc. And then, eventually, after we had some data, we started contracting different fruit processing facilities there to come up with different techniques to either concentrate it further or preserve it. We looked at preserving it in a freeze dried powder form which was pretty interesting. But eventually we set up the technique we use now with the mucilage at Buencafé.
Besides working with the mucilage, did you also try to distill the pulp, fresh or dried?
Yes, but the mucilage has better efficiency for distilling, and it was easier to concentrate because it didn't require grinding or anything else prior to the concentration. The key is that the Brix level of the cascara (dried coffee cherry), is somewhere around 17+ Brix; the Brix level of the mucilage water, the one you get from that water saving pulpers, is about 5 Brix, but it's in a very raw liquid form. But you can easily strain up the solids and concentrate it up to 50 Brix, and when it gets to about 50 Brix it is shelf stable. With the mucilage it's easier for us to get shelf stability.
We run trials with the pulp, using different yeasts like Tequila, Champaign, Brandy yeast etc. It did fine, but nothing worked as well as the mucilage. The efficiency is simply much higher.
The problem with the husk from Naturals is that the cherries undergo a fermentation during the drying. At that point we have lost a lot of our efficiency. Any amount of time the cherries spend fermenting at the farm or co-op level loses efficiency for us. The natural yeast eats a good part of the sugars we need. We want the material before it starts to ferment. That´s said, we can do something with the husk. We could make maybe something like a beer or wine or something of that nature. It just wouldn't be cost effective from a distilling standpoint because there wouldn't be enough sugar left in the material.
What was the next step?
Well, we started to develop a supply chain that didn't involve any extra work for the farmers. We didn't want to burden somebody with either capital investment on their own farm or additional tasks that they had on their take during their work day. We wanted them to fill a barrel with the trash and that's done. We then just pick it up. We did a lot of work on pulp and Cascara, but what we actually use is the raw mucilage water that we concentrate after the collection. We are working now with a co-op in Caldas which supplies us with the mucilage water.
In the Daily Coffee News post it said: “The distillers also discovered that the overall quality of the coffee — as a coffee beverage — had no impact on the qualities of the coffee fruit vodka, which could be good news for producers seeking to capture additional value from their harvests. Why does the overall coffee quality have no impact on the quality of your Vodka?
It's because we concentrate the mucilage. We always end up with the same Brix level. For that, the initial Brix level of the mucilage or the cherry, respectively, doesn´t matter. If we use mucilage from cherries with less ripeness, which means less Brix, we have to use more of the raw material to get the same Brix concentration. We don't see any differences in the flavour profile for our Vodka regarding different levels of ripeness of the cherries.
In a previous article about Good Vodka you said: “Ripeness would have an impact on yields, but we didn’t experiment much with ripeness as a variable because we don’t want to create an economy where coffee fruit is picked specifically for the purpose of making alcohol. The intent here is to use it as a by-product, which is to say, as it already exists within the coffee bean supply chain. That said, we use very good, hand-picked coffee fruit, because that is what’s grown by the farms we work with.”
That's right! The best case scenario for me is that somebody orders a cocktail, it has Good Vodka, and they never know that they drink a by-product. I mean, I like to know it, and I think the bartenders who order the cases like to know it; but it doesn't matter if the end consumer knows that it's not corn ethanol. To them it's just a cocktail. That is where scale comes in. That's where real change happens.
You mentioned yourself that the pulp/pulp water usually is a waste product. Do you pay for that waste? If yes, based on what was that price fixed?
We are using just the mucilage water. So, we are little separated from cascara production. People have started to realize that cascara is it´s own commodity. But there really isn't a market around the mucilage. So, most of the costs are going to the processing and logistics, e.g. paying for filling the mucilage in the barrels, paying the truck driver to pick up the barrels and these kind of things. We have worked with Buencafé to sort out pricing that is agreeable for all parties, but it is still very early days for this market.
We actually found that the biggest impact we have is saving co-ops the fines that Colombia charges them for not disposing properly. If they sell us the mucilage, just getting rid of the fine is valuable.
How is your arrangement with Buencafé?
After the mucilage water is transported in barrels from the co-op to Buencafé, which is also in Caldas, in Chinchiná, they separate the solids from the mucilage and do the evaporating on a contract basis. They are really, really supportive, and they are doing a great job.
After the evaporation, what's next?
We ship the final syrup to the US where it is fermented and distilled.
Is it a secret, or can you tell me which yeast you use for the fermentation?
Yes it's a secret. The only thing I can say is that it is a proprietary strain.
Fair enough! Now a question that inevitably arises: why don't you distill in Colombia?
I would like to, but there is a lot of red tape around distilling. Colombia has a state monopoly on distilling in the country and a lot of regulations on who gets the distilling licences. This would simply be way too complicated.
How much of the mucilage did you use last year, in 2020?
We have used probably 1million litres of mucilage water in 2020 and 2021, maybe a bit less or more. We remove 15% solids, and after the evaporation of water it will be probably around 80,000 kg of syrup.
Distilling is one thing. But what are you doing with the residues after distilling?
The distillery we are collaborating with gives them to farmers to put it in their corn feed for their cows and pigs.
Ok, so, nothing is left. That´s what we all want! But let´s talk about what´s left: how are the sales going?
The sales are fine. We are in what I call a soft launch. We are rolling it out into the kind of really high end bars and restaurants in New York and California. We have seen a lot of people using it on cocktails. We have seen a lot of restaurants that normally wouldn't pay attention to what their vodka is. We see them making active decisions around how they are gonna use this. And the cocktail people building by-product cocktails around it. A lot of people are doing Espresso Martinis, which is kind of fun, where they do a whole fruit Espresso Martini.
I went to a bar a couple of weeks ago that´s using Good Vodka as an Espresso Martini that has banana in it as well. I thought this was really fascinating because they are using the bean for the espresso, the fruit for the vodka, and then the banana that sometimes is grown on farms to get shade on the coffee plants. So, in some respects, this is a completely circular cocktail, which I think is fascinating. And then watching people kind of play around with them, where it´s not just about what the flavour profile is, but what the raw material is, where it came from that for me is really fun. These are the kind of bartenders that can change the industry as a whole.
Please tell me about Ecochain. Based on their assessment your vodka is carbon negative.
Sure. We contracted Ecochain to look at our entire supply chain from the beginning to the end, and to give us a Life Cycle Assessment report on what our carbon footprint was. And it was a very fascinating experience because we can see in very granular detail how sustainable our spirit is. I had no idea what this number would be. I didn't even really know that it would be carbon negative. I thought at best we can get it to carbon neutrality. But at the end of the day it's significant. It´s 15.76 kg of CO2 and equivalent emissions. And most of that is because the mucilage waste water produces methane which is more than 80 times more damaging to the environment than carbon. Just removing this from typical waste streams has a huge impact.
I assume that such an assessment is not cheap.
You are right, it was not cheap. But it's worth every penny!
Second last question: why aren't other people doing what you are doing?
I know that other people are working on fermentation on distillation of the coffee fruit right now. And that´s great; and it´s getting more and more every year. But when we produced our product it was the only one on the market. And that's mystifying to me because the pieces have been there for let's say a thousand years.
Last question: would you like to go with me to Ethiopia?
I would! It would be great if we could do something there!
Well, I'll take you at your word! Thanks for this interview and the great insight behind the scene!
*Good Vodka is a brand of Good Liquorworks which is a Trademark of Mark Byrne´s and Tristan Willey`s Equal Parts LLC
**Good Liquorworks Makes Good Vodka Out of Post-Harvest Coffee Fruit
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