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Coffee and Mold - Is It Exaggerated?

Colin Stuckert

I recently received an email from a customer.

In his email, he asked this:

2. I read you article on coffee and particularly the section on mold. I know that high heat from roasting does kill the mold, but I know from talking with Dave (from Bulletproof) that he is also concerned not just about the mold but also the toxins created from the mold such as ochratoxin A which are not destroyed by high heat. I notice no mention of this, so I wanted to get your thoughts.

Here was my response:

To answer your question, it's all about mitigating exposure and buying great coffee. Then testing it on the individual level. The fact is, if you test beans that you get from a farm and they test mold-free, well then you keep buying from that farm and they hopefully don't change anything... right?

And if the beans test positive for mold, you stop buying from that farm/exporter and instead buy from someone else while repeating until you find a farm growing coffee without mold issues.

It's all a little exaggerated in my opinion. Furthermore, you don't need to have a lab test to know that a certain bean makes you feel good and tastes great just the same as you don't need to lab test folgers (or any other crappy coffee) to know that it makes you feel like crap and tastes like crap.

Testing Coffee Beans

Let's assume you were selling "lab tested" coffee beans. 

When your batch of green coffee beans would "pass" a test, you would then approve that lot or farm and send them to your roaster to be roasted before being sold to the public.

The beans that don't pass your test would be ruled out for consideration.

From there, you would add that grower and bean to your "approved" list of coffees.

Maybe you would do this until you had a few farms and exporters on your approved list—at least enough to supply the beans you need to fulfill customer orders.

Then what?

You'd automate the buying process—or someone else would handle that, like the roaster, as is standard in the coffee industry—and you'd go about your life, business as usual.

After that, how often would you test your beans?

Maybe once a quarter? Maybe a few times a year? Maybe once a year?

Who knows...

In reality, you could test your beans in a year and still market your product as "lab tested," regardless of just how shady that seems. After all, it's still true, right?

(And such is a standard example of the subtle ways marketers can spin language.)

Finally, you could make people sign an NDA before letting them in on your testing process and protocol (which is exactly what certain popular brand requires).

And that's one way to do it.

Now let's remove lab testing from the equation and look at a way to produce the same end-result of finding a delicious tasting coffee that's low in mold and grown with respect to the environment and the end-user's health.

 Is this what "lab-tested" coffee looks like? The problem is; no one knows.

Is this what "lab-tested" coffee looks like? The problem is; no one knows.

Human Trials

Instead of testing your green coffee beans in a lab, let's say you use "human trials," e.g. you and others you trust that know coffee test some green coffee beans from a few select coffee producers.

After receiving your beans, you fresh roast them to a various roast profiles and send each person home with a few ounces of each roast to test. You instruct them to try the beans with a few brewing methods as well as without added cream, butter, sugar, etc. 

You also instruct them to listen closely to how they feel after drinking the coffee—an hour after, 2 hours after.

Finally, you ask them to rate each coffee from 1-10 on the feeling spectrum.

Then you compile the results and choose the clear winners.

You then add this list of winners to your "approved/tested list."

 Don't discount the importance of human trials 

Don't discount the importance of human trials 

In each method above, you end up with a specially curated list of premium coffees that taste great and make you feel great. In fact, you might even end up with the same list of coffees from the same farmers by following completely different curation/testing methods.

In case you were wondering, at Wild Foods we used the latter method for creating the Wild Coffee line of Organic, Single-Origin, Fair Trade coffees.

I have a feeling that our Wild Coffee beans pass any lab tests with flying colors. Especially considering the hundreds, possibly thousands, of human trials our beans have undergone at this point (friends, family and Wild customers).

I wanted to address this topic because of the frequent questions we get about our coffee beans. I'm hoping to point out how some people mistake the trees for the forest in the case of mold and coffee.

Since the point is to find amazing coffee that tastes great and doesn't have mold issues (the forest), whether or not beans are tested does not actually change the coffee itself, it merely gives you one way of testing beans (the testing method being the trees).

All that being said, if you buy "lab tested coffee beans" and you find they don't taste great and/or they don't make you feel that awesome, then perhaps you should factor that data point into your conclusions?

Yours in Health,

-Colin Stuckert