So much deliciousness depends on microbes. Beer, wine, and bread, of course, require yeast, but that’s just the beginning: The best pickles, chocolate, sausage, cheese, and coffee all get their flavor from bacteria. These foods rely on fermentation — which is a polite way of saying that germs eat your food before you do, and poop out reconfigured molecules that taste really good.

Most people have heard about this process for foods like yogurt and pickles, but the other foods may come as a surprise. Meats ferment as they age — think of hanging chains of sausages, or dry-cured steak. After workers pick coffee bean and cocoa pods, they lay them out to ferment. Letting the microbes feast on the harvest makes it easier to separate the part we want — the seeds — from the pulp, and it also adds flavor.

As you might guess, we figured all this out by accident. The ancients saw that, instead of going bad, food could go good under certain conditions, and they figured out how to replicate those conditions. Nowadays, we conduct fermentation either by zeroing in on one or two specific microbes (for beer, wine, and bread we rely on the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae), or throwing open the doors to whatever happens to drift in with the breeze (as with coffee, chocolate, and alembic). Essentially, we’ve limited ourselves to either rolling the microbial dice or using the same time-tested strain each time. We’ve been in the dark at the microbial level. Now we have the opportunity to domesticate bacteria that produce just the substances we want.

coffee cupping
Philip Stark

In the last 20 years, the technologies for detecting DNA and identifying exactly what chemicals exist in a tiny sample of food (or anything) have gotten exponentially better and cheaper. That progress allows us to do something crazy: We can now pick exactly the right microbes to forge new flavors and new foods. That’s what the company Afineur is doing. We profiled its co-founder Camille Delebecque in our Grist 50, and when it offered up bespoke fermented coffee through Kickstarter last year, I was curious enough to buy some.

When the coffee arrived, I invited some discerning friends over to taste it. I may be a food writer, but I’m not any sort of super taster. I needed backup. Frieda Hoffman and Katy Wafle, who opened a much-loved coffee shop here in Berkeley (which they later sold to these guys), brewed the Afineur coffee, along with three other types for comparison. Also joining us were wild food guy Philip Stark and my editor (and longtime cooking enthusiast) Scott Rosenberg.

cupping - coffee
Philip Stark

We bent over the cups, lifted spoonfuls of coffee to our lips, and slurped it up noisily. I tried to focus all my powers of perception on the moment. My mouth filled with the flavor: malt balls, milk chocolate, and mostly (of course) coffee. It was good, but not some utterly new, blow-the-hair-off-your-scalp experience. I moved on to the other coffees; they were good, too.

When we compared notes, it seemed that everyone had had a similar experience. This cultured coffee was very good, right up there with other great roasts, but not ahead of them in any significant way.