A lot happens at origin besides growing and picking
The coffee bean is actually a seed inside a small fruit that we call a coffee cherry (or berry). When the cherry turns bright red, it’s ripe and can be picked. Once picked, it has to be ‘processed’ which really just means separating the seed (your coffee bean) from everything else (skin, pulp, mucilage and parchment).
There are three main ways to do this (though many variations in between) and each affects the taste of your final cup.
Natural process (also known as “dry”)
This is the age-old, traditional way to process coffee, and is still used in many countries today, particularly if water is scarce.
- The freshly picked cherries are spread out on a surface (raised beds or patios) to dry in the sun. Farmers rake and turn them throughout the day, then cover them at night or during rain to prevent them from getting wet.
- Depending on the weather, this process might continue for several weeks until the moisture content of the cherries drops to 11%.
- Only at this point is the fruit removed from the bean using a de-pulping machine.
The taste: Because the fruit was attached to the bean during the slow drying process (think of a dried date), the bean is imbued with flavor from this fruit. As a result, the taste can be very fruit-forward, earthy and intense. While, in the past, most of the highest-scroring specialty coffees used the washed method (see below), more are using the natural method.
Washed process (also known as “wet”)
- The freshly picked cherries are first de-pulped to remove the skin and fruit around the bean.
- Then, the coffee beans are placed in water-filled fermentation tanks where, depending on climate and altitude, they will remain for 12-48 hours until the fermentation process breaks down the mucilage (the slimy sugary substance surrounding the coffee bean).
- When fermentation is complete, the beans are rinsed by going through additional water channels, and then dried.
The taste: Washed coffee gets most of its taste from the bean itself (as opposed to the fruit-like natural coffee) and so this method is seen as the “cleanest” or “purest” way to taste the inherent qualities of terroir and the bean itself.
This process is somewhere in the middle between washed and natural. It’s called “honey” because the sticky sweet remnants of fruit and pulp left on the beans during the process
- The freshly picked cherries are first de-pulped (similar to washed above) to remove most of the skin and fruit around the bean.
- Then, the beans—still containing some fruit and pulp clinging to them—are laid out on beds to slowly dry. (Note: this differs from the washed process as the beans do not go to the fermentation tanks to remove the mucilage.) Producers have been experimenting with this method and play with the amount of fruit/mucilage they leave on the beans leading to classifications such as yellow, red, black or white honeys.
The taste: Honey coffee tends to have fruit-forward notes, but not as exaggerated as naturals and a bit more sweetness, acidity and complexity to the mouthfeel than washed.
The thing we love most about coffee (beyond taste) is the endless experimentation that happens: in the field, in the processing, in the roasting and in the brewing.This is the golden age of processing methods with farmers and producers playing with lactic fermentation, anaerobic fermentation, frozen natural, wine process, and so many more—testing the limits of the potential in that little bean.