Washed v. Natural: The Burning Question
Sure you’ve got a lot on your mind—kids soccer schedules, garden planning, summer getaways. But every now and then there’s a burning question that just distracts you from—well, the enjoyment of life. We’re here to help. Washed v. Natural? Let’s put this baby to bed.
The 101 (grad students skip over]
Coffee is grown on a tree and, when ripe, is a shiny red fruit, smaller than a cherry, but called a cherry nonetheless. Here’s that cherry, unmercifully bisected so the rest of this post will make sense:
The coveted bean (actually a pair of them) is the seed inside that cherry. But how to get it out? Here’s where the “much ado…” comes in…
The Natural Way
The cherries, and all their layers, are left intact with the two coffee beans tucked inside. The coffee cherry and mucilage are composed of sugars and alcohols, which play a role in the sweetness, acidity and overall flavor profile of the coffee.
The cherries are raked out on patios or spread along raised drying beds to catch some sun and let nature do its work. During this time, the fruit is a closed environment, which encourages natural fermentation– helping create the final flavor profile. After about four weeks they dry into something like a raisin. This is how all coffee was processed originally. Note: A variation on this theme involves another technique, called “pasa,” in which the farmer leaves the coffee cherry to ripen and dry right on the branch.
Dense, heavier bodied coffee with exotic wild berry flavors and lower acidity. It’s earthy, it’s berry, it's au natural-Bryon-Shelley-Keats-high romanticism, it’s tramping-through-the-brambles late, late summer, dark-mysterious-Poe, moss and blue velvet.
But life is interesting, and so is coffee…
The Washed Way
The washed process… well, it’s clean. Here the farmer completely removes both the cherry and the mucilage from the outside of the parchment with the use of friction, fermentation and water. Take no prisoners.
- This is done at washing stations where it goes through a depulping machine, where the cherry is then sliced open by a metal blade and the two beans pushed out. This still leaves the mucilage layer, so we’re not out of the woods yet.
- Mucilage, composed of natural sugars and alcohols, plays a crucial role in developing the sweetness, acidity and flavor profile in the coffee beans—but, you guessed it, that’s got to go too. All mucilage is removed from the bean in order to leave only the flavor that developed in the cell structure of the bean prior to processing (the pursists in the room are perking up here). This is done either with fermentation or mechanically.
- Fermentation: In fermentation tanks, naturally present bacteria and microbes break down the sugars and alcohols that make up the mucilage. Fermentation can take anywhere from 6 hours to 4 days depending on the desired flavor profile, amount of mucilage, weather, temperature, and humidity.
- Mechanical demucilagers are a fairly new technology that removes the cherry and a specific amount of the mucilage with friction – typically with bristles. These machines don’t remove 100% of the mucilage like fermentation, but they get pretty close.
- After the mucilage is removed, the beans are fully washed and dried on patios or drying beds in the sun.
- Coffee beans are then stored and left to rest with only their innermost layer, the parchment, left.
- Finally, the beans have the parchment removed (dry milled/hulled) and they're ready to get shipped to a local roaster near you:)
Clean, bright, pure. If you love the citrus and floral notes of an Ethiopian, the deep chocolate of a Brazilian, or a full-spectrum experience of a stellar Costa Rican, washed is your game. If you’re a purist and don’t want any distracting fruit notes--think Frank Lloyd Wright, Hemingway, Ellsworth Kelly, think alto, think spring--give a wash a try.
The burning question remains
While folks have put themselves through batteries of personality tests and untold hours in therapy to answer this question for themselves, we’ve got a more enjoyable route to enlightenment. Try one. Try both. Try both from the same region. Host a brunch and have your friends try. Switch it up. And when you get good, I mean good, match them to your mood. Natural feels warm, comforted, connected, hugged, "of the people"; Washed feels bracing, pure , elemental, game for anything, more "of the gods." Burning question? What burning question?