Have you ever seen honey, washed, natural process on your coffee packaging and think wonder what they mean? Or more importantly, what they mean for your tastebuds?
The more you understand and try different coffee processing methods, the more you start to understand how it all relates.
Coffee processing is just one key part of the route of bringing the seed to your cup.
3 Main Coffee Processing Methods
Traditionally, there are three most common ways of processing coffee: washed (wet), natural (dry) and honey. There are other ways of processing coffee, such as the Giling Basah method used in Indonesia, but they are usually localised and rarer.
Washed (or wet) Coffees
Washed coffees let the bean flavours shine! Washed coffees are known for letting you taste what’s on the inside, not what’s on the outside.
During the washed process, when the coffee cherry is ripe and has been picked, the cherries are washed to remove any undesirable excess material i.e. dirt and stones.
Next is the pulping stage which extracts the two coffee seeds from inside the coffee cherry and removes the skin and fruit pulp. Some farmers use the removed pulp back in the plantation as a fertiliser.
The beans are then left to ferment in a fermentation box that increases their roasted flavour profile. After being washed once more to remove any excess material leftover from the pulping stage, the coffee beans moisture level generally sits at around 57%.
The pulped beans are then left outside to dry or on drying beds to bring the moisture level down around the optimal 12% ready for roasting.
The washed process depends on the bean having absorbed enough natural sugars and nutrients during its growing cycle meaning the varietal, soil, weather and ripeness are crucial.
Natural or honey processed coffees rely on the coffee cherry around the bean to be flavourful. Washed coffees have a heavy focus on the science of growing the perfect coffee bean and really let the farmers craft the flavour of the coffee bean.
I find washed coffees interesting in the respect that they really allow a bean to highlight the country of origins unique flavours and its environmental conditions. That’s probably why so many speciality coffees are washed. You get the origins true characteristics – it’s wonderful.
The other side of it is if you have multiple washed Kenyan coffees on a table at a cupping, there will only be very subtle differences between each of the them, I believe.
Natural (or dry) Coffees
This process is the basic approach that originates from Ethiopia.
Unlike the washed process, the fruit of the cherry is left on the seed and there is little interference while the coffee dries. Less needs to be done in this process, although there needs to be the right weather conditions to ensure drying of the fruit and seed in time.
After picking the cherries most farmers will have their beans hand sorted to remove any damaged, unripe or defective cherries since they are not washed the same way as the wet method. Some also use a floating method.
Drying may only be assured by turning the coffee regularly and may take longer to reach the desired 12% moisture level as the cherry protective layer retains moisture. This can take up to 4 weeks.
After the cherries have dried, they are sent to a mill where they will be hulled to remove the fruit, sorted and graded.
I am a fan of natural coffees! I think with the right consistency it can match washed coffees in terms of clarity but by leaving the fruit on while drying it adds an extra layer of interesting flavours and sweeter characteristics to the bean.
It’s also eco-friendlier with less water being then the washed process.
Honey (Pulped Natural) Coffees
It can literally taste like someone’s put honey in your coffee but actually gets its name from the colour and the stickiness it gets during the processing.
I see the honey method as a bit of each washed and natural process because it can have highlighted fruity notes, but not as much as a natural and often a more balanced acidity then washed coffees, paired with sweetness and complexity. Sounds like a dream if that’s what you’re into.
After going through the pulping machine as in the washed process although the mucilage is left on during the drying stage.
Sub-categories have developed over the years – yellow, red, golden, black and white honey.
With all the sub-categories emerging it shows how much this process has the ability to influence taste and overall profile of the cup. The level of mucilage influences the sweetness and body which is why it is monitored and controlled by the farmer to get their desired flavour.
Hopefully now when you look at your coffee packaging you will try out the different processing methods and can learn which ones you prefer.
Happy tasting :)