When you’re buying coffee beans, what do you look for? The roast level? Perhaps the origin? It could be that you’re a dark roast lover looking at different flavor profiles from different regions to pick out the best beans for you.
But, did you know that coffee processing actually plays a big part in the flavor of the final product? Depending on the processing method used, you can end up with a totally different taste profile in your cup of coffee.
At first glance, it seems unnecessarily complex. But it’s actually fairly simple to get to grips with the different coffee processing methods. So settle in as we break down the 3 processing methods – natural, washed, and honey processed coffee. And, we’ll explain exactly how they’ll impact the final flavor of your morning cup of joe.
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Around the world, the three main coffee processing methods are Natural (Dry), Washed (Wet), and Honey processed.
We would all like to think that most coffee producers have a particular flavor profile in mind when they process their coffee cherries, then work towards achieving that. But this is a romanticized idea.
In reality, most will use the process which will result in the fewest beans with a “defect”. Their aim is to maintain the quality and, therefore, the price of their coffee. Or, it is simply the only process available to them – remember, a huge amount of coffee comes from countries that don’t have a lot of money or water.
The process used will result in different characteristics in the final bean. And, there are different benefits and drawbacks for each of the different ways coffee is processed. Read on to find out more:
Originating from Ethiopia, natural processing (also known as the dry process), is the oldest known method of coffee processing.
After harvesting the coffee cherries, they are spread out in a thin layer to dry in the sun. Some farmers will spread them out on brick patios whilst others will spread them on raised “drying tables”. Drying coffee on tables (like raised planters) allows better airflow so the fruit can dry more evenly.
With dry processed coffee, the cherries have to be turned frequently to prevent fermentation, mold, or rot. Then, once fully dried, the outer husk (or skin) is removed mechanically so the raw green coffee beans can be stored for export.
The natural process adds certain flavors to the coffee – some very desirable but some can be quite unpleasant. However, if there is little access to water this may be the only processing method available to coffee producers. Therefore, it is particularly prevalent in places such as Ethiopia and Brazil.
Despite being the most eco-friendly coffee processing method, it is generally only deemed good enough for low-quality or unripe coffee. Most of the coffee processed this way is processed as cheaply as possible due to the low price the finished product will sell for.
It seems strange that some producers would invest in coffee drying tables when the finished product has so little value. But there are some high-quality coffee growers who choose to process their coffee this way. Plus, it can actually be a much more expensive process due to the labor needed to ensure consistently dry coffee cherries.
Flavor Profile of Natural Processed Coffee
Over time, dry processed coffee has become associated with lower quality and an inconsistent flavor profile. This is why it is mainly used as cheaper mass consumer coffee beans.
Generally, natural processing adds fruit flavors such as blueberry, strawberry, or tropical fruit. But it can also add some negative “wild” flavors which are often described as barnyard, ferment, manure… delicious, huh?
This tends to divide coffee nerds: Some love the fruity and bold, high-quality coffee from natural processing. Whilst others see it as a needless waste of high-quality coffee beans to risk giving them all the negative flavors associated with natural coffees.
There is always a chance that a high-quality crop could be irreparably damaged during processing, significantly reducing the income of the coffee farmer. So, it is a gamble put upon the shoulders of the poorest in the coffee supply chain.
Wet or washed coffee processing involves removing all the flesh from the coffee seeds before drying them. This greatly reduces the chances of something going wrong during the drying stage.
After the coffee cherries have been picked, a machine called a “de-pulper” removes the skin and most of the fruit. Then, the coffee is moved to a trough or tank containing clean water where fermentation removes the rest of the flesh.
The flesh is very firmly attached to the seed and contains a lot of pectins. But fermentation breaks down the remaining flesh to a level where it can be easily washed away.
Different producers use different amounts of water. But, there are environmental concerns about washed coffee due to the volume needed and what happens to the water post-processing as it can be toxic.
The amount of time fermentation takes depends on the climate where the wet processing takes place. The hotter it is, the faster the flesh will be broken down.
There are several methods to test when the flesh is ready to be stripped off the coffee seeds: Some will rub the fruit together, looking for a “squeaking” noise. Whilst others put a stick into the tank and see if it stands up. They does this because the removal of the pectin causes the water to become gelatinous.
If left too long, fermentation has the same risks as natural processed coffee – negative flavors can creep in.
After the flesh has been washed, the parchment coffee is spread out in the sun for drying. They are turned regularly with large rakes to ensure slow and even drying. However, if there’s not enough sun or it’s too humid, mechanical dryers can be used. The end goal is an 11% moisture content.
Flavor Profile of Washed Coffee
When you drink washed coffee, you get to experience the true flavor of the coffee bean. It is a celebration of what is on the inside. Rather than requiring a flavorful whole coffee cherry, the focus of wet process coffee is tasting the elements experienced during the growing cycle like varietal, weather, and the soil.
Wet processed coffee tends to have a higher acidity, increased complexity, and a “cleaner” flavor. “Cleanliness” is an important term in coffee evaluation as it is used to describe the absence of negative flavors in the coffee.
In the coffee world, washed coffee is deemed superior, fetching a higher price. But, it’s also far more expensive to process coffee in this way. And its an unethical coffee processing method in terms of environmental costs as it is highly resource-intensive.
The method of honey processing coffee beans originated in Costa Rica. Today, it is still widely used there as well as in several other Central American countries and is associated with the specialty coffee market.
When honey processing, the cherries are de-pulped using the same machines that are used for wet processing. However, they are programmed to leave a specific amount of flesh on the seeds. Then, they are left on drying tables like dry processed coffee beans.
The reduction in the amount of flesh around the seeds greatly reduces the risk of defects whilst still retaining the fruit flavors associated with natural process coffee.
Careful monitoring is required during the drying process to ensure there is no mold, rot, or fermentation. But the result can be a sweet full-bodied coffee minus any of the risks associated with dry processing.
The amount of flesh left on the seeds determines the style of honey processing, and can be broken down into 4 sub-categories:
- White Honey Coffee is fairly close to wet process coffee. Here, 80-100% of the mucilage is removed
- Yellow Honey Coffee removes 50-75% of the mucilage
- Red Honey Coffee has 25-50% of the mucilage removed. It is fairly close in style to natural process coffee, retaining a fairly dark color once dried.
- Black Honey Coffee removes 0-25% of the skin and mucilage
Flavor Profile from Honey Processing Coffee
When done well, honey coffees can have the sweetness and body of a natural processed coffee but with much less risk of defects. Plus, it uses far less water than the wet processing method. So, it can be the best of all worlds.
You can experience the sweet flavors of honey and brown sugar. But that’s not where honey processing got its name – just a nice coincidence. Instead, it was named after the stickiness of the beans during processing.
Typically speaking, the more mucilage removed, the less sweet the resultant beans will be. So, honey process coffee beans that fall anywhere between white and red honey will have a milder flavor profile that is more fruit-focused than washed coffee. They will, however, still be delicate and clean. With this style of coffee beans, the acidity is muted whilst still having great balance.
With black honey coffee beans, you get a punchy, super sweet, and fruity coffee flavor. This makes them particularly well suited to espresso.
Well, that depends on your preference:
If you’re a fan of sweeter and richer coffee that is more fruity, then try the natural processed beans. There is a higher risk of defects but if you’re buying high-grade coffee beans then this shouldn’t be an issue.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for fresher, brighter, and more complex coffee with lower acidity then the washed coffee beans are the ones for you. Though maybe get both and see which ones you prefer with your favorite brewing method?
Translated from Indonesian, Giling Basah means “wet-hulled”. So, it will not surprise you to learn that this is a commonly used processing method in Indonesia.
After picking, the coffee is de-pulped and then briefly dried. Instead of drying to around 11-12% moisture content like the other coffee processing methods, the coffee is dried to around 30-35%. It is then hulled, meaning it is stripped of the parchment, exposing the green coffee beans underneath.
This green coffee is then dried again until there is no risk of them rotting in storage. Drying like this gives the coffee beans a distinctive “swampy green” color.
Coffees that have been wet hulled tend to have a lower acidity than with other processing methods. In terms of taste profile, it generates a number of different flavors such as wood, spice, tobacco, and leather. So, many coffee experts don’t like this method as they feel it detracts from the flavor of the coffee itself.
As this process is pretty much exclusive to Indonesia, it survives as a unique style to that area. Personally, I like that they do something different and are continuing a historical tradition. It all adds to the “terroir” of the coffee alongside the characteristic deep bold flavors of Indonesian coffee.
We get it, the idea of processing something we will consume has (unfairly) negative connotations these days. But, when it comes to coffee, it is a vital stage to extract the beans from the coffee fruit (cherry). This makes it suitable for coffee roasters to do their magic before the beans make their way to your coffee cup.
Once the coffee cherries have been harvested, they need to be processed straight away – usually the same day. Failing to do so will result in coffee spoilage and a waste of a lot of hard work picking.
Growing coffee is tightly linked to the surrounding environment and available resources. So, whilst coffee producers want to make the most flavorful and profitable coffee they can, they are often limited by factors outside their control. Factors like water scarcity or infrastructure.
The coffee processing method used by each producer may not be set in stone at the start of the harvest season. Instead, they might wait to see how much rain Mother Nature has in store and decide from there.
Prolonged dry spells are ideal for honey or natural process coffee because the sugars are retained, and not washed away. Whereas heavy rainfall splits the coffee cherries making it a poor choice for natural processing.
Then, of course, there’s how much water is physically available for wet processing. It may be the preferred coffee processing method for quality coffee production, but if there’s not enough water to spare for coffee farmers, then wet processing is automatically off the table.
Making decaffeinated coffee involves putting the green coffee beans through an additional processing stage.
It’s a pretty complex operation to remove the caffeine molecules from the coffee beans, but there are currently 4 main decaffeination methods available to producers. Each method involves using water alongside a decaffeinating agent to draw out the caffeine and the better methods leave the flavor molecules unaffected.
To learn more about the decaffeination process and how to pick the best decaf coffee beans, check out our complete guide, here.
Processing is just one step in the coffee bean’s journey from the farm to your cup. So, it still has a few hurdles to jump through before it makes its way into your home.
Nearly all of the coffee beans consumed globally for use at home have already been roasted. Most often, coffee roasting takes place in the consumer’s country and not in the country of origin which would be better for the local economy but not for freshness.
So, the green coffee beans need to be exported in large jute bags to protect the quality as they make their way around the world. They will then end up at coffee roasters, big and small, who will do their magic before selling the freshly roasted coffee to you, the consumer.
In fact, it’s often not even part of the conversation. But, it is still an integral element of the flavor and character of coffee you will enjoy.
Now, armed with this information, you will know exactly what to expect if you pick up a Costa Rican honey processed coffee or an Ethiopian natural processed coffee. So go forth and drink all the delicious and differently processed coffee beans!
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