Have you ever considered how your coffee was processed?
The truth is that the method used to process coffee has an enormous impact on the flavour profile of the cup of coffee you end up drinking.
Processing coffee is the series of steps taken to depulp (remove the skin) from the coffee cherry and dry the coffee beans. There are various processing methods used to prepare coffee for export, but the most traditional methods are washed, natural, and honey.
For producers, selecting a processing method can be practical, traditional, or experimental. However, in many circumstances, producers have no choice in the matter and must choose a processing method based on their environment or their income.
The washed process is the most commonly used in the world of specialty coffee - particularly in Central and South America. The reason the washed process is favoured by most specialty coffee producers is because it draws out the bean’s profile like no other method. Coffees that are washed process are often described as clean, tea-like and smooth.
This process aims to remove the sticky mucilage from the coffee seed before it is dried. When the coffee has been depulped, it is moved to a tank or trough of clean water to ferment where the mucilage is broken down so that the remaining flesh can be easily washed away.
The coffee is then washed to remove the remaining flesh. Finally, the coffee is laid flat to dry, usually on a raised bed or concrete patio to allow a slow drying of the bean.
Because of the way that the processing is achieved, the end result of washed coffees really does depend on the quality of the coffee more than the method.
Coffee being natural processed at a farm in Honduras. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre via Perfect Daily Grind.
The natural process, also known as the dry process, is the oldest form of coffee processing and a common processing method in countries that don’t have a lot of access to water.
Although the process of natural coffee is simple, it requires a high degree of knowledge and experience to bring out the best in the coffee. It is a method that has the potential to enhance some very interesting flavours present in the coffee cherries.
The harvested cherries are simply spread onto concrete patios or raised drying beds. The coffee is regularly turned to prevent moulding or rotting of the cherries. When the coffee is sufficiently dried, the skin is removed mechanically and the coffee is stored for export.
The end result of a natural processed coffee usually tastes delightfully funky, sweet and more full-bodied than its washed counterpart.
Honey processing in progress at a farm in Honduras. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre via Perfect Daily Grind.
Honey processing is often thought of as a hybrid between traditional washed and natural processing. For this processing method, the coffee is picked and sorted and then run through a mill that removes the cherry skins and some of the sticky, honey-like mucilage (hence the name) that surrounds the cherry bean before drying.
The coffee is still mechanically depulped, but the producers can control the depulping machines to leave a certain amount of flesh on the beans. Different levels of remaining flesh are given different kinds of grading - black honey, red honey and white honey.
Honey processed coffees are the best of both worlds! They’re typically full-bodied like a natural but clean, sweet and smooth like a washed. But, like naturally processed coffees, require lots of knowledge to execute well, which is why we don’t see them around too often.
The way coffee gets processed varies greatly, depending on the country and region of production. Traditionally, the chosen method is determined by factors like the producer’s access to land and water along with the local climate conditions.
Climate change has proposed a new set of challenges for coffee producers which means the future of coffee processing is uncertain for many countries. Coffee roasters, importers and consumers alike can help the future of coffee processing by contributing to a support system for farmers to network and access information. Publishing videos and articles about the topic could have a huge impact to help farmers manoeuvre upcoming challenges.
Padre Coffee acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and their continued connections to land, sea and community.
We pay our respect to Elders past, present and future, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.