(L to R) Honey, natural and washed coffee being dried on raised drying beds at La Pira de Dota Micro Mill, Costa Rica
Coffee being depulped into a fermentation tank in preparation to be washed processed at Finca La Primavera, Colombia.
Washing coffee cherries results in a super clean flavour profile and represents an ideal processing method for those who prefer a brighter brew. The fruit from the coffee cherry is first removed and then washed before being laid out to dry. To remove the fruit (or mucilage), the beans are placed into fermentation tanks for 24-48 hours. This process retains the beans natural crisp acidity.
Unlike a natural or honey processed coffee where the bean requires a flavourful coffee cherry, washed coffees depend almost 100% on the bean having absorbed enough natural sugars during its growing cycle. This means the varietal, soil, weather, ripeness, fermentation, washing and drying are key.
The washed process is able to highlight the true character of a single origin bean like no other process – and is the reason for the immense popularity of washed coffee.
Natural coffee drying on raised drying beds at La Pira Dota Micro Mill, Costa Rica.
In natural (also known as dry) processing, coffee cherries are dried - in this case, sun-dried on raised African drying beds - with the fruit of the coffee still attached to the seeds.
Although the simplest and oldest way to process coffee, it's not easy to get right, and requires very careful control at harvest and processing levels to ensure that over a long (often 20-40 day) drying period the sugars and flavours in the coffee fruit are concentrated and absorbed into the bean without over fermentation or uneven drying.
At their best, naturally processed coffees are sticky-sweet, and highly complex with unmistakable fruity flavours and aromatics.
Oscar Chacon with honey processed coffee at Finca Las Lajas, Costa Rica.
Honey processing is often thought of as a hybrid between traditional washed and natural processing. In honey processing, 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 ‘colour’ assigned to a honey processed coffee generally refers to the amount of mucilage that has been removed in processing.
In red honey processing, approximately 50% of the mucilage is removed. The processing usually takes longer and is typically developed with cloud cover or shading. Red honey lots tend to be sweet with red-fruit notes and some nutty undertones.
In white honey processing, the majority of the mucilage is removed before drying. Honey processing often presents as a sweet, clean and well balanced cup.
Black honey is the most complex, laborious, and expensive. This is because it takes the longest time to ferment and takes up space on the drying beds for up to twice as long compared to yellow & red honey processing.