The humble coffee bean comes in many forms, it can be roasted to a range of different profiles and can be brewed using a vast array of techniques. But, before any of that can happen, the coffee has to undergo a processing method.
Do you ever look at your packaged coffee and wonder what washed, natural, and honey methods mean?
How the coffee has been processed is often stamped onto bags in a prominent place, so it must be important, right? Knowing precisely how your coffee has been prepared will help you identify the characteristics you like in each coffee.
Every processing technique will give the beans a different flavor and mouthfeel, which you’ll easily be able to identify after some practice.
In this article, we will be taking a closer look at the different coffee processing methods, and the effects each has on the coffee bean.
Traditionally there are three ways to process coffee – wet, dry, and honey.
Some rare alternatives are typically localized to specific regions. Still, for the sake of simplicity, these are the three natural methods we will focus on and are the ones you’re more likely to encounter when purchasing coffee.
Why Do We Process Coffee?
It’s probably a good idea to understand why coffee is processed in the first place. Each coffee cherry consists of distinct layers: the outer skin, mucilage, pulp, pectin payer, parchment, and silverskin.
Coffee processing is required to remove these layers to get to the inner bean and then dry it to the optimal level.
It sounds simple enough, but there’s more to it than that.
A lot of coffee’s flavor actually comes from these surrounding layers, specifically the mucilage, pulp, and juice, not from the actual bean itself.
So how the coffee is processed can be critical; as much of that flavor as possible needs to be infused into the bean.
Even if the coffee fruit was harvested at its peak, insufficient coffee processing could lead to defects and decreased value.
For farmers, deciding on a suitable processing method can be an important decision.
Natural – Dry Process
The natural coffee process, also known in the industry as the dry process, is one of the oldest methods used to process coffee, and it can be traced back to Ethiopia.
Once the coffee cherries have been harvested, they are evenly laid out to dry in the sun.
Depending on the farm or region where the coffee has been grown, these drying stations will vary.
Some methods will utilize a unique raised table (bed) that allows air to flow around the drying cherries, while others prefer to use brick patios on the floor.
Due to being outside in the elements, the cherries are turned at regular intervals to help avoid rotting, mold, or unwanted fermentation.
When the cherries are completely dry, the skin, dried pulp, and flesh are removed mechanically.
The green coffee bean is then stored and rested before it’s exported for additional processing and packaging.
This natural way of processing coffee is common in growing regions where water is in short supply. It calls for little investment but relies on specific climatic conditions to allow the consistent drying of the fruit and seed in time.
Washed – Wet Process
Washed coffee, also referred to as the wet processing method, is another popular way of preparing coffee.
It focuses on the actual bean for the flavor and not on the outer layers such as the pulp and juice to enhance the flavor.
The natural or dry process needs a flavorful coffee cherry to aid in the flavor of the coffee bean. However, washed coffee depends on the bean absorbing flavor through growing alone.
The washing process removes all of the flesh from the bean before it is dried, so it’s vital that the natural sugars and nutrients are infused into the coffee while it’s growing.
A mechanical machine, called a Depulper, is used to remove the flesh, and after de-pulping, the beans are added to a water tank where a fermentation process will remove any leftover flesh and pulp.
The fermentation typically requires 24 to 72 hours to complete.
This time varies depending on the climate. For example, hotter regions tend to require less fermenting time compared to colder climates.
Timing the fermentation process is critical. If the beans are left for too long, there’s a high chance that the resulting coffee flavor will be negatively impacted.
Once this fermentation cycle is complete, the coffee beans are then washed to remove any leftover residue – the beans are then ready to be dried.
Drying is done similarly to the natural process by using either raised tables or the beans are laid out onto brick floors.
In regions with too much humidity or simply not enough sun to effectively dry out the coffee bean, mechanical drying is used.
Washed coffee needs a lot more water than other methods making it expensive for farmers to produce. It takes a lot of skill, and farmers are integral in crafting the taste and flavor profile.
Honey – Pulped Natural Process
This process doesn’t actually use any honey. Crazy, I know. The name comes from how sticky the beans get during processing.
This honey processing method is, in many ways, halfway between a natural and washed processing method. The coffee cherries are de-pulped, but the machines are dialed in to leave a small amount of flesh on the beans.
The beans are then laid out onto drying tables or patios with a small amount of intact flesh. There is less risk of over fermentation due to less flesh and pulp than the alternative natural process.
The natural honey process typically produces a cup with a more rounded acidity than the washed process, with intense sweetness and complex mouthfeel.
The honey preparation method is widely used in Central American countries such as Costa Rica and El Salvador.
The entire process can be very scientific, and in recent years different categories have come to the market that includes yellow, red, golden, and white honey varieties.
These variations are tweaked to allow a certain amount of flesh to remain on the bean – Typically, the more tissue left on the bean, the sweeter the taste.
How Do Farmers Decide What Processing Method To Use?
It is no surprise that farmers want to produce the best-tasting coffee they can while still being profitable.
However, their decisions on which coffee processing method to use are determined by their environment. Unlike some other plant-based foods, coffee truly thrives depending on its surrounding environment.
In most cases, the farmers haven’t decided on which processing methods they will use to grow the coffee.
Instead, they wait to see how much rainfall there has been that particular season before they decide to produce natural, washed, or honey processed coffee.
Heavy rains, as an example, will make it far more difficult for the farms to process the coffee using the dry method because the cherries tend to split under these conditions.
If the weather conditions are mild and there has been little rain, the coffee cherries are perfect for the natural or honey method because no sugars will get washed away.
Other Lesser Known Coffee Processing Methods
The above wet, dry, and honey preparing methods are the three that farmers and coffee producers typically use.
But, there are a handful of lesser-known methods that some producers do practice, albeit on a smaller scale and in certain regions.
Giling Basah means “wet hulled” in Indonesian. The process is very similar to the wet method, but the coffee beans are typically dried to only 30 to 35 percent moisture content.
Once the beans have finished their allotted drying time, the parchment is removed, and the “naked” beans are laid out to dry once again until they are dry enough to be stored.
The Anaerobic coffee method relies on fermentation to process the beans. In recent years this method has gained traction and is popular in high-end specialty coffee.
The actual process bears many similarities with the washed method, but the entire Anaerobic technique is carried out in fully-sealed, oxygen-deprived tanks.
The Carbonic Maceration process is very much the same as the Anaerobic but with a close similarity to winemaking.
However, the significant difference in this process compared to Anaerobic is that the coffee bean cherries are fermented whole. The fermentation process then breaks down the cell walls of the fruit from the inside out.
The intense flavors from the flesh are infused into the beans, and you can expect some out-of-this-world flavors such as red wine, banana, whisky, and even bubblegum.