Coffee Processing Methods: Differences Between Natural, Washed, and Honey

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Alex DeCapri

Alex DeCapri is a specialty coffee roaster and curious coffee writer. He started sourcing his own green beans to roast and ship worldwide and later became the head roaster at OOP Café in Belo Horizonte. Now on a road trip from the U.S. to Brazil, Alex visits coffee farms and shares his firsthand experience from field visits.


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Did you know that how green coffee beans are processed after being picked affects their taste and quality?

Natural, washed, and honey are the three main processing methods used for coffee beans.

I’ve had the fortunate experience of seeing these methods firsthand at coffee farms in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico during my travels to origin as a coffee roaster.

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between these methods and their impact on your morning cup of joe.

Key Takeaways

  • Coffee processing refers to what happens to the coffee cherry and green coffee bean after it is picked and is a crucial step in determining the final taste and quality of the coffee.
  • The type of processing that a coffee bean goes through influences the flavor, aroma, and body of the final cup of coffee.
  • The three primary coffee processing methods are natural (dry), washed (wet), and honey.
  • Beans that go through the natural process tend to be fruitier and more wine-like in flavor with a heavier body, more sweetness, and lower acidity.
  • Washed processed coffee results in a cleaner, brighter cup of coffee with higher acidity and a lighter body than natural processing.
  • The honey process is a hybrid of the natural and washed methods that can have a unique and complex flavor profile with both sweetness and bright acidity, with a medium to heavy body.

What is Coffee Processing?

When people talk about how their coffee was processed, they are specifically referring to what happened to the coffee cherry and bean after it was picked from the tree.

Post-harvest processing is a crucial step in determining the final taste and quality of your coffee. After harvesting, farmers take the coffee cherries through various steps of sorting, washing, drying, and sometimes additional fermenting.

In this article, we are specifically concerned with the washing and drying part of this phase.

drying-coffee-beans

Does The Coffee Processing Method Matter?

Yes, the type of processing that a coffee bean goes through definitely matters.

Each method has its unique characteristics and influences the flavor and aroma of the coffee beans. In addition to flavors, these processing methods also affect the body of the coffee.
Do you prefer a bright, clean cup? Does a rich, fruity coffee sound better?

The processing method can make all the difference in achieving your desired flavor profile. Now, let’s dive into how what each method looks like and how it influences your final cup.

3 Main Types of Coffee Processing Methods

There are three primary coffee processing methods: natural (dry), washed (wet), and honey. Each process washes and dried coffee in different ways, creating different characteristics in the brewed cup.

Natural Processed Coffee

The natural process, also referred to as the “dry” method, involves drying the cherries with the fruit still intact. This is a particularly popular method in coffee-growing regions where water is scarce.

dry-process

It’s the oldest and most traditional method of processing coffee. The cherries are usually spread out on large concrete patios or raised beds to dry in the sun.

Natural coffees tend to be fruitier and more wine-like in flavor. Expect a heavier body, more sweetness, and lower acidity than in other processing methods.

Many people in the coffee world believe that leaving the cherry on the bean allows the fruit’s natural sugars to infuse into the beans, but this is a myth. Sugars aren’t moving from the fruit into the bean during the drying process. This would go against the laws of physics, as water is flowing out of the bean when it dries, not the other way around. The additional sweetness likely has to do with not losing as much sugar content to as compared to the washed method. (1)

This method is commonly used in parts of Ethiopia, Yemen, and Brazil. The natural process lends itself well to dry and hot climates.

Washed Processed Coffee

The washed process is also known as the “wet” method, and it involves removing the outer layers of the coffee cherry before drying the beans.

wet-process-coffee

In this method, the cherries are pulped to remove the skin and fruit, leaving only the beans.

The beans are then washed in tanks of water to remove any remaining fruit and fermented for a period of time to break down the mucilage layer, which is the sticky residue on the beans. After this step, farmers will move the beans to be dried on patios or raised beds.

Washed processing results in a cleaner, brighter cup of coffee with higher acidity and a lighter body than natural processing. It’s easier to control than the natural process, where the producer has to constantly pay attention to humidity changes and possible issues with unwanted fermentation.

This process is widely used in Central and South America, East Africa, and Asia. Countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya, and Ethiopia are well known for producing washed processed coffee.

Honey Processed Coffee

honey-process

Honey processing is a hybrid of the natural and washed methods, also known as “semi-washed” in some places.
In this method, the cherry pulp is removed, leaving some of the fruit and mucilage still intact. The beans are then dried with the remaining fruit and mucilage on them, creating a sticky layer that resembles honey.

Honey processed coffee can have a unique and complex flavor profile, with sweetness and fruity notes, as well as bright acidity. The body falls somewhere in between natural and washed processing, with a medium to heavy body.

This method requires much less water than the washed process, but still may require some depending on how the producers pulp their cherries.

The honey process is relatively new and less common than natural and washed processing, but it’s becoming more popular in some regions. Many producers in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and other Central American countries process coffee using this method. Specialty coffee producers in Brazil are also widely experimenting with this process.

You may find labels on coffee bags describing the process as black honey, red honey, or yellow honey. These colors have to do with the amount of mucilage left on the beans when drying. It’s not very standardized, and I found that it meant something different to each coffee farmer that I visited when roasting specialty coffee in Brazil.

Wet-Hulled Method

While I didn’t include this method as one of the three primary coffee processing methods, it’s definitely worth talking about.

It is sometimes referred to as the “semi-washed” or “Giling Basah” method, it’s a unique coffee processing method that is widely used in Indonesia, particularly on the island of Sumatra.

The process starts with the freshly picked coffee cherries being pulped to remove the outer layers of skin and fruit. After pulping, the beans are left to ferment in their mucilage for a few hours or overnight.

Up until this step, the wet-hulled method sounds very similar to the honey method, but here’s where they begin to differ.

The beans are then washed to remove any remaining mucilage and left to dry until they reach a moisture content of around 35-45%. (2)

At this point, the beans go through a process called “hulling”, where the parchment layer is removed while the beans are still wet. This is a crucial difference from other processing methods, where the parchment is usually removed only after the beans have fully dried to 10-12% moisture levels.

This wet-hulling process gives coffee a unique flavor profile, characterized by distinct earthy and savory notes, low acidity, and a heavy body.

While mainly used in Indonesia, other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Malaysia also process coffee with this method.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is natural processed coffee more acidic?

Natural processed coffee tends to be less acidic than washed coffee. It’s usually fruitier and more wine-like in flavor. Expect a heavier body, more sweetness, and lower acidity than in other processing methods. If you want a more acidic coffee, coffee beans that went through the washed process might be for you.

Is natural or washed coffee better?

This depends on what flavor profile you like most. Coffee that goes through the natural process tends to be fruitier and sweeter with a heavy body, while washed coffee is usually more acidic, clean, and bright with a light body. If you like how both sound, try a honey processed coffee for the best of both worlds.

What are the steps of coffee processing?

After picking the cherries from the coffee plant, farmers process coffee in several steps. These include sorting, washing, drying, and sometimes additional fermenting. Coffee cherries are usually sorted by density, size, and ripeness. Then, the beans can be washed and dried in a variety of ways, sometimes with the cherry skin intact like for natural coffees, and other times pulped and dried as seeds under the washed process.

References:

1. Making Coffee with Lucia Solis – https://www.buzzsprout.com/604165/10327571-42-germination-processing-wet-washed-vs-dry-natural

2. Wet-Hulled Process – https://library.sweetmarias.com/glossary/wet-hulled-process/

Photo of author

Alex DeCapri

Alex DeCapri is a specialty coffee roaster and curious coffee writer. During his time living in Brazil, he spent months learning directly from producers how to pick and process coffee the right way. One thing led to the next, and he started sourcing his own green beans to roast and ship worldwide and later became the head roaster at OOP Café in Belo Horizonte. Currently, Alex is traveling slowly from the United States to Brazil in his self-converted camper van, trying to visit as many coffee farms as possible along the way. If you see him on the road, be sure to say hi!