If you’re purchasing coffee beans from a specialty roaster or an online store, you will probably notice that there is usually a description of the processing method on the packaging. For example, it could be natural, dry, wet, wash, or honey processed. But what is the difference between each of these methods, and how is the flavor of the coffee affected by each one?
This coffee buying guide will get to the bottom of those questions so you can make a more informed choice when buying coffee beans.
If you are interested in good coffee beans, also read this guide: Guide For Buying The Best Coffee Beans.
Types Of Coffee Processing – Natural, Wash, And Honey Process
Coffee processing is one of the most important elements of farming coffee – the objective is to extract the bean from the coffee cherry. The coffee bean (The seed) is surrounded by parchment, mucilage, coffee fruit, and the coffee cherry’s skin.
Usually, coffee processing is carried out using three methods: natural (dry), wash (wet), or honey. There are other methods, including well hulling (Giling Basah), common in Indonesia. Producers are also testing out new techniques too, such as carbonic maceration and anaerobic fermentation.
Some methods take longer than others, while the costs of each differ, too. Meanwhile, some methods require the use of more natural resources than others. Not only that, but the flavor of the coffee can vary depending on the coffee processing method.
Roasters also use different techniques in coffee roasting depending on the processing methods. Usually, they take the roasts slower for natural and honey processed coffee, while they are more aggressive for washed coffee.
Let’s examine the most widely-used coffee processing methods to determine the differences between them.
Natural Process (or Dry Process)
The natural (or dry) process originated in Ethiopia and is the most traditional way to process coffee. This method involves picking the coffee cherries (fruit) and drying them on patios in the sunshine. Next, the coffee producers regularly turn and rake the coffee cherries.
Eventually, the green beans will be separated from any dried fruit. This method leaves a moisture content of around 10.5%. Sometimes, the producer will opt for a mechanical dryer instead of putting them out in the sun.
This method is cheap, as you don’t need lots of machinery. However, it will only be effective in certain climates to ensure the drying of the seeds and fruit in time. Yemen, Ethiopia, and Brazil are among the countries that widely use this method.
This processing method is the most environmentally friendly. The dry processing method can use as little as one gallon of water for every kilogram of dried parchment coffee. Meanwhile, wet method uses around 10 times more water than this.
Characteristics Of Natural Processed Coffee
This process leads to a flavorful coffee with an abundance of sweetness and fruitiness, whatever the region and variety.
Flavor notes to expect are strawberry, blueberry, honey, and tropical fruits. However, you may also detect fermented, wild flavors with notes resembling alcohol.
Natural coffees are regularly described as having red wine-type flavors in comparison to washed coffees.
Natural processed coffees are popular with baristas and roasters keen to demonstrate how coffee can taste to skeptical consumers. However, those flavors can also repel people who aren’t keen on the wild and fermented flavors they produce.
Natural Processing Steps
- The coffee cherries are picked, and the farmers then remove the damaged and unripe fruit from the batch.
- The fruit stays on the bean. The producers place them in thin layers to dry. The drying areas can be brick patios or fine mesh wire netting, allowing air to move around the cherries to enable more drying. The type of drying station will often depend on the region or farm.
- The cherries are raked and turned often to avoid fermentation, mold forming, or rotting.
- The layer of cherry protects the beans, which ensures that it can take a relatively long time for the coffee to attain an optimal moisture level of less than 12.5%. Indeed, it could take between two and four weeks, depending on the humidity and temperature. However, after a few days, machine drying can be implemented by larger plantations and farms to speed up the process.
- With the cherries dried sufficiently, they are placed in coffee silos and transported to a mill. There, the cherries are hulled (which removes the fruit), sorted, and graded.
- The green coffee beans are then stored prior to being exported.
Washed Process (Or Wet Process)
The washed (or wet) processing method is the other primary means of processing coffee. In this method, the flesh of the fruit is taken off the ripe cherries prior to drying. This process takes place in a machine called depulper. After the depulping is complete, the beans are fermented in a water tank.
Following this, the processor washes the beans to remove any lingering flesh, and the beans are either sun-dried or dried mechanically in the same way as the dry processing method.
Using this method, the flavor is not influenced by the cherry, leading to a purer coffee than that offered by other methods. This method is particularly popular because the risk of defects is lower, and the process is more consistent. However, more water is needed than the other methods, so it’s more costly.
Characteristics Of Wet Processed Coffee (Washed coffee)
Other processes utilize the flavors from the cherry fresh. However, the wet process accentuates the single-origin bean’s authentic character. It’s for this reason that many specialty roasters use coffee processed this way.
The environmental conditions and country the beans are from add to the flavor. The process results in bright acidity in your brewed coffee. Beans of this nature are well-loved by baristas and roasters because they are more complex and have cleaner profiles. However, one downside is the coffee lacks the body of those processed using other methods.
Washed Processing Steps
- The ripe, red cherries are picked from the coffee trees.
- The red cherries are washed to remove stones and dirt.
- In a depulper, remove the flesh of the fruit. This process extracts the beans held in the coffee cherry. The removed fruit flesh is uses are fertilizer on the plantation or farm.
- The coffee beans are placed in a fermentation tank to ferment. This process ensures the flavors intensify due to chemical reactions. The time needed will vary depending on altitude and climate. The cooler the climate, the more time it will take, and vice versa. Typically, this will take between one and three days. However, if the beans spend too long fermenting, the flavor will worsen.
- The beans are washed so that any extra flesh still on them is removed.
- The beans are dried on raised beds or brick patios. So that the beans dry evenly, the processor turns them often. Mechanical drying is also an option in regions with high humidity and not enough sunshine.
Honey – Pulped Natural Process
Honey or pulped natural processing is popular in Central American regions, including El Salvador and Costa Rica. In this process, the coffee is pulped, bypassing the fermentation stage of the wet processing. After this, the drying takes place with most of the fruit flesh is still present.
There are different levels of honey-processed coffee, including red honey, black honey, white honey, and yellow honey. This level is determined by the amount of fruit flesh still on the beans after depulping. This alters the coffee flavor. For example, black honey resembles natural coffee, while white honey is more akin to washed coffee.
Characteristics Of Honey Processed Coffee
The flavor of honey coffees sits between washed and natural coffees. You’ll find it is fruity, but not to the degree of natural processed coffee. Meanwhile, its acidity is more rounded than coffee produced with the washed method, while it has a complex mouthfeel and intense sweetness.
Honey Processing Steps
- The cherries are depulped. However, the machines are set so that some of the flesh stays on the beans.
- Once depulped, the beans are dried on patios or drying tables. Because less flesh remains on the beans than in the natural process, there is less risk of over-fermentation. However, the body and sweetness of the coffee increase because of the sugars in the remaining flesh.
- Once the beans are dry, the thin parchment and dried mucilage are machine-removed.
Other Coffee Processing Methods
Wet Hulled (Giling Basah)
This process is common in Indonesia.
Once the beans are depulped, the coffee is placed in plastic tanks where hulling removes the parchment and mucilage on the seeds.
Once they are free of these elements, the beans are dried. The drying time is short, and the process is efficient, thanks to Indonesia’s humid climate.
The result is a heavy-bodied coffee (because of the dried mucilage). It also tastes savory, chocolatey, and nutty, which is excellent for a blended roast. However, it is not particularly well-liked among experts in specialty coffee.
This fermentation process is oxygen-free. It bears similarities with the washed method. However, fermentation occurs in completely sealed tanks. This method is in the experimental stage, which leads to inconsistent results with surprising and complex flavors.
This method has its origins in wine-making. The cherries are fermented with all the flesh on them, and the vibrant flavors from the flesh are absorbed into the beans. This process leads to some unexpected and amazing flavors resembling whisky or red wine.
Whichever coffee bean you opt for, you can be sure that the way they are processed is far more than an eye-catching buzzword on a package.
Hopefully, this article has given you a better appreciation of those crucial differences in coffee processing methods and that next time you’re on the lookout for specialty beans, and you can determine which of them is better suited to you.
However, please keep in mind that even the coffee is processed in the same method, processing techniques may vary in different regions, resulting coffee has different flavor profiles. Coffee roasting and brewing can have a further impact on the overall flavor of your cup of coffee. That’s the charm of coffee, the exploration is endless.