We’ve written previously on the meaning of “coffee origin—the basis of the popular term single origin coffee—and it’s instrumental role in shaping coffee flavor. That term is often associated with the country and locale where a given coffee is grown and harvested, which is absolutely valid, but really that’s only half of the coffee origin story. The other half occurs after harvesting, when the seeds of ripe coffee cherries are separated from their fruit, dried and prepared for roasting. The breadth and depth of this preparation goes by the rather unromantic term, “processing.” Different processing techniques have a profound impact on taste and the terminology used to explain them can vary widely. We’ll focus on three of the most common methods of processing – washed, natural and honey – and touch upon other methods gaining prominence in specialty coffee.
“Washed” or “wet” processing is the most common processing method in specialty coffee. After the coffee is harvested, the skin of the coffee cherry is removed and the fruit laden seeds are soaked in water for hours or days at a time. Most of the fruit loosens which helps remove all but a thin layer still clung to the seeds commonly referred to as parchment. The coffee is then dried, the parchment removed and the green, or unroasted, coffee prepared for export. This method of coffee processing tends to impart clean and crisp characteristics in the cup, with flavors of citrus and red fruits.
“Natural” or “dry” processing is the oldest and most traditional method of processing coffee. The coffee cherry is simply dried whole, like a raisin. For this reason, natural-processed coffees are sometimes referred to as, “fruit-dried.” Unlike the water-intensive washed method, natural processed coffee requires little to no water at all and is commonly practiced in arid climates such as Yemen and the Harrar growing region in Ethiopia. Coffees processed by the natural method tend to be smooth with intense wine- or berry-like fruit flavors.
The “honey”, “pulped natural” or “pulped dried” method is less common but gaining popularity. There’s no actual honey to be found here, just the sticky honey-like appearance of the beans as they are drying of which the moniker is derived. The skin of the coffee cherry is removed in step with the washed method, but some of the fruit is left to stick to the seed during the drying process. The beans tend to take on a distinct color as they dry, prompting coffee producers to specify their coffees as red, black or yellow honey-processed depending on their variation of the method. Flavors of honey processed coffee can tend toward a washed or natural coffee depending in part on how much fruit has been left on the bean. Generally, honey lots have a more muted character compared to otherwise similar washed coffees, but can also have the fruit-forward intensity of a natural processed coffee.
Beyond these three primary methods of processing, there are a mind-boggling number of variations practiced by tradition or experimentation in coffee growing regions throughout the world. Suffice to say that processing is an integral step in crafting coffee flavors unlocked during the roasting process and brought to life when brewed. With producers experimenting with new methods of processing now more than ever, we’ve all got a plethora of exciting coffees to look forward to.