All the types of coffee processing – such as washed, honey and natural – describe the way in which the fruit or ‘cherry’ surrounding the coffee bean is removed. The natural process, also known as dry or unwashed, is the oldest of these and originated thousands of years ago in Ethiopia. It’s also the cheapest as it requires little specialised equipment.
Once ripe, the fruit is picked and laid out in the sun to dry, often on raised beds or patios. It is turned regularly to achieve optimal dryness of between 10 and 14%. Drying in this manner – which can take up to four weeks – causes the cherry to separate from the bean. Once that separation is complete, the fruit is placed in a hulling machine to remove the skin, pulp and parchment, leaving behind the green coffee bean ready for roasting.
Natural processing can be risky and inconsistent. The drying process needs to be exactly right – dry the cherry too much and it becomes brittle and will crumble; leave it slightly too wet for too long and bacteria can grow and rot can result. This potential for inconsistency means there’s a high risk of a farmer losing an entire harvest if the conditions for drying aren’t perfect.
Weather therefore plays a huge part in the success of natural processing. An arid climate is best for natural processing, making Ethiopia and Brazil well suited to the practice. If it’s so tricky, why is this technique still used? Well, natural processing allows the nutrients and sugars of the cherry to seep into the seed, adding to its inherent flavour. Fruity and sweet notes such as red berries and tropical fruits, as well as earthy notes, are hallmarks of a good natural processed coffee. It can be extremely complex and heavy-bodied.
The taste difference between washed and natural coffee is very distinct. Washed coffee is generally brighter and more acidic, whereas natural coffees are much smoother and full of complexity. In the washing process, the cherry is put through a pulp processing machine, removing all but a very small amount of pulp from the bean, which is then soaked for a day or two. All of the sugars and nutrients that you would get from an unwashed coffee are no longer there and you are left with a coffee that’s a lot more crisp and bright.
So do washed or unwashed beans produce better coffee? It really is just down to personal preference. Many people consider washed coffee a more pure form of the drink, and unwashed as something of an acquired taste– but that’s not to say that natural coffee isn’t as good. In reality, it isn’t a question of which is better. Some areas of the world process coffee naturally because they don’t have the water resources required for the washed process. In other areas, the climate is too humid to use the natural process reliably.
When looking at a coffee packet, you may also see mention of honey processing, also called pulped, semidry or yellow and red honey style processing. On a spectrum with natural coffee at one end and washed at the other, honey processing falls somewhere in between. The cherry is put through a pulp machine, in a similar way to washed, and then set out to dry, as in the natural method. This has the elegant finish of a washed coffee with the full-body fruitiness of a natural. The main thing to remember is not to put too much faith in reputation or other people’s recommendations. You owe it to yourself to try naturally processed coffee and see if it’s for you.SUBSCRIBE NOW!