July 21, 2016

Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101


Honey, dry, washed, pulped natural… do you ever look at your coffee packaging and wonder what on earth these mean? Or, perhaps more importantly, which one best suits your tastebuds?

SEE ALSO: Guatemalan Coffee: Growing, Harvesting & Processing in 2 Videos

We spoken to the experts at Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, Falcon Specialty, and North Star Roasters to find out.

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The 3 Main Types of Coffee Processing

Coffee is traditionally processed in three ways: washed, natural, and honey. There are alternatives, but these are both rare and typically localised, such as wet hulling in Indonesia.

1. Washed Coffees

Washed coffees focus solely on the bean. They let you taste you what’s on the inside, not the outside.

A natural or honey processed coffee requires a flavourful coffee cherry. Washed coffees depend almost 100% on the bean having absorbed enough natural sugars and nutrients during its growing cycle. This means the varietal, soil, weather, ripeness, fermentation, washing, and drying are key.

Washed coffees reflect both science of growing coffee and that farmers are an integral part of crafting its taste. With washed coffees, the country of origin and environmental conditions add to the flavour.

This means that the washed process highlights the true character of a single origin bean like no other process. It’s why so many specialty coffees are washed.

As Holly of North Star Roasters says, “Washed Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees are fantastic examples of the clarity of flavour that can be coaxed out if the coffee is processed correctly.”

Washed coffee on drying beds at a farm in Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha

2. Natural/Dry Processed Coffee

The natural process, also known as the dry process, is a back-to-basics approach that stems from Ethiopia. The fruit remains on the bean, and dries undisturbed. Although it needs less investment, it still requires certain climatic conditions to ensure the drying of the fruit and seed in time.

Over time, the natural process has become considered a lower-quality method that can lead to inconsistent flavours. This inconsistency is often the result of unripe fruit drying and turning brown alongside ripe fruits.

However, there are many who believe this process actually has the potential to create the most flavourful coffees – and that a comeback is just around the corner. If consistency is achieved, then many argue that natural coffees can match washed coffees for clarity, and also provide some more interesting notes and characteristics as well. You can see this happening in Brazil, among other places.

Ben of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers told me that a nicely picked and processed natural coffee can bring out incredible cupping notes, and offer consumers amazing sweet flavours – “Some of our naturals end up tasting more like a tropical fruit salad or fruit compote than coffee.”

And what’s more, natural coffee is the most eco-friendly.

Coffee being natural processed at a farm in Honduras. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

3. Honey/Pulped Natural Coffee

When done right, honey processed coffee can literally taste like someone has put honey and brown sugar in your cup of coffee – although the name actually comes from how sticky the beans get during processing. In many ways, this type of coffee is halfway between a washed coffee and a natural process coffee: it’s fruity, but not in as exaggerated a way as some naturals. It often has a more rounded acidity than washed coffees, with intense sweetness and complex mouthfeel.

The honey process is strongly associated with Costa Rica and, in recent years, subcategories have developed: yellow, red, golden, black, and white honey. This reflects the ability this process has to influence the taste and overall profile of a coffee. It can become a highly scientific process, as the level of mucilage – which influences the sweetness and depth of body of the coffee – is monitored and controlled. Typically, the more mucilage left on the bean, the sweeter the taste.

Honey processing in progress at a farm in Honduras. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

How Do Producers Decide What Process to Use?

Most coffee producers want to produce the most profitable and best-tasting, coffee they can, but their environment limits them. Coffee, more so than most foodstuff, has a very close bond to its surrounding environment.

Producers will often wait to see how much rain has fallen before decide whether to produce washed, honey, or natural coffee. Heavy rain makes it harder to produce good natural process because coffee cherries can start splitting. If it hasn’t rained, conditions are great for honey process or natural process because no sugars will get washed away.

Ben Weiner explained to me how Gold Mountain use refractometers on their farm to measure sugar content. This helps decide if the sugar content is high enough for natural processed or honey processed coffee. However, they also aim for high sugar content in their washed coffees, since it results in a sweeter cup.

Experiments & Innovations: The Future of Coffee Processing

Mike Riley of Falcon Specialty told me that traditionally producing countries have favoured one particular process. For example, Rwanda and most of Central America historically used the washed process, while Brazil tended towards honey or natural.

Yet Mike explained that this is now changing – thanks to the demand for specialty coffee. An increasing number of farmers are now willing, where environmental and climatic factors allow, to try other processing techniques. For example, in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Rwanda, some farms and cooperatives are turning towards the natural and honey processes. By doing this, they can create new, unusual flavour profiles that add value to their crop.

This goes beyond simply choosing a processing method: some producers are experimenting with the absence of oxygen for fermentation, while others are looking at catalysts to speed up fermentation. Some are also looking closer at their environmental impact, and trying to process coffees while cutting down the use of water. New machinery and knowledge-sharing are also helping to create more unique cup profiles.

There’s a demand for experimental processing methods; Ben Weiner told me that the coffees he uses alternative processing methods on “sometimes sell out even before they’re picked.” This means we can expect to see even more creative innovations in processing in the future.

Hand holding differently processed beans and cherries. Credit: Virginia Coffee Roasters

Coffee processing rarely makes it into the industry headlines or coffee shop discussions, but it’s an integral part of crafting the flavour and character of your cup of coffee. So next time you pick up a honey processed Costa Rican or a natural processed Nicaraguan, you’ll know what to look forward to.

With special thanks to Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, Falcon Specialty, and North Star Roasters. 

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