Guatemala is known for its washed Arabica coffees, but natural and honey processing is slowly taking off in this Central American country. In fact, in 2016, five of its Cup of Excellence winners were honeys and naturals.
I spoke to Roberto Soto, Agricultural Engineer at the Guatemalan National Coffee Association Anacafé, and several of the country’s producers to find out more about this trend.
Natural and honey processed coffees dry on raised beds. Credit: Amec Velazquez
Natural & Honey Coffees: The Basics
Washed or wet processing has a long and well-respected history in specialty coffee. It involves completely removing the cherry prior to drying, something that reduces the risk of uncontrolled fermentation. In turn, this creates a clean, consistent cup flavour that really allows the coffee’s characteristics to shine through. And until recently, it was the norm in Guatemala: according to Anacafé’s Green Book, 98% of the country’s coffee is washed Arabica.
But honey coffees have recently been winning the hearts of consumers, while naturals are making a name for themselves in specialty coffee. Natural coffees, also called dry-processed coffees, are dried in the cherry. Honeys are dried with part of the cherry flesh still attached to the beans. In both cases, you can expect a sweet, fruity profile with an enhanced body.
However, naturals and honeys also come with more risk and can have more inconsistent flavour profiles. Producers have to monitor and control the drying conditions to ensure a high-quality lot.
Natural processing begins as ripe coffee cherries are placed on raised beds to dry. Credit: Angie Molina
The Benefits to Producers & Roasters
It’s not that honeys and naturals will ever replace washed coffees. However, they can be a great way to diversify a producer’s or roaster’s offerings and appeal to more areas of the market.
Roberto says, “There are 360 microclimates in Guatemala, plus the different varieties, plus the altitudes. Adding new processing methods multiples this, creating more opportunities in the market, with the same varieties presented in three different ways.”
Additionally, certain coffees may suit different processing methods. Roberto reminds me that more than 85% of the country’s coffee is Strictly Hard Bean, an indicator of higher quality and more complex flavours. These coffees often perform well when washed and can also be exceptional sensory experiences when honey or natural processed.
However, those softer coffees grown, in Guatemala, below 1,200 m.a.s.l. often receive poorer prices. Natural or honey processing may add sweetness, body, and distinctive flavours that will allow the coffees to appeal to special consumers.
Moreover, while naturals and honeys can be more laborious, they typically require less infrastructure – helping producers to save money.
With Cup of Excellence-winning naturals and honeys, there’s no doubt that these processing methods can produce quality coffees. And the market demand is also here.
Natural coffee dries on a raised bed, while a producer checks the progress of a wet processed lot. Credit: Angie Molina
Guatemala’s Climate: Is It Suited to Naturals & Honeys?
When processing naturals and honeys, a dry climate is crucial. If it is too wet, it could lead to inconsistent drying or even mouldy coffee – a costly situation for a producer.
Roberto tells me that some regions of the country are more suited to natural and honey processing than others. For example, central and southeast Guatemala are typically dry.
In other regions, it can be more difficult because there’s a higher chance of rain during the harvest. However, with a greenhouse or solar dryer, it’s still possible. He tells me of Alejandro Morales, a producer in Huehuetenango, where it can be cold. This can slow down the drying and make naturals and honeys risky. However, Alejandro is both successfully producing honey and natural processed coffees and training others on how to do so.
Similarly, Jose Alfredo Gomez of La Bendicion Coffee Farm in Palencia, eastern Guatemala produces honeys and naturals. He tells me that he currently moves his coffee in and out of the shade as the temperature fluctuates. As of such, he’s thinking of investing in a greenhouse in which he can build raised beds.
Changing processing methods is always risky. It’s important to consider both the climate and available resources when deciding whether or not to natural or honey process coffees. However, providing a producer is careful, it’s possible to do both in Guatemala.
Natural and honey processed coffees dry in the sun. Credit: Angie Molina
Processing Tips for Guatemalan Producers
I ask Roberto his advice for Guatemalan producers curious about natural and honey processing; he tells me that Anacafé has created a guide, Good Practices Guide to Semi-washed and Natural Coffee, which breaks it down into four steps:
- Identify the coffees you are going to natural/honey process and their sensory attributes. He explains that, if producers know the quality of specific coffees and varieties when they’re washed processed, they can identify the best coffees for natural and honey processing.
- Follow best harvesting practices. The coffee cherries must be free of pest damage and disease, they should ideally have a Brix level of 18 to 24%, and any under-ripe or overripe cherries should be removed from the lot. Additionally, if honey processing, Roberto recommends leaving the cherries for 24 hours before depulping (providing the climate is suitable).
- Sort the coffee by density or size. This would traditionally be done by water, but Roberto advises that this could remove some of the mucilage attached to the beans. The amount of mucilage will define the intensity of the coffee’s fruity qualities and it can also affect the drying method.
- Drying: For the best results, dry these coffees slowly. Use raised beds to ensure airflow; this will create even drying. For the same reason, producers should also use thin layers of cherries and move them regularly (every two to three hours during the first few days).
SEE ALSO: How to Dry Natural Coffee on Raised Beds
Yet even when following best practices, natural and honey processing can be tricky. Roberto advises that producers make use of any technical assistance available to them. Moreover, producers should begin with small, experimental lots to reduce risk. The first few times, he suggests that they focus not on the quality of the coffee profile but on how clean it is: mastering this will be crucial long-term.
Honey processed coffees dry under the sun. Credit: Angie Molina
It’s important that producers follow best practices and act cautiously when experimenting with new processing methods. And of course, washed processed coffees will always be popular. However, for those who are able to invest time and labour into processing, and have the right climate or infrastructure, honey and natural coffees are a great opportunity.
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