Learn more about the three different techniques for processing coffee beans and how they impact your cup.
With every cup of coffee comes a story.
That story begins on a farm, where coffee seedlings blossom into fruit-bearing trees. When the fruit—called a “coffee cherry”—ripens into a deep red color, cherries are picked for peak ripeness.
Coffee harvesting can be labor-intensive and meticulous, but it is only the beginning of the coffee cherry’s journey into your cup. What comes next – the process of turning a ripe cherry into a raw coffee bean – can greatly influence the flavor, body, and mouthfeel of the final product.
In this article, we’ll explore the often overlooked but hugely impactful step of coffee processing. Coffee cherries can be processed in one of three ways, each of which has a profound effect on the profile and quality of the cup.
The natural or “dry” method is the oldest of the techniques and is used in parts of the world where water is scarce, and climates are hot and dry—such as Yemen and Ethiopia.
In the drying process, whole coffee cherries are laid out on raised beds, platforms, or other surfaces to dry in the sun. To keep cherries fresh and ensure even drying, they are raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night to keep out humidity. Depending on the weather, it may take up to four weeks to bring cherries to their optimal moisture level (12.5% or less). Once the cherry is sufficiently dry, the seed is hulled from the outer skin and inner parchment.
The result: Because the cherry is left on the bean to dry during the natural process, the seed is able to absorb the sugars of the cherry. When processed properly, natural beans can yield flavorful coffees with vivid notes of fruits and berries. When sipping a cup of dry-processed coffee, you may even be able to detect hints of strawberry, blueberry, and—in some cases—wine. Natural coffees are also typically characterized by a fuller body and less acidity.
Also known as “wet-processed,” washed is the most popular technique and standard in countries where water is plentiful, like Colombia. During the wet process, freshly picked cherries are passed through a pulping machine. This device strips away the outer skin of the cherry while leaving behind the parchment and slick layer of golden mucilage on the beans.
Next, the beans are passed through water channels to be separated by weight. During the process, lighter beans drift to the top as heavier beans sink to the bottom before being separated according to weight by rotating drums.
After being separated, beans are soaked in a large fermentation tank, where naturally occurring enzymes dissolve the mucilage that covers the beans. The fermentation process can last between 18 and 48 hours, depending on factors like the condition of the seeds, altitude, and climate.
Once fermentation is complete, beans are washed with fresh water. Then, they are laid on raised beds, platforms, or other surfaces to be either machine- or sun-dried. As with the dry method, wet beans are raked regularly to ensure even drying. The seeds are dried until they reach around 11% moisture, which can take as many as two weeks, depending on the climate and equipment.
The result: While natural coffee draws much of its flavor from the fruit, washed coffee depends entirely on the bean absorbing sugar and nutrients during its growing cycle. The quality and flavor of washed beans are influenced by factors like soil, weather, ripeness, and fermentation process. Because the environment, nutrients in the soil, and country of origin can play a big role in the flavor of washed coffee, the wet process can accentuate the character of a single origin bean.
Though it may be influenced by the origin and other processing and production factors, the washed process can deliver clean, clear, and sharp flavor notes. When you sip a cup of washed coffee, you may recognize chocolate and caramel notes.
Originating in Costa Rica, the honey process is growing in popularity in Latin America—partly because the process consumes less water than the washed method. During the honey process, the skin and pulp are removed from the coffee seed, but the sticky layer of mucilage (which looks a bit like honey and is the reason the process is so-named) remains.
During the honey process, coffee beans are laid out to dry with the slick, sweet outer layer of mucilage still encasing the seed. As the mucilage dries, the beans undergo slight fermentation. How long the bean is allowed to oxidize can affect the color of the outer mucilage and resulting flavor. The mucilage starts as a golden yellow color, then turns red and finally black as it is allowed to ferment.
The result: Honey coffee tends to be less fruity but more acidic than natural coffees, as well as sweeter and fuller-bodied, but significantly less acidic than washed. As noted above, the flavor may also be influenced by the fermentation length. If fermentation is stopped when the mucilage is a golden yellow, a yellow honey coffee is produced that is less fruity but sweeter and more mildly acidic than other varieties. Black honey coffee that has been allowed to ferment longer delivers a pulpy, creamy feel with notes of dried apricot, chocolate, and nuts. Red honey falls somewhere in between these two flavor profiles, yielding a full body and hints of molasses.
Until recently, the processing methods of coffee were largely overlooked. Now, as coffee producers begin accessing the power of different techniques and fermentation to influence flavors, we can expect increased focus on and experimentation with processing methods—particularly as we move further into the revolutionary fourth wave of coffee.
If you’d like to learn about investing in award-winning Colombian coffee, please visit the Green Coffee Company investment page. Our initial coffee offering successfully raised $5.7M in commitments to acquire, improve, and expand three farms in Colombia’s iconic coffee region of Salgar, home of the world’s best Arabica coffee.
As one of the largest consolidated coffee producers in Colombia, the latest offering gives investors an unprecedented opportunity to generate significant returns from one of the world’s most timeless and in-demand commodities.
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