Whether you’re new to specialty coffee or a seasoned connoisseur, you may get confused by some of the terms on specialty coffee bags, or simply have no clue what they mean, and — more importantly — how they might help you to work out whether you’re going to like the coffee!
This quick guide should give a little insight into what coffee processing is, the most common types of coffee processing, and how the processing affects the taste of the coffee.
What is processing?
“Processing” refers to the process of everything between the coffee fruit being picked and intact, to the final coffee bean being ready for shipping. Coffee is actually not a bean at all, but the seed of a fruit! The fruit resembles a cherry in size, and the bit that we want is the seed at the centre of the fruit. How we get from the fruit to the dried seed is the processing — whether the fruit is washed off immediately or the seed is dried with the fruit still on are two of the most common ways of processing.
Washed coffees are coffees that have had their fruit removed with water (great surprise there) — there is still some contact between the fruit and seed whilst it’s pulped and stored in tanks (some fermentation occurs here).
Washed coffees often have the cleanest characteristics, and is often the processing choice for coffees that are very high grown with floral and tea-like qualities.
Natural coffees are not more “natural”, but called natural because it is simply the more traditional and was the most commonplace way of processing coffee. In natural processing i the coffee bean is dried with the flesh still on and the longer contact between the seed and the fruit and the fermentation that takes place encourages much more pronounced flavours in the coffee.
Natural coffees often have much bolder, fruitier flavours, with creamy bodies and often boozy notes. They are often referred to as “funky” — sometimes this funk can go too far and they can have unwanted fermented characteristics.
Honey coffees can be anything in between washed and natural, are there are different gradients. Normally the mucilage and flesh are partially, or mostly, removed, then the seed is dried with the remainder left on. Flavours are somewhere between natural and washed coffees.
Extended fermentation/experimental fermentation
As the space available for growing good coffee in the world gets smaller, growers are experimenting with developing more flavour and therefore higher prices for their “lower quality” coffees. This can be everything from anaerobic fermentation (where there is no oxygen) to the introduction of experimental yeast varieties used in the production of funky beers and wines.
What does this mean for taste?
The hard and fast rule is that natural coffees are more fruity and funky, whereas washed coffees are cleaner with lighter bodies — but like all rules, this one is best when broken. Some of the tastiest coffees we’ve ever tried are “clean” tasting naturals or more complex washed coffees. We’ll always do our best to describe what we think the coffee tastes like but, like most things, it’s good to give a taste and make your own opinion.