How do you choose between an Ethiopian, Yirgacheffe, Washed and an Ethiopian, Yirgacheffe, Natural?
Its actually really simple, words like Dry/Natural, Wet/Washed , Pulped Natural/Honey, simply refer to the processing method the coffee bean undergoes from cherry to green bean.
Now, these processes are listed on the bag because it has a big impact on how the coffee bean will end up tasting after being roasted.
As an example, lets say the two Ethiopians mentioned above came from the same country, same region and even from the exact same farm.
The one is Naturally processed the other one was washed, the latter will taste much less fruity and have more acidity.
Anatomy of a Coffee BeanWithout getting too geeky, it’s important that you know what a coffee cherry looks like on the inside, to better understand the difference between these coffee processing methods.
Coffee beans are technically seeds of a coffee fruit or ‘cherry’. The Cherries change from green, to yellow and finally to lustrous red when it is ready to be harvested.
Inside the Red Cherry/fruit just beneath the skin, you will find a fleshy pulp, then a slimy layer/mucilage and a parchment-like covering around two seeds/beans/kernels.
Coffee ProcessingCoffee processing differs from region to region and farm to farm. Sometimes the way coffee is processed in a certain region is simply due to local tradition, other times it might be because of economical and resource limitations, especially access to water.
For example, in Ethiopia- Harar, Natural processing is used because water is scarce, it is also the simplest and cheapest method available. Wet processing on the other hand, might be more practical in a country with high rainfall as dry/natural processing needs to be completely dried outside in the sun for days!
The main aim of processing coffee is to remove the coffee kernels from their fleshy womb inside the coffee cherry and to get them dried to a hard, green coffee bean that is finally ready to be roasted.
Right after the coffee has been harvested, the coffee cherries are thrown into a water tank for screening, where overripe and underripe fruit will float along with leaves and sticks. They are then removed as they will result in a bad tasting product.
Usually coffee is processed in two main methods namely Wet- (also known a washed) or Natural- (also known as dry) processing. Some regions prefer a combination of the two methods and this is known as Pulped-natural or Semi-washed.
Wet or Washed Processing
This is a very common method because it really helps to preserve the delicate qualities of the bean and gives a more consistent and superior product.
Washed coffees are also known to be high in acidity like coffee from Kenya.
The process is simple, the cherries go through a pulping machine which removes the outer skin, leaving the coffee seeds still covered in a slimy, sticky mucilage.
Next the mucilage is removed by method of fermentation or other mechanical means.
This fermentation process normally involves soaking the beans in a tank of water for anything from a few hours to a day or three, this will cause the slimy layer to fall off.
The beans are then rinsed, washed and set out to dry.
Drying methods vary from region to region mostly for the same reasons that processing does.
Kenyan Single-origin coffees are widely praised for their elegant and lively acidic beans. This is because they apply a longer fermentation process, where they would normally soak the beans in a second round of clean water after being rinsed and soaked in the first round.
Natural or Dry ProcessingThe main difference between the wet and natural method is that the Natural/Dry method allows for the cherries to dry first with the beans still inside the red fruit. This is the most traditional way of processing coffee, the cherries are spread out over concrete surfaces, raised beds or patios. Ideally left in the sunlight to dry and frequently raked to prevent fermentation.
This method requires quite a bit of skill because if the beans are left in the wet fruit for too long it will become moldy and give off a sour taste. If you over-dry the beans they are more susceptible to damage during the next process following drying.
Because the beans are left inside the fruit while it dries, it tends to absorb some really intense fruit flavors like cherry and Blueberry.
Some people would argue that the fruit explosions are sometimes overpowering and results in a ‘dirty’ or ‘wild’ cup.
Natural coffees are not deemed as elegant as washed and will have less acidity, but will tend to be more bold, flavorful and have more body. Perfect for espresso blends!
Natural/Dry processed coffee is a controversial topic in the coffee industry, and we believe if better consistency can be achieved in this processing method, it might just make a comeback in the near future!
However , there is no doubt that you can find some spectacular, highly refined natural coffees and we don’t see any reason not to go for it!
Pulped natural/ Honey / Semi-washed
This method is a combination of Washed and Natural. As with wet processing, the cherries are pulped removing the skin but leaving the fleshy mucilage. Then, instead of fermenting/soaking the beans in water, the beans are spread out on large tables to dry for a few days to a few weeks.
Honey/ semi-washed processing tends to have similar characteristics to dry processed coffee, lower in acidity and more body than the washed method.
The semi-washed method achieves a more consistent quality than the Natural process and also lacks the wild, intense fruit flavors present in a natural coffee.
Although Peaberry does not refer to a processing method, we have included it in this article because it is something you will occasionally see on a coffee description.
Most cherries will carry two beans that are flat on one side and rounded on the other. Occasionally some cherries will only develop and carry one round, almost football shaped bean, this is known as a peaberry.
Peaberries may form because the second seed fails to develop and could be due to the nutrients in the soil or lack thereof.
There are some myths about Peaberries, some believe that they are a superior bean and that they taste sweeter than their normal counterparts, but this seems to be unfounded. The reason a peaberry batch will be more expensive is mainly due to the hand sorting process of selecting these genetically flawed round beans from a harvest.