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Coffee Processing: A Guide To Washed, Honey & Natural Methods

Coffee is like a sensation among drinks, loved by people everywhere for its delicious taste and ability to refresh and energize us. But have you ever wondered how coffee evolves from a simple cherry to the fantastic drink in your cup? Well, it all happens because of something called coffee processing. Even though coffee lovers often talk about how dark it is roasted or where it is from, they rarely talk about how it is processed. And guess what? The process of coffee has a significant impact on how it tastes.


In recent years, there has been something like a "processing revolution" in the fancy coffee world. People who grow, sell, and roast coffee are trying new ways to process it. And here's the secret: the difference between good coffee and truly amazing coffee often comes down to the process of coffee.


In this blog, we are going to dive into the basics of three types of coffee processing: Washed, Honey, and Natural coffee processing. By the end, you will know how each method makes your coffee taste and smell so good.


Let us first understand how the coffee is processed in the following section.


Understanding the Process of Coffee


To truly grasp the essence of coffee, it is essential to know about the intricate process of coffee that transforms a coffee cherry into a beloved coffee bean. In contrast to popular belief, coffee isn't a bean but a seed nestled inside a coffee cherry. Coffee cultivation is essentially fruit farming, and this involves several key steps:


1. Plant: Coffee cherries start their journey as green, unripe fruits on coffee trees. Over time, as harvest season approaches, they transition from green to vibrant red, indicating ripeness.


2. Picking: Skilled pickers play a crucial role during the harvest season. They carefully select only the ripest coffee cherries from the coffee trees. Picking the right ones at the right time ensures the best quality beans.


3. Processing: Once the cherries are collected, they enter the processing phase. Here, the focus is on removing the outer pulp of the cherry and drying the inner seed while avoiding mold or fermentation issues. There are three primary types of coffee processing methods:


  • The Washed Process (Wet Processing): This method involves removing the pulp with water, leaving behind the seed. It is known for producing clean, bright flavors.


  • The Natural Process (Dry Processing): In this method, the whole cherry is dried, with the pulp naturally shrinking around the seed. This process tends to yield bold, fruity flavors.


  • The Honey Process: This process falls in between the previous two. Some mucilage (the sticky layer around the seed) is left on the bean. The result is a range of flavors, depending on the mucilage retained.


4. Dry Milling: After processing, a protective parchment layer is still covering the coffee bean. Dry milling is the step where this thin, rigid layer is removed, revealing the green coffee bean inside.


5. Green Bean: The green coffee bean is the final product ready for export. It contains about 10-12% moisture and requires careful storage to maintain its quality.


6. Roasting: Coffee roasters acquire these green beans and take them through roasting, ultimately bringing out the rich flavors and aromas we associate with our morning cup of coffee. Roasting can vary from light to dark, producing a distinct flavor profile.


Each step in this process, from the ripening of cherries on the tree to the precise roasting in a local coffee shop, enriches the coffee experience.


Coffee processing can be quite complex, but let us simplify it. There are three main ways to process coffee: Washed, honey and natural coffee processing. Each method gives coffee its unique flavor. The next section will delve deeper into these methods to help you understand how they work.


The Three Primary Coffee Processing Methods


1. The Natural Process


The natural coffee processing method, known as dry processing, is the oldest way to process coffee beans. It originated in places like Ethiopia and Yemen. This method has a unique flavor profile, with notes of strawberry, blueberry, raisin, pineapple, jackfruit, and even hints of white wine.


Here is how it works

Coffee Processing - Natural Processing

After harvesting, the coffee cherries are spread out on mats, beds, or patios to dry under the sun. This drying process allows the coffee beans to soak up the flavors of the fruit, resulting in an intense, sweet taste. You might even notice hints of strawberry or blueberry in your coffee.


However, natural process coffee is a bit more essential compared to washed process coffee and honey processing coffee. Once the cherries have reached the proper moisture level, the coffee beans are hulled to remove the cherry's skin and pulp, which can take 2-4 weeks.

Historically, coffee with natural process was considered lower quality because it couldn't remove defective cherries as effectively as the washing method. Farmers must be extra careful during drying to prevent mold or over-fermentation. Despite its challenges, natural process has gained popularity, especially in regions like Taiwan and Korea, where many coffee shops offer natural processed coffees.



2. The Washed Process


The washed coffee processing method is very common and widely recognized. It is known for its consistency in producing quality coffee beans. Washed coffee beans often have flavor notes of chocolate, nuts, lemon, florals, and stone fruit.


This method of processing coffee originated in Latin America and has a particular flavor profile that many consider as "normal coffee." In washed coffee vs. natural coffee, washing enhances the coffee's acidity and clarity, resulting in a refined and balanced taste. The best-washed coffees are known for their complexity, medium body, pronounced acidity, and sweetness, making them ideal for brewing in typical coffee machines.


Here is how it works


Coffee Process - Washed Process

The freshly picked coffee cherries are placed in water, allowing the separation of unripe or defective cherries (often called "floaters"). Next, de-pulping removes the outer skin and pulp, leaving a slimy layer called mucilage on the seed, similar to the sticky coating on a peach stone. The seeds then ferment in water tanks for a duration ranging from 8 to 50 hours, depending on factors like equipment, climate, and producer preference. After fermentation, the beans are floated and rinsed once more before being dried on concrete beds until they reach a moisture content of about 10-12%. This method ensures consistency and quality in the final coffee product.



3. The Honey Process


Although it emerged in Costa Rica around 15 years ago, the honey coffee processing method shares similarities with the traditional Brazilian coffee processing approach. This method has led to coffee beans with distinct flavor notes, including cane sugar, dates, caramel, apricot, fig, and a generally low acidity.


Originating in Brazil and Costa Rica, the honey process involves stripping the coffee cherry of its skin while leaving the pulp intact during drying. This unique approach improves the coffee's sweetness and body, with the final flavor influenced by the amount of remaining pulp. Some honey-processed coffees lean towards the natural method, offering flavors similar to dried fruits, while others have a more pronounced acidity.


Here is how it works


Coffee Processing - Honey Process

In the honey process, coffee cherries are de-pulped, but the slimy outer layer known as mucilage is deliberately left intact on the beans during the drying stage. Despite its name, honey-processing coffee doesn't involve actual honey; it earned its name from the similarity of the sticky and sweet mucilage to honey. The final flavor profile depends on the amount of pulp left on the beans during drying. This method, which skillfully mixes elements of both washed and natural processes, has gained popularity among coffee lovers worldwide in recent years.


The honey process can be divided further into three types of coffee processing, which are:

Yellow, Red and Black Honey Process


Some coffee producers use terms like yellow, red, and black honey to describe how they dry the coffee beans. These colors indicate how much fruity pulp is left on the beans during drying.


  • Yellow Honey involves a semi-washing process that leaves less pulp on the beans. This results in a cleaner and sweeter coffee, similar to the washed method. It dries faster.


  • Red Honey retains more pulp during drying, giving the beans a reddish hue.


  • Black Honey leaves all the pulp intact, leading to a dark appearance. These variations in drying affect the coffee's flavor, with less pulp usually resulting in a cleaner taste.


Washed Coffee Vs Natural Coffee Vs Honey Coffee


Now that we have explored the basics of each coffee processing method let us compare them based on different factors:


1. Flavor Profile:


  • Washed Coffee: Washed coffee is known for its clean, bright, and acidic taste, highlighting the unique characteristics of its origin.


  • Honey Coffee: Honey-processed coffee tends to be sweet, with the flavor and body varying based on the amount of mucilage left on the beans.


  • Natural Coffee: Considering coffee-washed vs. natural-processed coffee, the latter is bold and is often described as having "wild" flavors with pronounced fruity notes.


2. Complexity:


  • Washed Coffee: The washing process involves more steps and meticulous attention to detail in its processing.


  • Honey Coffee: Honey-processing coffee is moderately complex due to the management of mucilage during drying.


  • Natural Coffee: The natural process is simpler but demands careful drying to prevent defects.


3. Consistency:


  • Washed Coffee: Washed process coffee offers high consistency and reduces the risk of defects.


  • Honey Coffee: Honey-processed coffee can vary in flavor and quality based on how mucilage is managed during processing.


  • Natural Coffee: Natural-processed coffee is prone to defects if improperly drying leads to inconsistency.


4. Environmental Impact:


  • Washed Coffee: The washed process typically uses more water in fermentation, which may have environmental implications.


  • Honey Coffee: Honey processing is moderately water-efficient since some mucilage is left on the beans.


  • Natural Coffee: Natural processing uses the least water but requires ample space for drying beds.


5. Popularity:


  • Washed Coffee: Washed coffee is widely popular and highly favored in specialty coffee circles for its clarity and clean flavors.


  • Honey Coffee: Honey-processed coffee is gaining popularity, especially among those seeking unique and sweeter flavor profiles.


  • Natural Coffee: Natural-processed coffee is loved by those who appreciate bold, fruity flavors and a departure from traditional coffee taste profiles.


What are the benefits of honey, natural, and washed process methods?


  • Honey process: The honey process creates coffee with a rich and complex flavor profile that may include notes of honey, caramel, and dried fruit.


  • Natural process: The natural process produces coffee with a sweet and fruity flavor.


  • Washed process: The washed process produces coffee with a clean and bright flavor profile.

What does honey, washed, and natural process taste like?


  • Honey process: Honey-processed coffee is typically sweet and full-bodied, with notes of honey, caramel, and dried fruit.


  • Washed process: Washed processed coffee is generally clean and bright, with notes of citrus, berry, and chocolate.


  • Natural process: Natural processed coffee is typically sweet and fruity, with notes of raisin, fig, and apricot.


What is the difference between washed and unwashed coffee processing?


The primary difference between washed and unwashed coffee processing is that washed coffee removes the fruit mucilage before drying, while unwashed coffee has the fruit mucilage left on the bean during drying. This difference in processing can result in different flavor profiles in the cup.


Conclusion

In conclusion, the world of coffee is as diverse as the people who enjoy it. The way coffee is processed, whether it is washed, honey, or natural coffee processing, plays a vital role in shaping its unique flavors and qualities.


Washed coffee offers a clean and bright taste, while honey coffee brings sweetness and complexity to your cup. With its bold and fruity notes, natural coffee provides a delightful departure from tradition.


As coffee enthusiasts, we can explore these different processing methods and discover the flavors that resonate with us the most. So, the next time you savor your favorite brew, take a moment to appreciate the journey from cherry to cup and the magic that happens along the way. Happy sipping!


More From Jorge Armando Ciciliani

 

About The Author: Jorge Armando Ciciliani

Jorge - Coffee Expert

Jorge is a seasoned coffee professional with a lifelong passion for all things coffee. For over a decade, he has fervently immersed himself in the world of coffee, mastering its preparation, understanding its societal impact, and uncovering its cultural significance. Starting as a barista at the young age of 15 and later managing a coffee roastery, this journey led him to work as a quality control manager for a green coffee importer. Traveling across countries in Central and North America, Jorge has explored various coffee traditions and honed his skills through Specialty Coffee Association courses. As a QC Cupping coffee connoisseur and sensory skills enthusiast, Jorge is a true expert in the art of brewing and savoring the perfect cup. Consider him your trusted Fika expert.

 

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