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Coffee Processing 101: Natural, Washed, and Honey

When you think about your favorite cup of coffee, what comes to mind? Origin of the coffee beans? The roast profile? Or is it all about the preparation process? Maybe you’re a pour-over drinker. Or perhaps you prefer a French Press. These are all important of course. But have you ever thought about the different ways of coffee processing and how it affects the final product?

If you didn’t know, we process coffee to get rid of the coffee cherry’s skin and mucilage – muci-what? – a sticky substance that surrounds the green coffee bean hidden inside the fruit. It may sound strange, but as you’ll see, this part of the coffee cherry plays a significant role in the different processing methods.

When it comes down to it, there are myriad ways to process coffee, but traditionally speaking, they fall into three main categories: natural, washed, and honey. The process used will determine the specific flavors and characteristics of the final coffee product. Read on to learn more about the different ways of processing coffee and the advantages and limitations of each. And don’t worry, with our help, you’ll be an expert in no time.

Natural Process Coffee: The Original Method

The natural or dry process is the oldest known method of coffee processing and originates from Ethiopia. The coffee cherries are harvested and left as a whole fruit to dry in the sun on raised tables or patios before being stripped down to the bean. Once the cherry is thoroughly dried, which usually takes about 2-4 weeks, the husk is removed and the beans are ready for storage and shipping.

This process allows the coffee beans to absorb more of the sugary sweet flavors from the cherry skin and mucilage. Naturally processed coffee often produces bold, berry, and tropical fruit-flavored coffees. This basic method is also popular in regions with more limited access to water, making it the most eco-friendly of the three coffee processing methods.

One disadvantage of using the natural process is that it doesn’t remove the defective cherries as thoroughly as washing or honey processing. This process also exposes the farmers to more risk as there are a number of potential problems for them to consider, such as mold and over-fermentation. These issues have given natural coffee a reputation as a lower-quality product used mainly for cheaper, mass-produced coffee beans.

Washed Coffee: The Common Way

With the rise of the specialty coffee market, washed coffee became the preferred method of processing coffee beans. The washing takes place in a dedicated mill where the harvested coffee cherries are placed in water in search of “floaters.” These are considered defective and removing them early on in the process helps create a higher-quality product. Due to its reliability and consistency, much of the coffee we drink today is washed coffee.

Wet processing focuses on the flavors derived from the coffee bean, rather than the cherry fruit surrounding it. For this reason, when it comes to washed coffees, the local conditions, such as weather and soil, play a huge part in the flavor of the end product. Wet-processed coffees vary in taste from fruity to silky and tend to have a higher acidity than dry or honey-processed coffees. The goal with washed coffee is that these flavors reflect the true taste of a single-origin bean. Hence its popularity in the specialty coffee market.

Fermentation is also a key step in determining the success of a washed coffee. After a machine de-pulps the coffee cherries, the mucilage is left on the beans and they’re placed in fermentation tanks for up to 72 hours. If left to ferment for too long, the same negative flavors that afflict the dry-processed coffee can also affect wet coffee.

Despite its popularity, there are also environmental concerns when it comes to washed coffee because of how much water is used in the process and how it’s disposed of afterward. Washed coffee also tends to be the most expensive method for processing beans. Regardless, wet-processed coffee is still often deemed superior to other types of coffee, and it continues to be the most widely used method in the industry today.

Honey Process Coffee: The Best of Both Worlds?

In a way, honey-processed coffee is a mix of the wet and dry processes. Despite the name, there is no actual honey used in this process. We know; it’s confusing. Remember the mucilage? This is an important element for honey-processed coffee. Only the skin and pulp are removed during this process. The mucilage stays on as the beans dry on a raised bed or patio similar to those used in the natural process. These are called “honey” processed beans due to the sticky nature of the mucilage. This type of processing, typically associated with Costa Rica, has also become popular in other parts of Central America.

The honey process is a highly scientific one. As such, several subcategories have emerged from this process including yellow, red, black, and white honey. All of these have a distinct taste and profile depending on the level of mucilage left on the beans and how long they are left to dry. How sweet the coffee ends up will depend on the level of mucilage. So while things may get a little sticky, the bigger the mess the sweeter the taste!

The flavor profile of honey-processed coffee is also a combination of elements found in dry and wet coffee. The sweetness of the mucilage gives it a fruity flavor, but it tends to be more subtle than those found with dry-processed beans. The honey-processed coffee retains the acidity like washed coffee, but with less of a bite. The result? A complex, well-rounded flavor profile. For this reason, honey processing has become quite popular in the world of specialty-grade coffee. In other words, coffee snobs are all about the honey.

Washed Coffee, Dry Coffee, Honey, Oh My!

While these three processes continue to dominate the market, newer experimental methods such as bourbon-infused, wet-hulled, aquapulp, and others are starting to pop up thanks to the popularity of specialty coffee and its continued interest in single-origin beans. On top of this, there’s also decaf coffee to consider, which is a whole other process altogether. Check out our blog post on decaf coffee processing if you’re interested in learning more about what goes into creating these less-potent brews!

So, now that you know about the different coffee processes, how to choose the right one for you? Whether you like a full-bodied, fruity-flavored natural coffee, the strong acidic notes of washed coffee, or a mix of the two found in complex honey-processed coffees, it’s all about your personal preference. Either way, now you’ll know exactly what to look for when you go to buy your next cup of Joe.

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