Fourth in a series of short blogs about discovering coffees you’ll really enjoy …
Part 4: Processing … naturally.
I was having a chat with a friend the other day and, as many of my conversations do, the topic of coffee came up. (He started it, not me , honest!) He was talking about a coffee he had had in a local café, brewed as filter. He said that it tasted quite funky (in a good way). It had a few different notes to it, making it hard to pick out a specific flavour.
“Sounds like a good natural” I replied.
There was a pause. “Wait, isn’t all coffee natural?”
“Oh I just meant that it was probably a ‘naturally processed coffee’, based on how you described it”
I detected the confusion in what I had said and started to explain ….
After picking there are a few different ways of processing the coffee fruit to remove the seed inside, the natural process is just one of them. It made me realise that the processing of coffee is seldom discussed or explained.
As we know from our series so far there are many different factors determining the character in coffee.
Terroir, varietals, harversting.. Next comes processing.
Seasonality and freshness plays its part; quite simply, the closer we drink to harvesting, processing and roasting the better it tastes.
(Please note: if you are still drinking ‘instant coffee’ , which I doubt you are if reading this blog, be aware that it’s the rehydrated essence of a de-hydrated brew of the ground, roasted coffee seed from the fruit of a coffee tree that is probably now exhausted from hyper cultivation in poor conditions and dead – sorry!)
So how does processing effect the character of coffee? – How the seed is removed is a practical step that, yep, you got it vastly effects character and flavour and cultural factors will impact how coffee is processed. Location, resources, infrastructure or environment all play their part in what options the farmers have available to them. If located in an area that have had little rainfall or access to water, using a precious resource to wash coffee is simply not practical. Those with the ability to choose their method will do so in the way that they believe will give them the best coffee and, ultimately the highest price.
Although it varies throughout the world, the three main processing
methods in coffee are described as Natural, washed and honey/pulped natural.
Natural Processing (also known as the dry process) is the most traditional method used and relatively is the most basic. Once the coffee cherries have been picked they are laid in the sun to dry. Sometimes this is on
a patio or raised beds, with the latter allowing better airflow throughout the crop. The cherries need constant turning to avoid mould or fermentation or rotting occuring. Flavour can be added to the bean during this time. Once the cherries are fully dried, the flesh of the cherries are mechanically removed and the beans are collected and stored ready for shipping. Personally I feel that natural coffees often get a bad rap, mainly as it is associated with poorer quality coffee. Whilst this is sometimes the case, if the beans have been picked correctly and processed well you can get some extremely tasty coffees with complex (sometimes described as funky) fruity flavours that are sweet and jammy with lots of fruits being detected. I can honestly say that some of my favourite coffees over the years have been naturals.
Washed Processing involves.. yep you guessed it, washing the coffee. Other than the involvement of water, a big difference between this method compared to that of natural is that the bean inside the cherry must have developed its sweetness and flavours whilst it was growing. During the drying the bean (or seed to be more accurate) can absorb things from the
cherry that will impact on how the coffee will go on to taste. In the washing process this cannot happen so the quality and ripeness of the cherry is paramount. Although the method varies depending on country, the cherries will be placed in a floatation tank, the developed and slightly denser beans (the good ones) will sink to the bottom. Any underdeveloped will float and can be separated from the rest. This is an additional stage that natural coffee would not have. After the cherries have been sorted, they have their outer flesh removed by a de-pulper and are then placed in water to allow them to ferment. During this stage any remaining flesh is also removed. After this they are washed clean and then left out to dry. Washed processing allows the true characteristic of the origin to be highlighted in the crop. For example, a washed Ethiopian coffee will commonly have floral, delicate, almost tea like flavour profiles; something that potentially could altered is processed naturally.
Who doesn’t like honey right? Straight away we think of something sweet and sticky; which is why it is the perfect description for this process. The best way to describe the honey/pulped natural process is that it is somewhere between the other two. It allows some of the really lovely sweetness you would get from a natural and a lightly muted version of the bright, crisp acidity you taste in a washed coffee and combine the two. The stickiness is a reference to how the cherries become during processing. In basic terms, various amounts of the cherry and flesh are removed in a controlled way and left to dry and ferment. It is at this stage that they become sticky. It is important to monitor and rotate the coffee regularly at this stage to avoid mould and damage from pests. This method is called described as yellow, red or black honey processed and refers to how much is removed from the bean at this stage. As a rule, the more cherry left on, the sweeter the coffee will be.
Next time you buy a bag of coffee, have a look at the label. It should tell you which process the coffee has gone through. This information is so important in helping you identify what it is about a particular flavour and profile that you love. And it also shows a level of traceability and helps give credit to the people that that have helped create this wonderful brew. #wholesomecoffeewithcharacter helping you understand #whyoulovethecoffeeyoulove.