There’s a lot to know about a single coffee: where it was grown, how it was grown, even why it was grown. It’s amazing how these variables influence a coffee’s character. However, we realize that a lot of people may not know what a coffee varietal is, how elevation affects cup quality, or what the heck washed processing is. Our goal for this series is to demystify those terms and help you understand the language of specialty coffee.
Part one: Processing
Courtesy of vides58.com, growers of our Guatemala Finca La Bolsa
Coffee begins its life as the seed of a cherry grown on a shrub. Once these cherries are ripened and harvested, the seeds need to be removed and dried out in order to export, and the manner in which this is done is what we call the processing method. There has been much experimentation and innovation in the industry over the last few years, but we’ll just be looking at the most popular methods.
This is the most common processing method in specialty coffee. This process requires a lot of water, so it’s most common in countries where water is plentiful.
Coffee going through a depulper in Honduras. Photo courtesy of Olam Importers
After they're harvested, the cherries are passed through a depulper, which removes the fleshy fruit from the beans. The beans are then sorted by weight and sent to a fermentation tank in order to break down the mucilage (the flesh of the cherry) that's left after depulping. This process can take between 12 to 72 hours, depending on the environmental conditions of the mill. Finally, the coffee is spread out to dry until it reaches a proper moisture percentage, typically around 11%.
Coffee washing station in Aricha, Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Olam Importers
Natural / Dry
Natural, or dry, processing is the more traditional method and is still commonly used in countries with low humidity and limited water access. Instead of removing the fruit and mucilage before drying, farmworkers lay the entire cherry out to dry immediately after harvesting, often on raised beds.
Raised drying beds. Photo courtesy of Olam Coffee Importers
Once the cherries are dry, they go through a depulping machine, losing the skin, fruit, and mucilage that have all bonded together during the drying process. The skin is traditionally composted, but can also be dehydrated and made into cascara tea.
Pulped Natural / Honey
These methods fall somewhere between the washed and natural methods, where the cherries’ skin and fruit are partially removed before drying. Pulped Natural is popular in Brazil, where only the outermost layer of skin is removed before drying. Farmers have more recently been experimenting with the Honey Process, leaving some or all of the mucilage on the coffee as it dries. Honey processed coffees are assigned colors, from yellow to red to black, according to how much fruit the demucilage machine leaves on the seeds.
Yellow honey processing. Photo courtesy of Cafe Imports
So why does all this matter?
Each step a coffee bean takes, from seed to cup, will affect its potential and quality. Which process the farmer chooses—and his/her attention to detail throughout the process—will determine how the coffee tastes. Washed coffees will generally have more clarity of flavor, and the process is much more consistent. Naturals, on the other hand, can be wildly inconsistent if they’re not given the attention they need. But if done correctly, the process yields a coffee with a heavy body and intense fruit characteristics.
At Stovetop, we seek to offer a wide variety of coffees. Our lineup will typically include multiple washed coffees, usually a natural or two, and any other delicious processing methods that come our way. We recommend giving each method a try and seeing which you prefer!
Happy brewing y’all.
Director of Coffee