Coffee doesn’t just get picked off the tree and shipped. The way coffee is processed will noticeably change the final result in your cup.
After coffee cherries are picked, they’re sent off to stations for processing. These stations are often located on the farms themselves, and they’re often run by a small team of farmers and/or families.
The main types of coffee processing methods are natural, washed, and honey processing. There are also variations of these processing methods.
By the end of this article, you’ll understand what happens in each processing method and how it all affects the taste.
How coffee is picked
Since the coffee cherry is a fruit, there will be good and bad cherries, and the bad ones get sorted out using a variety of methods.
Often, when cherries get picked, they’re immediately checked for ripeness. Some farms pick all of the cherries from the tree, either by hand or by machine.
No matter the picking process, there can still be some defects that make it through. To combat this, the cherries undergo a second ripeness check.
At some smaller farms, the bad coffee cherries are double-checked by the farmers and their families. Often, this is done by soaking the cherries in water.
Any cherries that float get discarded. Some farms accomplish the same objective by machine.
Once the bad cherries have been sorted out, it’s time for them to get processed.
Types of coffee processing methods
Once the coffee is picked and sent off to processing stations, it gets treated in different ways. It can be naturally processed, washed, or honey processed.
1. Natural process (or dry process)
As the name implies, this coffee processing method uses just the coffee cherries and nature. The cherries are dried by the sun, and no layers are removed.
This process is popular in areas without abundant water, as it only requires sunlight. As you might expect, it really only works in drier climates.
Brazil and Ethiopia often use the natural process.
In this method, the cherries are often put on raised beds to improve airflow and facilitate drying.
Once the cherries turn from red to a brownish-black, they’re hulled to get the green beans out, which are then sent out to roasters.
This seems like a simple method, but there’s a lot going on, and it affects the taste in a unique way.
Sweet Maria’s notes that during the drying process, the outer layers attach to one another, and the mucilage layer of the bean is worn down due to fermentation. This doesn’t happen with any other coffee processing method.
Natural process coffees are distinct even to casual drinkers. Because the coffee cherries are left intact for so long, the beans retain most of the fruity flavors.
However, not all naturally processed beans turn out well. If the coffee takes too long to try, or if the climate is too wet, the end result will suffer. For this reason, most roasters are more selective with naturally processed coffee.
This is a labor-intensive and somewhat risky method, but it can yield fantastic results. A natural process will be fruity, complex, and vibrant.
2. Washed process (or wet process)
The washed process is overall much more common in many countries than the natural process. If an area has enough clean water and resources available, washed process is typically used.
This process begins by removing the skin of the coffee cherries, taking away the outermost skin and pulp so that the mucilage, parchment, silver skin, and bean remain intact.
Once that’s completed, the sticky mucilage layer is removed using fermentation and washing.
Finally, the coffee is dried in the same fashion as the natural process, usually on raised beds.
The washed process produces a medium body and a bright taste. Coffees from Central America and Kenya are often washed.
3. Honey process
The honey process is unlike both the natural and washed processes. The term “honey” refers to the mucilage, which is sticky kind of like honey.
In the honey process, the cherries are dried with the mucilage still attached.
The result is somewhere in between a natural or washed coffee, and this method has gained popularity in recent years, especially in Central American countries like Costa Rica.
This is one of the most complex types of coffee processing methods because the amount of mucilage left on the bean and the drying time can both vary.
If even one of these variables is changed a little bit, the taste can change noticeably.
There are five degrees of honey processing: white, yellow, gold, red, and black.
- White honey processing leaves the least amount of honey on the bean.
- Yellow honey processing leaves a little more mucilage on the bean and results in a slightly stronger taste. Together, white and yellow honey coffees dry for the longest of all the honey processing methods.
- Gold honey processing dries the coffee in the sun during a period of low humidity.
- Red honey processing dries under some shade and more humidity.
- Black honey processing dries the beans under more shade and exposes them to the most humidity.
According to Perfect Daily Grind, the factors that differentiate gold, red, and black honey coffees are light and humidity.
Honey processing results in a creamy, full cup that can indeed make the coffee taste like it has honey in it. Black honey coffees will taste more like this, while white and yellow honey coffees will taste a bit lighter.
Interestingly, depending on the different variables, a honey process coffee can taste like a natural or a washed.
Because of this, the honey process is arguably the method with the most amount of control to change the final taste.
In connection with the honey processing method, you might also see the term “pulped natural.”
This is very similar to the honey process, but a machine pulps the coffee before it’s set out to dry with the mucilage still attached. This is most common in Brazil.
4. Wet hulling
Easily the most obscure of all the coffee processing methods, wet hulling is a process commonly used in Sumatra.
Blue Bottle Coffee sheds some light on this method, which is similar to the honey process.
The method, known locally as giling basah, starts off the same way as the honey process: the cherries are pulped and laid out to dry with the mucilage still attached.
After a day or two, the parchment is removed, and it dries again.
Blue Bottle says that this second drying stage causes the coffee to absorb “qualities of the earth or asphalt upon which it dries.”
This might seem strange, but it makes sense; Sumatran coffees are known for their earthiness and a full body.
5. Raisin process
In 2017, a Brazilian coffee farmer named Gabriel Alves Nunes developed a unique processing method known as the raisin process.
At $126.10 per pound, his raisin process coffee fetched the highest prices for coffees auctioned during the Cup of Excellence.
Raisin process coffee sounds exotic, but it has to do with the coffee fruit turns purple and shrivels so it resembles a raisin.
Nunes and his team picked mature cherries, cooled them down for 36 hours, pulped the fermented cherries, and dried them on raised beds.
Raisin process coffee is still being explored. It’s a unique variation of the dry or natural process, and it produces unique tasting notes.
Brazil’s coffees are processed mostly using the natural process, and raisin process coffee offers a slight difference that can create a completely one-of-a-kind result.
Just as each coffee will taste different, the various types of coffee processing methods will affect the final flavor in unique ways.
It’s important to know how coffee is processed because it allows you to pinpoint exactly the kind of coffees you like. For example, you might find you like a natural Ethiopian or a wet hulled Sumatran.
Knowing the coffee processing methods also helps you know what to expect when you try a new coffee for the first time.
If you’ve never tried a washed Guatemalan before, you can predict that it will probably have a bright, chocolatey taste.
In short, understanding each coffee processing method will bring you a step closer to being able to find the perfect coffee for you.