What does coffee processing mean for the coffee you are drinking?

Process – You must have often seen this word on your coffee bags. It might be nice to know what it means while you are choosing your coffee as it affects the taste of the coffee. So, let’s talk about what it means and how coffee processing method can affect flavours and mouth feel.

Touching upon a few basics – A coffee bean is basically a green colour ‘seed’ of a coffee plant, inside the fruit called the ‘coffee cherry’. There are various layers that envelope the coffee seed – mucilage, pulp, parchment and silverskin.

Before roasting, these layers of coffee are removed down to silverskin. The method of doing so is called as Processing.  There are various methods of processing but we’ll talk about the 3 most common ones and how they affect the taste of coffee. Before you read on, it is important to know that coffee is complex and the taste of coffee is affected by various other factors, processing is just one of many.


Natural or Dry processing method

Once the coffee cherries have been picked, they are then spread out under the sun on large concrete or brick patios, or on Indian raised beds. The drying process takes 15-30 days. As the coffee seed is dried with pulp, mucilage etc. intact, the seed or the green bean inherits fruity characteristics present in the cherry. The outer layers of the properly dried cherries are then removed mechanically, and the green bean is stored and rested before sending it to the roaster.

This process adds fruitiness and sweetness, as present in the coffee cherry, to the coffee bean. Along with berry like flavour notes, the naturally processed coffees can have fermented and wine-like flavour notes.

Some of the great examples of naturally processed coffees are Nokrek Naturals, Ethiopian Guji Naturals.


Washed/Wet processing method

In this method the outer part of the cherry is removed in a de-pulping machine using water before drying the beans. Both water and coffee move into a large water tank, and is left in the tank for 18-48 hours (depending upon the temperature and various other factors) to remove the mucilage that is stuck to the coffee bean/seed after the outer cherry part is removed. Once the coffee is taken out of the tank, coffee seed/bean are then spread out under the sun on large concrete or brick patios, or on India raised beds to be properly dried, unlike in natural process where they are dried with cherry parts intact.

This process gives a cup which is bright, slightly acidic and has clean cup profiles. These characteristics can be found distinctively in Bettadakhan Estate SL9 and Ethiopia Washed Sidamo.


Honey – Pulped natural process

No there isn’t any “honey” in the coffee. The fruit left on the beans is referred to as honey. In this method the cherries are de-pulped either using de-pulping machine. These machines are set to leave some amount of flesh and mucilage on the beans. Then the beans with some flesh/mucilage intact is laid out to dry. This process is a mix of natural and washed process, giving a balanced body and brings out sweetness in the cup, as the coffee bean inherits the sugar present in the flesh.

What is with honey in different colours you might ask – black honey, red honey, yellow honey and white honey. The more mucilage left on the seed, darker its colour. Black honeys, just like the name suggest are black in colour, have the most mucilage intact after de-pulping, whereas white honeys have the least mucilage intact after de-pulping before drying. Black Honey has more characteristics of naturals and white honeys are more like washed coffees. With their syrupy body and sweet taste, Moganad Black Honey and Red Honey PSD are perfect examples of the honey process.


Other Processing Methods

A lot of producers are now experimenting with the fermentation process, trying to give the coffee a variety of specific characteristics. In these experiments, after de-pulping the producers leave the coffee with pineapple / watermelon or age in the whiskey or wine barrels. The coffee inherits the characteristics of the fruit or the whiskey leading to a complex and an experimental cup. In another unconventional method – Carbonic maceration, similar to a washed process, after getting de-pulped, the coffee beans are stored inside a sealed tank, where C02 is pumped in and oxygen is let out. Fermentation takes place inside the tank. The coffee has incredible ‘fermenty’ flavours and gives a consistent cup as this process takes place in a controlled environment.

About the Author

A curious coffee drinker with an acute bent for finding the best cup of coffee around, she went all the way to Rome (the espresso land) to do SCA Level 1 Barista Certification. In the last 4 years in specialty coffee, she has trained Baristas, tasted more than 100 different coffees, interacted with all kinds of coffee lovers and made so many cappuccinos! Her favorites include coffees from Ethiopia and Indian naturals.