Choosing the best coffee processing method can be like an artist choosing the best paints for their next masterpiece. Should it be watercolours, oil, or acrylics? Well, you probably guessed the answer: it depends.
Like any other artwork – because producing great coffee is an artform – processing methods are chosen based on many factors: the producer’s aims, experience, knowhow, resources, market demands, tradition, personal preferences…
But don’t sweat it! I’m going to cover all of that in this article, as I explore how you should select the right coffee processing method for your farm.
Want to learn more about processing? Check out our guide!
Natural processed Yellow Catuai grown at 1,090 m.a.s.l. on Sao Luiz Estate, Brazil, dries on African raised beds after being hand-picked. Credit: Sao Luiz Estate Coffee
Natural processing is when ripe cherries are dried with the fruit still attached. It works great in regions where water is scarce, the climate is hot and dry, and there is plenty of space for drying the cherries. In these situations, great quality can be achieved at a fairly low cost, since little equipment is needed.
However, it is laborious. Since the cherry is still attached to the beans while they dry, the pulp and mucilage will ferment. This adds sweet, fruity flavours to the cup but also requires rigorous quality control to avoid inconsistency or over-fermentation. Cherries should be regularly turned and checked. In turn, this can incur higher labour costs and – especially in wet climates – represent a steep learning curve for producers.
Also, fermentation will rapidly brown unripe cherries, leaving them indistinguishable from ripe ones. For this reason, when processing specialty naturals, it’s crucial that workers only pick ripe cherries.
Find out more! Read Why Specialty Naturals Require Strict Quality Control
Earlier, we also mentioned space. As Ana Cecilia Velloso, a Brazilian producer from Sao Luiz Estate, explains, “Available patio space is an important factor for us when deciding which process to pursue. Naturals require more space to be dried, which can limit our production.”
But, in spite of everything, the demand for premium naturals’ uniquely sweet and fruity flavours has increased rapidly. In recent years, even regions with wet climates have successfully experimented with quality dry processing. In El Salvador, Raul Rivera – a renowned Cup of Excellence winning producer – says, “One graduates as a coffee producer when one is able to process an outstanding natural.”
So, to sum up…
Consider processing naturals if: you want a sweet, fruity coffee that’s currently growing in popularity; don’t mind putting in lots of effort to control the drying phase and pick ripe cherries; understand the risks of inconsistency and poorly controlled fermentation; are ideally based in a dry climate; have plenty of drying space; and don’t want to invest in lots of equipment.
Natural processed coffee grown at 1,600 m.a.s.l. on Finca Santa Rosa, El Salvador, dries on African raised beds. Credit: Raul Rivera
Washed/wet coffees have had their pulp removed and mucilage broken down – typically using water – before the beans are dried. Since there’s no cherry left on the beans, and therefore no more fermentation can occur during drying, this method is suitable for most climates. They require less heat, labour, and monitoring than any other process.
However, it also requires a great deal of water and a significant investment in infrastructure. Ultimately, this can make it difficult for regions with water shortages or a lack of infrastructure, as well as for low-income producers.
A pulping machine, fermentation tanks, and water channels are typically used to remove the pulp and break down the mucilage (although there is innovative machinery on the market that requires less water). What’s more, the residual – and now polluted – water has to be disposed of correctly since it can endanger living species around the area.
Learn more! How Wet Processing Is Becoming More Eco-Friendly
Nevertheless, if the proper infrastructure is used, wet processing could be the most quality-consistent method of all. We’ve already mentioned that the risk of over-fermentation is significantly reduced, allowing the coffee to be dried in cool and more humid conditions. At the same time, the beans can be visually inspected during the whole process, making it easier to spot defects and remove them.
In the cup, washed coffees are renowned for their clean, bright flavours; vibrant acidity; and delicate body. They can capture the unique flavours and aromas of the beans themselves: consumers get to taste the variety and the terroir, not the impact of the processing method, creating a true trademark for the farm in question.
For this reason, quality washed coffees are always in demand. Francisco Quezada of Finca Vizcaya, Guatemala, tells me, “More than 90% percent of the coffees exported by Guatemala are washed due to the high demand for them and their consistent quality among the Guatemalan territory.”
On the other hand, if your coffee isn’t of the highest quality, washed processing will also allow this to show in the cup.
Consider processing washed coffees if: you want to process large volumes of coffee with consistent cleanness and quality; can invest in infrastructure; and grow quality coffee in good soil (and often at higher altitudes).
You might also like: How to Improve Quality When Drying Washed Coffees
Washed processed Red Catuai grown at 1,500 m.a.s.l. on Los Encinos Estate, Honduras now dries on African raised beds. Credit: Carlos Mejia
Honey & Pulped Natural Coffee
And now we reach our final, and newest, category: honeys and pulped naturals. While there are differences between the two processing methods, they can both be defined as being dried with part, yet not all, of the cherry attached to the bean. The pulp has been removed, reducing the risks of poor fermentation, yet varying degrees of mucilage will remain (requiring less water to be used for this method).
In short, honeys and pulped naturals offer a middle ground between washed and natural coffees. And they are a great option in regions with water shortages.
Honey processed coffees grown at 1,600 m.a.s.l. on Finca Santa Rosa, El Salvador dry on raised beds. Credit: Raul Rivera
In recent years, a lot of experimentation has been done with leaving different amounts of mucilage on the beans. This has led to different honey subcategories: black, red, yellow, gold, and white. Although these all provide unique flavours, not every honey process is suitable for every climate. Honeys with a high mucilage content, such as the black and red, will benefit more from high sun exposure. Low-mucilage honeys, like the whites, handle cooler climates better.
Learn more! Check out Yellow, Red, & Black Honey Coffees – What’s The Difference?
Like natural coffees, honeys are labour-intensive and require extensive knowhow. On the other hand, producers don’t need as much equipment as with washed coffees. What’s more, honeys may also offer a marketing advantage due to their uniqueness.
Honey coffees don’t just bridge washed and naturals in terms of the processing methods. You can also taste this in the cup. They are sweet and fruit-forward due to the sugars in the mucilage. The more mucilage-heavy honeys will have a natural-like body – but the others, such as the yellows and whites, will have a lighter body that’s more similar to washed coffees.
In Mexico, Carlos Avedaño of Caffé Pecora has been experimenting with the white honey process for some time. Many of his customers have readily accepted his white honeys, which he attributes to the fact that they “provide a new and interesting experience for the taster.”
Consider processing honeys and pulped naturals if: You have the right climate; time and labour are not issues for you; you have the knowhow; you’re willing to invest in some equipment but not as much as with wet/washed processing; you want a unique product for the market; and you’re willing to take the risks of mastering a new processing method.
Pulped natural coffee dries on a patio on Sao Luiz Estate, Brazil. Credit: Sao Luiz Estate Coffee
Some Final Words of Warning
Every processing method has its pros and cons. Every processing method can produce exceptional coffee. But not every processing method is suitable for every farm. The climate, resources, labour, market demand, and many more factors can affect this.
For this reason, it’s important to make this decision carefully. Evaluate your ability to process via a particular method and, if you do decide to switch, start slowly. For the first few years, allot a small percentage of your crop to it. This will allow you to check that you can do this processing method well, not just once, but consistently, before you risk your entire harvest by doing so.
And when you decide to increase the amount of coffee processed in this way, continue to do so slowly. Increase the percentage bit by bit. Check that you can maintain quality and consistency at larger quantities before you commit to doing so.
There’s much to gain by experimenting with processing methods – but, if done poorly, there’s much to lose, too.
Catuai coffee cherries are selectively picked on Los Encinos Estate, Honduras. Credit: Carlos Mejia
Coffee processing is part artform, part science, part business decision, and part passion. Regardless of the processing method chosen, a producer has to continuously learn from their plants, soil, weather, and surroundings in order to discover the right method for them. But it’s worth it when they are able to produce exceptional quality, unique coffees that resonate with buyers and consumers.
And for consumers like me, well, we get the best part. We get to enjoy a lifetime of work in a single cup.
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Written by Ricardo Arturo Gallopp Ramírez. Feature photo credit: Carlos Mejia
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