Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Coffee Processing: Exploring Naturals, Pulped Naturals, & Honeys

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What unites naturals, pulped naturals, and honeys? They dry with all or some of the cherry attached. But what separates them? Quite a lot.

Broadly speaking, coffees that dry with the cherry attached will be fruitier, sweeter, and heavier-bodied. But there’s a big difference between a black honey, a white honey, and a natural.

To find out more, I spoke to the team at Ipanema Coffees, a Brazilian farming group that works with a variety of coffee processing methods.

Lee este artículo en español Explorando Los Cafés Naturales, Honey y Despulpados Naturales

A seriema on a drying patio in Brazil. Credit: Ipanema Coffees

Fermentation & Coffee Processing

Fermentation is key to understanding and controlling these processing methods. Coffee is a fruit and, like most fruits, it is full of nutrients, sugars, and other chemical compounds. These compounds are present in the mucilage and husk of the coffee cherries, making it a friendly environment for bacteria and other microorganisms to prosper. 

Fermentation is the name of the process in which microorganisms digest these nutrients, emitting gases and heat, and breaking the original nutrients into other chemical compounds. This means that all these coffee processing methods involve some level of fermentation.

Christiano Leite de Castro Borges, CEO of Ipanema Coffees, tells me that fermentation will always affect the flavour profile, but the changes won’t necessarily be positive. “[You want to] provoke the fermentation process, but to an ideal level, one where you avoid the excess fermentation that would negatively impact the [profile of the] beverage,” he says. 

Good vs Bad Coffee Fermentation

Rodrigo Ferreira Rodrigues is the Industrial Director of Ipanema Coffees. He says, “With good fermentation, you can make the nuances of coffee more, let’s say, evident, so you can have a coffee with a fruitier flavour, you can have a coffee with a more winey flavour.” 

He adds, “If the characteristics are good, then you develop this fruity side a lot. This fruity side… can be yellow fruit or red fruit.”

On the other hand, if fermentation is uncontrolled, undesirable flavours can appear in the cup. Rodrigo describes these as a “rotten, even vinegary taste” like that of “rotten fruit”. 

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Let’s explore the different ways we process coffees with all or some of the fruit attached, and how fermentation affects them.

Natural processed coffees dry with the fruit still attached. Credit: Ipanema Coffees

Natural Coffee

In the natural or dry process, the coffee cherries dry with all the fruit attached to the beans. When done well, this should highlight sweetness and result in a round body, although these coffees are unlikely to have more than a medium level of acidity. 

Rodrigo stresses the importance of careful attention to these coffees during drying to ensure controlled fermentation. He tells me, “If you take a natural coffee and dry it in a raised bed, and you do so in a thinner layer, you tend to have a better drying and fermentation… If you use very thick layers, there will be more heat and this can result in unwanted fermentation with an undesirable taste – defective fermentation.” 

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Natural processed coffee drying on raised beds. Credit: Virginia Coffee Roasters

Honeys & Pulped Naturals

With honeys and pulped naturals, a depulper machine removes the outer skin and some of the mucilage from the cherries. Depending on how much of the mucilage is removed, the coffee might be called white, yellow, gold, red, or black honey. 

In Brazil, the name “pulped natural” is more common. Most of the time, a pulped natural will resemble a yellow honey. 

The term “honey” refers to the sticky, sugar-rich mucilage. However, the name has also stuck due to the sweet profile of the coffees (although they don’t tend to be as sweet as naturals). Christiano tells me, “The amount of mucilage that you preserve with the beans will give you the intensity of the characteristics of that coffee.” 

The more mucilage, the darker the colour of the beans and the greater sweetness and body you can experience. White and gold honeys have very little mucilage; red and black have significantly more. But let’s start with yellow honey, which is the most common in Brazil.

  • Yellow Honey

Christiano says that since more mucilage has been removed from it than from black and red honeys, a yellow honey coffee “tends to be more balanced and to accentuate a little the acidity, but to also have less body and sweetness.”

Rodrigo explains, “If it has less mucilage, it has less sugar around the parchment, the seed. You will have fewer effects from fermentation or any other chemical reaction there because you have less sugar.” 

With less sugar and less fermentation, producers experience both reduced risk and a reduced ability to highlight certain flavours in the beans. “If you go for a yellow honey, your risk is much lower,” Rodrigo says, “but you will get much more, let’s say, limited flavours, coffee characteristics. You are moving to a more standard product.”

Person holding honey processed beans. Credit: Virginia Coffee Roasters

  • Red Honey

“If you choose to make red honey,” Rodrigo says, “you have a bit more mucilage. That’s why the parchment sometimes gets a reddish aspect, because you left a little more mucilage [on the beans]. Then, you can have a little more influence on the final taste, because you already have a richer medium at the level of microorganisms.”

According to the team at Ipanema Coffees, red honey processing should result in a sweeter cup profile compared to yellow honey, with a medium body and high acidity. 

  • Black Honey

“When you make black honey, you leave all the mucilage [on the beans during drying],” says Rodrigo. This makes it the most complex and risky of all the honeys. The beans dry surrounded by lots of sugar and microorganisms.

Rodrigo stresses the importance of drying these coffees in the shade to control the heat and so stabilise fermentation.

Christiano adds, “Since you have a lot of mucilage, a lot of pulp, you have to avoid very thick layers. Very high layers… can create a very fast fermentation process.” 

Yet for producers with the ability to control fermentation, black honeys can be worth the risk. According to Ipanema Coffees’ quality control department, they tend to have a sweet cup, a heavy body, and a good amount of acidity. 

Washed, honey and natural processed coffee drying on raised beds. Credit: Virginia Coffee Roasters

Quality Control in Coffee Processing

Honeys and naturals are riskier than washed/wet coffees. Rodrigo says, “From the moment you start to leave more mucilage [on the beans], you can add [quality], but your risk also increases.” 

The less fruit left on the bean, the simpler the quality control can be. The more fruit on the bean, the more mucilage and sugars you have, and so the more chances you have of increasing the sweetness and accentuating fruity and winey flavours – or of over-fermenting and creating rotten notes.

This means that controlling fermentation and maintaining consistency is imperative. Data is useful since it both enables experiments and repeatability. Rodrigo and Christiano tell me that the team at Ipanema Coffees records data about all the lots they produce: area, variety, harvest information, processing details, quality, and cup profile.

Rodrigo says, “Our goal is this: do you want a coffee with this flavour? Well, for me to make a coffee with this flavour, I have to work in this region, with this method, with x hours of fermentation, x hours on the patio, and I’ll achieve that characteristic.” 

Coffee crops and the dry mill at Fazenda Rio Verde. Credit: Ipanema Coffees

Christiano calls the company’s database “a recipe”, explaining that it gives them “operational guidance”. They use it to offer buyers specific coffee profiles, as well as to decide how to process each plot.

“This is a decision made by a committee,” he explains. “There is an agronomist, there is also an industrial manager, and they discuss every day what land will be harvested, how it will be harvested, and how it will be processed so they can reach the highest quality possible, considering the terroir and the variety’s characteristics.”

Without data, that conversation would never be possible. However, it’s not the past harvests that should be considered. Christiano stresses the importance of being reactive, especially when it comes to the weather. “In the post-harvest, what we take into consideration is the weather that day. So, if rain is forecast, if you have a change in temperature, we take it into account.”

Rain can be disastrous for naturals and honeys. Although it’s important to avoid too much heat and to keep fermentation as slow as possible, humidity can also lead to fermentation defects and even mould. The goal with processing is always to dry the coffee. Coffees that dry with all or some of the fruit attached need longer to dry out after unexpected rain than washed coffees dried in their parchment.

Christiano tells me that it is important to have back-up plans in case there is unexpected rain. He tells me, “We often send a coffee to, for example, a covered patio, a greenhouse, when we know that we will have some kind of climate limitation that day or week.” The aim is to minimise the impact by drying the coffee in an area with a controlled temperature and lower moisture level. 

Coffee dries on a patio at nightfall. Credit: Ipanema Coffees

Coffees dried with all of part of the fruit offer exciting cup profiles for roasters and consumers, and give producers another way to control the quality and flavour of their lots. 

It’s important to remember that when poorly handled, these processing methods are risky. Yet if the climate is right, if the data is available, and if producers have the time and resources to monitor and control fermentation, the results can be delicious. Sweetness and body can be enhanced. Fruity and wine-like flavours can be accentuated. And depending on the method, acidity can also be notable.

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Written by Ivan Petrich. All quotes translated from Portuguese. Feature photo: Samples of pulped natural, honey, and natural coffees. Feature photo credit: Ipanema Coffees

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Ipanema Coffees.

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