Let's say that you decide to take everything into your own hands and grow your own coffee beans. You put in the effort of planting the trees, caring for them and waiting a few years, and finally you have some beautiful bright red coffee cherries. As proud as you are, now you must be wondering, how exactly do I turn these into coffee beans?
|I bet if you just squeeze hard enough you’ll get coffee, right? |
(Photo by skinnydiver is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
Processing, which is removing everything but the sweet bean within, is an important, and sometimes overlooked part of the journey of coffee. There are a few main ways to go about it, and slight variations on them, some of which are associated with different growing regions, but as craft coffee becomes more prevalent this is changing.
Washed coffee is by far the most common processing method. It's consistent, risk free, and produces a clean cup with more crisp and simple flavors. Think of it as the safe sedan of the coffee world. For many people, this is the only type of coffee they've tasted. In washed processing, the cherries are thrown into a machine that removes the fruit,and then the mucilage, or the sticky scraps around the bean, is removed partially by bristles and then finished by fermentation in tanks of water. The result is a coffee with a clean mouthfeel and clear flavor.
|Cherry Pulper (Photo by Coffee Management is licensed under CC BY 2.0)|
On the other end of the spectrum is the natural process, which was the first method used. Because it’s simpler than the washed process, it has been common in areas that can't necessarily afford all of the equipment required for washed coffee. All that must be done is pick the ripe cherries and then place them out in the sun until they're dried, like fantastic caffeinated grapes. The coffee is hulled, and voila, naturally processed coffee! The sugars of the cherry and mucilage give coffees processed this way a sweet and rich fruity flavor (like our Brazillian Mogiana). Why is the process uncommon if it's cheap and makes a uniquely delicious cup? It's somewhat of a gamble. Even assuming the weather agrees, there's such a variation in the fermentation that happens naturally that it's guaranteed that there is going to be a lot of inconsistencies within the same batch of coffee, and (unfortunately) at least a little rotting. It's not exactly like playing Russian roulette, but it's a gamble that means decently consistent natural coffees command a high price on the market.
In between these two is semi-washed, also known honey process or pulped natural (it seems no one knows what to call it). Like washed coffee, the cherry is removed from the seed, but the mucilage is left on, so that, like natural coffee, they can be left to dry in the sun or on drying beds. They retain some of the sweetness and mouthfeel of natural coffee, but are a little more refined and a little more stable.
Too much information for you? Relax by looking at these puppies in coffee cups. Next time when we finish talking about processing.