Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Coffee is traditionally processed in three ways: washed, natural, and honey
1. Washed Coffees
Washed coffees focus solely on the bean. They let you taste you what’s on the inside, not the outside.
A natural or honey processed coffee requires a flavourful coffee cherry. Washed coffees depend almost 100% on the bean having absorbed enough natural sugars and nutrients during its growing cycle. This means the varietal soil, weather, ripeness, fermentation, washing, and drying are key.
Washed coffees reflect both science of growing coffee and that farmers are an integral part of crafting its taste. With washed coffees, the country of origin and environmental conditions add to the flavour.
This means that the washed process highlights the true character of a single origen bean like no other process. It’s why so many specialty coffees are washed.
2. Natural/Dry Processed Coffee
The natural process, also known as the dry process, is a back-to-basics approach that stems from Ethiopia. The fruit remains on the bean, and dries undisturbed. Although it needs less investment, it still requires certain climatic conditions to ensure the drying of the fruit and seed in time.
Over time, the natural process has become considered a lower-quality method that can lead to inconsistent flavours. This inconsistency is often the result of unripe fruit drying and turning brown alongside ripe fruits.
However, there are many who believe this process actually has the potential to create the most flavourful coffees – and that a comeback is just around the corner. If consistency is achieved, then many argue that natural coffees can match washed coffees for clarity, and also provide some more interesting notes and characteristics as well. You can see this happening in Brazil, among other places.
Ben of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers told me that a nicely picked and processed natural coffee can bring out incredible cupping notes, and offer consumers amazing sweet flavours – “Some of our naturals end up tasting more like a tropical fruit salad or fruit compote than coffee.”
3. Honey/Pulped Natural Coffee
When done right, honey processed coffee can literally taste like someone has put honey and brown sugar in your cup of coffee – although the name actually comes from how sticky the beans get during processing. In many ways, this type of coffee is halfway between a washed coffee and a natural process coffee: it’s fruity, but not in as exaggerated a way as some naturals. It often has a more rounded acidity than washed coffees, with intense sweetness and complex mouthfeel.
The honey process is strongly associated with Costa Rica and, in recent years, subcategories have developed: yellow, red, golden, black, and white honey. This reflects the ability this process has to influence the taste and overall profile of a coffee. It can become a highly scientific process, as the level of mucilage – which influences the sweetness and depth of body of the coffee – is monitored and controlled. Typically, the more mucilage left on the bean, the sweeter the taste.