Producing high quality washed and natural process coffee involves a number of variables for the world’s farmers and cooperative growers. Water quality, soil quality, fertilizers, organic certification, sunlight, shade and pest control must all be factored in to the grow cycle. Producers must also make the critical decision of how to best separate the coffee bean from its surrounding fruited cherry.
We currently have four new, exciting Ethiopian coffees to feature, so this seems like the perfect time to put a spotlight on the differences between washed and natural process coffee. We have our Ethiopia Yirgacheffee Aster Natural, our Ethiopia Yirgacheffee Melaku Washed, our Ethiopia Kochere Zahra Washed, and our Ethiopia Harrar Abebe Natural for you to check out.
Washed, Natural And Others
With regard to process, there are two main categories — namely wet-processed (washed) and dry-processed (natural) that can pertain to a large majority of producers. While other options exist, honey-processed (pulp natural) and semi-washed (wet hulled) coffees are produced to a much lesser extent. Honey processing has gained in popularity in recent years, but it’s generally employed as a secondary means of production for a niche offering like a microlot. Semi washed coffees, traditional to the Indonesian island provinces of Sulawesi and Sumatra are not found anywhere else in the world. So for now, let’s keep the focus on washed and natural process coffee methods.
Breaking It Down
When you break it down the defining feature that differentiates washed coffees from naturals is whether or not the fruited coffee cherry is stripped from the bean before or after it is set out in the sun to dry. Stripping the fruit from the bean (known as pulping) is performed on both large and small scales, depending on the volume of coffee being produced as well as other factors such as the number of farms involved. Single growers or ‘single estate’ farmers frequently manage their own processing equipment, essentially managing the life of the coffee from seed up until it is handed off to the exporter. Smaller pulping devices, even hand-cranked ones are not uncommon in certain more remote parts of the world where acquiring heavy equipment can be difficult and cost prohibitive. Coffee growers will use what works best for their individual needs, and oftentimes these methods and techniques are traditional to their region, having been handed down through several generations of producers.
With so much effort spent on cultivation and yield, the choice of processing becomes the next key component to prep high quality coffee that is to be internationally marketed and sold. Washed process coffees are the norm for the majority of Central America, parts of Africa and some Indonesian provinces like Papua New Guinea. Alternatively natural process coffees are common to South America, Brazil, Ethiopia and other African nations. One difference between the two methods is the amount of water that is required; washed requires substantially more water than natural, which on a regional scale can factor into which method receives broad acceptance and adoption.
Washed or “wet-processed” coffees undergo a natural fermentation process that involves soaking the coffee cherries in a large water bath. This softens the fruited cherry and allows for wet mill operators to manually remove lower quality, unripened and over-ripened cherries that will float to the surface. Next the fruited cherry is wholly stripped from the bean by means of a mechanical depulping device that removes the vast majority of the fruit and its skin, leaving behind a small amount of mucilage that still clings to the bean. Next the newly processed beans are left for a short time (12 hours or so) in a holding tank where fermentation is finalized. In the final stages, the beans are left out to dry in the sun, usually either on concrete patios or raised drying beds, where a thin layer of parchment surrounding the bean dries and locks in the desired amount of moisture within the bean. This parchment layer helps to retain moisture, preserving the quality of the bean. It remains on the bean up until the time of export where it is stripped off at a storage warehouse and dry mill that is located near the ports.
Natural or “dry-processed” coffees are put out in the sun to dry with their whole fruited cherry intact. This process which can take up to several weeks ends when the coffee fruit has fully raisined. Producers will carefully monitor this process and frequently rotate and stir the drying cherries so that the whole batch will be equally and uniformly dried at its finish. Dried cherries are then washed and pulped like a washed coffee, but use as little as half of the amount of water required for washed coffees. The difference is that the raisined fruit imparts its juices and enzymes onto the bean; in the cup, naturally processed coffees in turn have a different profile with more body, mouthfeel and often a greater sweetness that their washed counterparts.
By blending the two styles, roasters can craft some incredible coffees. Espresso blends for example traditionally use a natural coffee as a base for creating a rich, chocolatey body and thick crema. Natural coffees are commonly produced in countries like Ethiopia, and in Brazil it’s almost exclusively natural processed coffees. Through study and experimentation, roasters can blend in a portion of washed coffees with a natural Brazil or natural Ethiopia to achieve an incredible flavor and perfect balance.
Whether it’s a blend or a single estate offering there’s a whole world of options to explore when considering the differences between washed and natural process coffee. Most of us espresso fanatics and coffee geeks have a preference. What’s yours?
President & CEO
What We Have To Offer
We have FOUR new Ethiopian coffees for you — our Ethiopia Yirgacheffee Aster Natural, our Ethiopia Yirgacheffee Melaku Washed, our Ethiopia Kochere Zahra Washed, and our Ethiopia Harrar Abebe Natural.
Visit Us In Thousand Oaks
There’s always an open invitation waiting for you to join us at our cupping table in Thousand Oaks.
Feel free to email us anytime or call to speak with our friendly staff M-F, 8AM – 4:30PM PST about our washed and natural process coffee choices, what else we have coming in, and how we can help improve your roasting business. 800.761.JAVA