Processing Coffee June 12, 2014

As you take a sip of your coffee you notice subtle flavors of blueberry, the coffee moves across your tongue, you note the thick mouthfeel and taste of chocolate lingers as you finish your sip.  You wonder to yourself, where did the blueberry flavor come from?  Why does this coffee have a fuller body than the cup I had the other day? How does it get that chocolate taste?  It may be surprising to learn that the way the coffee is processed is one of the most important factors to bringing out the flavor profile in a cup of coffee.

After the coffee cherry is picked off the trees, it is processed.  There are a few different methods to process coffee.  Different producers have different preferences, however different climates benefit more from one type of processing than another.  The main methods for processing coffee are dry process, semi-washed process, or the washed process.

The coffee bean is actually the seed of a coffee cherry, which is a fruit that is plucked off the trees.  Inside the coffee cherry, the coffee bean sits in the center, surrounded by parchment and mucilage (a gooey layer surrounding the parchment).  The different methods of processing treat the parts of the coffee cherry differently and all of this causes different flavor profiles in your coffee.

Natural Process (Dry Process)

The natural process is the way coffee was originally made, it involves the least amount of machinery and is done by hand; this may cause the final product to be a little more inconsistent than a process using more machinery. 

In the natural process, the cherries are picked and then separated from twigs, stones, and unripe cherries. Often producers will use a floatation method to collect the cherries as the ripened cherry will float in water allowing the producer to easily pick out which cherries are taken to the next step. Drying the fruit is the next step.  The fruit and mucilage are left on the coffee bean and dried out in the sun, usually on raised trays or a stone patio.  The beans are fermented inside the fruit as it dries, allowing the bean to be saturated by the sweet, fruity flavors of the cherry and mucilage.

Finally, the beans are hulled, or separated from the mucilage and the cherry, and prepared for shipping.

Washed Process (Wet Process)

            The washed process usually has more uniformity in the finished beans because of the machinery used in the process.  The separation of beans from defects happens using screens and the floatation method.  Next the cherry pulp is taken off using machinery. Vibrating mechanical screens further separate beans with defects. These mechanical processes are what differ from the natural process. The bean is then fermented to remove the mucilage.  In this fermentation process, the enzymes break down the mucilage, allowing it to be washed away.

            The beans are then dried out in the sun, without the mucilage and the cherry.  After drying, curing occurs where the parchment is removed from the bean and is passed through a variety of mechanical processes to clean and grade the bean.

Semi-Washed (Pulped Natural)

Semi-washed coffee removes the cherry pulp, like a washed process, however it does not ferment the coffee bean.  Leaving the mucilage on the bean, it is then dried in sunlight.  Care must be taken when semi-washing to ensure the bean does not begin to ferment, or even more sinister, grow bacteria or fungus.  The beans are checked frequently and often agitated or raked to ensure they are drying evenly.  After the beans have dried to the proper moisture, they are dry milled, meaning the parchment and the mucilage are removed.

But What Does This All Mean!?

Okay, so we get it, there are different techniques for processing the beans, but what does that have to do with my delicious cup of coffee!?

This is how your coffee gets the different mouthfeel and flavors that you enjoy.  With the fermentation that occurs in the natural process, the coffee ends up having a heavier mouthfeel, more intense flavors, as well as a lower acidity.  With a wet process coffee, stripping the coffee bean down before its dried gives a lighter bodied cup, with higher acidity.  The pulped natural process will give you a cup with more body and less acidity than the wet process, but it will come out cleaner and more consistent in flavor than a natural process coffee.

 Next time you take a sip of your coffee, try to guess how it was processed! Can it be described as full bodied cup?  Do you taste intense, exotic flavors?  It’s a natural process!  Is it lighter bodied with a mellow taste? Probably a wet process coffee!  Come in to Red Whale Coffee and ask us more about how our coffee was processed.  Discuss the tastes you notice and hypothesize the process that brought the flavor to you! Let’s have fun with it! 

Written by- Caitlyn Prien