Have you wondered what your label on your favorite coffee variety really means? Does country, the region of origin, altitude, and processing matter? If you appreciate the nuance of a well-blended premium-roast coffee bean, the answer is yes, processing matters. A grower can process coffee, picked during the same harvest, with a washing, natural, and honey process and end up with three distinct flavor profiles.
Coffee beans are the seed of the coffee fruit
Commercial coffee producers grow coffee in large lower altitude manicured fields that can be quickly harvested by machine; small growers still selectively harvest ripe coffee fruit by hand. Like a cherry or a plum, coffee is a fruit that grows on plants ranging in size from dwarf bushes to tall trees. The coffee plant fruit is known as a coffee cherry. High altitude causes roots to burrow deep into the earth drawing more minerals into the plant and slows growth, producing richer and more flavorful crops. Grow at a high altitude on the side of a mountain with fast water runoff, and the flavor becomes even more complex.
There are four popular ways growers will process harvested coffee cherries. Washed, semi-washed, natural, and honey processed. Small growers will expand on these processing techniques to produce signature results.
Natural processing is the oldest technique. The outside fruit is left on while the cherry dries so the effect of the growing conditions on the flesh of the fruit becomes critical. The bean inside will become enhanced with flavors drawn from the flesh of the fruit. This produces floral, fruity, or lighter notes of flavor. Before specialty coffee re-entered the scene natural processing had almost been abandoned.
Fully washed is the most common processing technique. Flavor comes directly from the bean so it’s a popular choice for single-origin coffee beans. The coffee cherries are poured into fermentation tanks, run through a de-pulper to remove all traces of fruit, and returned to fermentation tanks to rest for up to 72 hours before drying. This produces a deeper coffee flavor that has nuances of the soil, altitude, and growing environment. Semi-washed is a cross between natural and fully washed. The flesh is partially removed down to a layer of parchment and mucilage. The beans are allowed to dry in the sun until the mucilage is absorbed into the bean before the parchment is removed and the beans are fermented.
When done correctly, honey processed coffee beans will have a natural sweetness that translates to a taste profile reminiscent of natural brown sugar, spice, chocolate, or honey. A process that originated in Costa Rica, the coffee cherries are de-pulped but not washed. They also skip the fermentation tank and are allowed to dry with the residual pulp intact. In the green stage, honey processed coffee beans can feel sticky until roasting. Honey processed coffee beans are highly rated as an early morning breakfast coffee.