What is the best way to tell how a coffee is going to taste before you make it?
Contrary to marketing materials, a coffee bean’s country of origin in and of itself is not always the largest factor when determining the flavor and body of brewed coffee. It’s a combination of the microclimate the coffee plant grew up in, nutrient levels in the soil, age of the plant, rainfall (or lack thereof), roast level and one hundred and one other variables that shape and reshape the bean within the coffee plant’s fruit.
But there’s an argument to be made that no variable — other than maybe roast level — has as consistent and plainly noticeable effect on coffee flavor as the “process,” something that’s stamped on any decent bag of coffee, which simply refers to how the coffee bean is removed from the cherry. Here’s what you need to know.
There are two processing methods: washed and natural.
Okay, there are technically numerous processing methods out there, but most are simply hybridizations of two. The first is called “washed” and it’s the most popular in specialty coffee and coffee at large. The coffee cherry has three layers that protect the bean — skin, mucilage and parchment. Washed coffees have these layers removed with machines before the beans are dried and shipped to roasters. Most use a mixture of water, gravity and squeezing to separate bean from fruit.
The second method, labeled “natural” or “dry processed,” is the elder and less prolific one. Basically, it boils down to harvesting the cherries and allowing them to dry in the sun over the course of a few weeks, making sure to roll them around every once in a while to prevent spoiling.
“There are plenty of preconceptions out there about coffee,” says Erika Vonie, Director of Coffee at Trade. “Naturals challenge our perception of what coffee can and should taste like.”
Natural processing is less common today, but it is still the most practiced coffee processing method in many dryer climate coffee-producing countries (Ethiopia, for instance, is famous for its dry-processed beans). According to Vonie, this is likely due to the risk of over-fermenting natural coffee, which can lead to flavors that are less than desirable.
For consumers, the easiest way to track down natural beans is through Trade’s coffee sorter, which has a “Process” drop-down tab.
Washed and natural coffees taste significantly different.
There are many variables that affect the taste and flavor of coffee. As coffee entrepreneur and former World Barista Champion James Hoffmann put it, “[Coffee is] sort of made three times, right? It’s farmed, it’s roasted and then it’s brewed. This is why it’s so easy to make coffee bad, because a break or fault in any of the links and things will fall apart.” TL;DR: don’t take any blanket statement about coffee flavor as infallible.
Generally, you can expect washed coffees to exhibit higher levels of acidity (what Vonie and other coffee experts often call “brightness”). Their cleaner and lighter body leads to a more consistent cup, overall.
Meanwhile, a bean that’s left to mingle in the sun with the surrounding fruit is going to take on more flavor from the fruit than a bean that has its surrounding cherry and mucilage stripped immediately.
“When coffee is naturally processed, dense and fruity sugars develop within the coffee seed and express themselves when the coffee is roasted. Extra sugars developed within the coffee seed react well to the roasting process, and caramelize in higher quantities than with a washed coffee,” Vonie says, “without adding any flavors or syrups, your coffee will naturally taste like sweet, candied berries.”
As Vonie notes, natural coffees are very fruit-forward — blueberry and strawberry flavors being most common — and fuller bodied.
Put another way, washed coffees are truer tastes of the coffee bean alone, while natural coffees carry more flavor from the cherry and plant from which it was grown.
One processing method is not better than the other.
It is true that in the highest levels of coffee consumption, washed is often preferred, as the beans are more consistent and retain a sense of purity to the ingredient. Vonie says this is largly because acidity is a prized aspect of specialty coffee, and natural coffees are less acidic than washed coffees.
But, as Jordan Michelman and Zachary Carlsen, cofounders of the coffee newswire and reporting outlet Sprudge put it in their new book, “Washed coffee isn’t clean. Natural coffee isn’t dirty.” This is a brief way of saying the beans that result from these processes is largely preferential, and not stratified or held higher or lower than one another.
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