Washed, Honey and Natural, Whats the Difference?
Written by Allana Kennedy, Roaster at Outpost Coffee Roasters
At Outpost Coffee Roasters we have descriptions on our bags of coffee of what process was used to dry and remove the coffee seed from the coffee cherry. You may have seen the description of Washed, Honey and Natural processes, and wondered what this meant. Below, I'll explain each of these processes and its impact on taste.
Washed processed coffee lets you really taste the bean alone, without any of the fruit that surrounds it interfering with the flavour.
In the Washed method the coffee cherry is removed mechanically (by a 'depulper') and the seed is washed of all the mucilage. For coffee, Washing means that the seeds are put into fermentation tanks to break down the sugars and strip the mucilage away.
Washed coffees tend to be the most clean tasting coffee and rely on the bean to be perfectly farmed as you can not hide the bean flavour in the sweetness from the outside cherry. A farm's terroir, the varietal, the picking, fermentation, and drying all have to be exceptional. This is why so many specialty coffees are washed, the true taste of a single origin bean is highlighted like no other process.
On a recent trip to Finca San Ramon coffee farm in Nicaragua, I was able to watch how Washed processing happened step by step. First the pickers came down from the mountains and dropped off their bag of cherries. They then wait in line and the farm manager will get them to fill a bucket which is then thrown into a pit that channels down into the pulping machine below. The pulping machine has blades that spin around and cut the cherry away from the bean. Once a cherry has been cut/pulped, the outer cherry is whisked away to be composted and used as fertilizer. The bean is spun through a screen that allows only denser beans that are a certain size to fit through. Beans that are the perfect size and heaviness are then moved along into the washing station.
Fermentation is when sugars and starches are broken down and become acids or alcohol.
Fermentation is the interaction after the cherries have been pulped and the beans are covered in water. Water will help to extend fermentation time and will result in a softer body, complex acidity, and more refined flavour profile.
Fermentation times and temperatures vary and depend on the seed itself and the climate in which the seed is being processed and can be anywhere from 12 hours to 6 days.
Honey processed coffee allows you to taste the bean and the sweet mucilage combined. It's halfway between a washed and a natural processed coffee.
Honey process is when the skin of the cherry and pulp are removed but the mucilage is left on. The name ‘honey’ comes from the sticky, sweet, slimy mucilage which leaves the coffee tasting a little sweet like honey. Honey processed coffee often has more rounded acidity than washed coffees, with intense sweetness and complex mouthfeel.
Typically, the more mucilage left on the bean, the sweeter the taste.
Producers often have to wait right up until the time of picking to decide which processing method they will use, either washed, honey or natural. If it has rained a lot, it is difficult to use a natural or honey process as the cherries can be split and swollen and the sugars get washed away. While I was at a coffee farm in Nicaragua the rain fall was so heavy and persistent while up on the mountains it made honey and natural processes more difficult to produce, but not impossible. If honey processing is an option many recommend leaving the cherries for 24 hours before depulping, this allows the mucilage to adhere to the bean and develop flavour.
Natural processed coffee leaves all the fruit on the seed to dry, as you can see in the photo above.
Natural processing (also known as the Dry process) is when the coffee seed is dried inside the cherry and no part of the outer cherry is removed before drying. This process originates from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. This process may have started as a necessity as it requires less infrastructure for farms with little to no water, machinery and workers. Naturally processed coffees tend to be fruitier as the sweet mucilage and skin from the cherry dry on the seed and are absorbed into the seeds taste. Natural processed coffees also tend to have a muddled flavour as all the cherry and mucilage can hide and overpower the taste of the actual seed itself.
You may be asking why isn't every coffee a natural if it doesn't require any water or processing machinery? While the process requires little infrastructure it still requires a lot of technique and control to make sure the bean and cherry dry at the right rate.
Some regions are not suited to natural processing as a dry climate is crucial. If the region is too wet, humid, or rainy it could lead to inconsistent drying, or mouldy coffee. Optimal coffee growing is in higher elevations, however in these elevations rainfall is more typical. In the mountains of the coffee growing region of Nicaragua, rainfall is a daily occurrence and in Huehuetenango, Guatemala it can be very cold during harvest time which can slow down the drying and make natural processing difficult and costly.
Now that you know about the three main ways of processing coffee, see if you can taste the difference next time you make a cup!