Coffee Processing Explained

When browsing the info on coffee bags at the grocery store, you may see phrases like “dry process”, “natural” “washed coffee”, or even “honey process”. And unless you’ve done some research you may be completely lost! After coffee is picked it must go through processing before it becomes the dried green bean that we roast here in Wareham, MA. Since coffee is grown inside a fruit, it needs to be processed so that we’re left with just the bean inside. The different ways of processing coffee can help shape the flavor of the final cup and create character that we look for when purchasing beans for roasting.

Coffee cherries growing

Inside the cherry

Plenty of people drink coffee every day without even knowing that it’s grown inside a fruit! The coffee bean that you grind and brew is actually the pit or seed of a coffee cherry. They look almost like a cranberry and grow on large shrub-like plants around the equator. These coffee cherries are picked only when they ripen to a deep red color. But after they’re picked there are options… there are different ways to remove the fruit and dry the bean and each method helps to bring out certain flavors in the bean. There are many layers between the outside of the fruit and the bean in the center, so coffee processing has to be done carefully so that each layer is removed without damaging the bean.

Washed Process

…Also known as wet process, is common in central and south America. With the washed process the skin of the coffee fruit is removed, this is called “pulping”. After the outer layers of the fruit are removed a sticky layer still remains around the bean. This mucilage layer is then removed by soaking the beans in water. Enzymes and microorganisms work to loosen the mucilage layer and more water is used to wash it away. Hence the name wet or washed process. The last step in the process is drying which can be done in a number of ways. Once coffee is dried to a specific level it can then be bagged and shipped.

Coffees processed in this manner tend to have a “clean” flavor with lots of brightness and acidity (remember, acidity is a good quality when talking about coffee flavor). With washed coffees you’re able to taste the characteristics of where it is grown, with a light body and lots of consistency. At Jim’s we really love the clarity of washed coffees and purchase washed coffees from Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico to name just a few.

Natural Process

…Also known as dry process, is common in areas that are well… a little drier. With this process coffee is dried in the sun with the fruit still surrounding the bean. It can take up to a month to fully dry, so this is typically done in places with less humidity, infrequent rain, or a limited access to clean water. The natural process is the traditional method that has been used in places like Ethiopia for hundreds of years. Coffee is allowed to dry in the sun, sometimes on raised tables, with the fruit still intact with the bean.

Jim with coffee farmers in Colombia, over raised beds

Patio drying in Mexico

This can be a tricky process to get the bean to dry evenly without the fruit fermenting too much. Natural coffees are unique because the fruit increases the sugars in the final product and imparts an incredible fruity flavor to the bean. The extra sugars also add a lot of body so that the roasted coffee can feel heavier and silky. If you’ve ever tried a natural process coffee, it’s not something you’ll forget. We feature natural coffees in our limited-edition line up from time to time and LOVE how different they are from our everyday roasts. We had some amazing natural Ethiopian coffees in 2019 limited edition line-up. Keep an eye out for a similar flavor profile in our 2021 limiteds.

Other Ways to Process Coffee

While you most commonly hear about washed or natural processed coffees, there’s actually more methods! In Indonesia there is yet another way called giling basah also known as semi-washed. This process looks a lot like the washed method in the first few steps. The coffee fruit is removed, coffee is fermented slightly to remove the mucilage, but then the coffee is sold before it has fully dried. The last layer surrounding the bean is removed by a machine- called “hulling” while it is still slightly wet. This process helps create a lower acidity bean that customers seek out, while still retaining a nice heavy body. We feature this kind of process in our single origin Indonesia, roasted light to bring out a fruit and earthy quality. Our Sumatra French roast is the same Indonesian coffee, but roasted darker to bring out a deeper earthiness and a heavy syrupy body. Because of its unique characteristics we add Indonesian coffee to many of our blends. We think it really “rounds things out” and works perfectly alongside washed coffees that lend their own flavors to the mix.

Jim with coffee cherries, after fruit removed, in Indonesia

Honey process is yet another method that originated in Costa Rica. Here the fruit and pulp of the coffee cherry is removed, but then the coffee is dried with the sticky layer still attached. This is kind of “best of both worlds” in a way. You get the consistency of a washed coffee, but some of that flavor and added sugars from the natural coffee process. This method uses less water than the washed process too. While they do characteristically taste sweeter than a washed coffee, the “honey” in honey process comes from the stickiness of the beans during their drying process. In the past we have had an organic honey process with a true honey flavor, but we’re still searching for that elusive cup to bring into our limited line-up in the future.

As you can see, there are numerous ways to process coffee, each having their own benefits to the final cup. What we love about coffee is its uniqueness and complexity- even two washed coffees from the same country can taste completely different! We encourage our customers to explore different origins, processes and roast levels to find their favorite brew.

By: Christelle Black, Coffee Technician/Trainer