Ever wonder what makes some coffees taste so deliciously satisfying?
Exceptional coffee begins with exceptional beans, but that’s no secret. What you may not know, however, is that the way the beans are processed plays a tremendous part in the way your coffee actually “feels” and tastes.
To help make your new coffee odyssey even more interesting, we’ve recapped four common methods of processing, along with the effects of each method on the flavor of your first sip. These methods are known as wet process, natural process, honey process, and wet-hulled process.
Wet (or “washed”) coffees are characterized by a higher acidity and body, along with a clean, often citrus or floral, taste. In processing, the wet method uses the entire fruit or “cherry,” of the coffee tree, and the beans are technically the seeds inside the cherry-like fruit.
With wet coffees, layers of skin/pulp are removed and allowed to naturally ferment between 12 and 72 hours before drying. The result? You taste more of the inside of the bean, which also means that the process helps spotlight the authentic character of a single origin bean better than other processing methods. It also assumes that the beans themselves have absorbed the proper amount of natural sugars and nutrients throughout the growing cycle.
In the end, the science of growing coffee, the skill of the farmers, and the soil and climate of the country of origin combine to create the unique flavor.
Unlike wet coffees, natural (or “dry”) coffees are processed with the skin and pulp left on the bean before drying, with little or no interference to the drying process. It produces a coffee with a lighter body, lower acidity, and a sweet flavor, sometimes with a complex fruitiness. While it’s a relatively inexpensive option, the natural process demands specific environmental conditions so that the fruit and seed dry in time.
The value of the process has been a topic of debate. On one hand, the natural process has been known to be considered a lower-quality option yielding inconsistent flavors. On the other, many believe the process may create extremely interesting, flavorful coffees and that natural coffees may someday match wet coffees for consistency, clarity, and taste.
Since it needs the least amount of hands-on processing, natural coffee is also the most environmentally friendly.
Honey Process (or pulped-natural)
Honey processed coffees are – no surprise – sweet, almost to the point of suggesting a bit of honey might have been added. Actually, though, the term “honey” refers to the sticky mucilage of the beans during processing. They are somewhere between a wet and a natural coffee: slightly fruity and with a more even acidity and a complex mouthfeel.
In the honey process, the skins and pulps are removed from coffee cherries but the sticky outer layer of the fruit is left intact, and allowed to dry without washing. The length of drying time, create varying levels of oxidation and opens up possibilities of black, white, golden and red honey varieties. It all depends on the way this process is used: The amount of mucilage or gumminess left around the bean contributes to the coffee’s sweetness and depth of body.
One benefit of the honey process is that it uses less water and is environmentally friendly.
This relatively newer process, is a hybrid of wet and dry processing. Although the wet-hulled process is similar to the wet process, the finished products are very different. The wet-hulled flavor is earthy, the body is heavy, and acidity is low with the wet-hulled option, versus the fresher taste, lighter body, and higher acidity of wet-processed beans.
Common only in Indonesia, specifically the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi, the wet-hulled process is a product of the area’s unique climate and, compared to the other three processes, a bit more complicated. Farmers pick the coffee and separate the skin/pulp from the coffee cherries, which then ferment overnight to remove the fruit layer, which washes off. While a wet coffee would dry for weeks inside the parchment, which protects the inner seed, the wet-hulled coffee is dried for just a few hours, and after a number of processing steps, the coffee is ready to export about a month after it’s picked.
Why does this matter? Because in Indonesia, the rain and humid climate make it hard to dry coffee for extended periods. The climate also accelerates growing conditions, so farmers must pick, process, and sell their coffee as fast as possible.
While wet-hulled coffees, with their intense flavors, might be an acquired taste, a single-origin Sulawesi or Tanzania experience might prove an exciting adventure indeed!