With the ease of getting a cup of coffee these days, it’s easy to forget what a complicated and heartfelt process it requires. Many hardworking hands, including the supernatural fingers of Mother Nature, go into waking us up in the morning. We don’t often take time to reflect on such an incredible process when we are desperate to chase away the bags from under our eyes and scurry out our doors.
A deeper understanding of what goes into providing you with your morning coffee can enhance your experience, educate your purchasing, and enrich your perspective. So, let’s get to the heart of the matter—well, we should say the bean of the matter because at the heart of every coffee cherry is a coffee bean.
Beans begin in cherry-like fruits from shrub-like plants and are at the center of five layers (from the center: bean, silver skin, parchment, mucilage, fruit, and outer skin). To extract the bean from the cherry, farmers rely on one of three processing methods. These methods are known as washed, natural, and honey. Though they are different approaches, each processing method focuses on stripping the bean of the layers and preparing it for roasting.
What are the differences in how each method works? What are the varying results they provide?
In the washed process, beans are hand-picked and dumped into giant pools of water. The ripe and ready rise to the top saying “Use me, Lawd!”, while the rotten and unripe sink to the bottom. Farmers skim the surface to collect, drain the water, and do it again before sending the beans through a de-pulping machine which ravages the cherries nude, leaving only the beans. They are then laid out to dry on cement slabs or raised beds while being constantly agitated to fight against excessive moisture and mildew.
The end result is a full-bodied and highly acidic cup with deep and rich tones. The quality and consistency of this method enable it to be the most popular coffee processing method, especially among those in the business of commodity coffee.
Small-batch roasters and hipster shops gravitate toward coffee that has been naturally processed. It is sweeter and more aromatic with defined flavors and lower acidity. If you’ve ever enjoyed a cup of Ethiopian and noticed its famously strong blueberry tones—that is because it is naturally processed.
In this method, cherries are hand-picked, sorted, cleaned, and laid out to dry for several days. The heat of the sun encourages the fruity qualities from the cherries to soak into the bean. The cherries are then sent to the hulling machine which knocks off all five layers in one swift kick that puts Jackie Chan to shame.
When appropriately processed and roasted, the final result is a life-changing cup of coffee, sweet and aromatic.
The honey process was developed to maintain appropriate moisture in the coffee beans despite certain habitats’ lack of water. Farmers accomplish this by keeping a certain amount of mucilage on the bean for an extended period of time. The cherries are hand-picked, sorted, and cleaned, then de-pulped using the same machine as in washed coffee or by a mechanical dry de-pulping technique. Farmers decide exactly how much mucilage they want to be left on the bean before laying them out to dry for several days. Once the beans are to an ideal moisture content, the final layers (parchment and mucilage) are stripped off and the beans are outsourced to adventurous roasters all over the world.
What sippers can expect from a honey processed coffee is a taste that falls between that of a natural and washed coffee. Honey coffees are brighter than washed while having more body than natural. They have defined flavor and low acidity.
Ahem. Are you still there? We hope we didn’t bury you beneath pounds of coffee processing information. Still, it is only a glimpse of the intention that goes into making your morning coffee. Even if you don’t dare go any deeper just yet, take an extra moment in the mornings to appreciate the heart that goes into something we too easily take for granted.
The world of coffee is a fascinating science and a profound art. Having a basic understanding of these processes will certainly enhance your experience, educate your purchasing, and enrich your perspective.