To preserve and enhance its flavor and body, a ripe coffee berry should undergo almost immediate "processing" aka the deliberate removal of the berry's layers (skin, pulp, pectin, parchment, and silverskin) to whittle it down to a relatively stable-for-shipment green coffee seed. The process of how coffee goes from berry to dried seed makes all the difference!
There are three major process groupings, which are differentiated primarily by how much of the berry's layers are left on the seed and for how long (usually drying for one week to one month). The more berry left on the seed to dry and the more fermentation it undergoes, typically the more "fruit-forward" a coffee will be. What are the three major processes?
Natural aka Dry Process
To follow the Natural process, ripe coffee berries are picked by hand, then spread out to dry on a patio or raised beds for about four weeks. These fully-intact coffee berries are raked or turned throughout the day to ensure an even dry. As the fruit gently bakes under the sun, the interior seeds take on berry-like flavors. With all the fruit sugar available in the pulp and pectin, Naturals tend to ferment a good bit, which may bring about flavors that remind you of tropical fruit, wine, or berries. Though fruit-forward, many Naturals are softer when it comes to acidity, which seems to be reduced in this time-honored process. Aside from their pulpy, sometimes winey character, Naturals also showcase chocolate and nutty flavors, cradled in an often heavy body.
Washed aka Wet Process
In the Washed process, ripe coffee berries are picked by hand, then pulped by machine, separating the fruity pulp from the sticky seed. The seed, now covered by just its pectin, parchment, and silverskin, is water soaked or air dried for about 24 hours, before undergoing a washing treatment to rinse away the hard-to-remove pectin. Post-wash, the seed is dried for one to two weeks, surrounded only by its parchment and silverskin. With no pulp or pectin to pass along fermentation compounds, Washed coffees may be characterized by their clarity, subtlety, and sweet vibrance. Often less fruit-forward in aromatics than Naturals and Honeys, Washed coffees tend to taste more like "Coffee" than other processes, though there's a wide world out there!
Honey and Pulped Natural Process
Honey process has nothing to do with actual honey, but it sounds sweet, which is accurate! Honey and Pulped Natural processes are a half-step between Natural and Washed. Ripe coffee berries are picked by hand, then have their skin and pulp separated from the inner sticky seed by machine. The seed, now covered only by its sticky-sweet pectin, parchment, and silverskin, is dried between 10 - 25 days. With the pectin imparting sweetness and undergoing a fair amount of fermentation, Honeys and Pulped Naturals could be thought of as "restrained Naturals" - that is, they still have fairly strong coffee pulp aromatics, but won't be as fermented as their Natural counterparts. Expect jammy or cooked fruit, browned sugars, and candied nuts as the standout flavors of these processes. Btw, the major difference between Honeys and Pulped Naturals is the amount of time each are left to dry. Brazil's Pulped Naturals are dried more quickly than Central America's Honeys, often resulting in lower levels of fermentation.
No matter which process you prefer, we're glad you're here to learn more about a big reason why your favorite coffees are so good - the know-how and dedication of coffee producers! To dig in even more, we suggest indulging in a study of two processes of the same coffee. Our Discourse & Dissent Box Set offers this opportunity from time to time, but a quick scan of our Current Coffee List could yield some interesting processing contrasts!
Processing photos courtesy of Baho Coffee.