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4 Coffee Processing Methods & How It Affects Your Coffee's Taste

The lights dim red, sirens begin to wail, and your house goes into a panic - you think to yourself, how did we let this happen?

Running out of coffee can be scary, and with an overwhelming amount of options, shopping for your next bag can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be.

Raw coffee beans sit inside a jute coffee bag waiting to be roasted
Raw green coffee beans - image by Sydney Yapoujian

With limited space on a retail coffee bag, every piece of information is important. By learning how to decipher this information, you can better understand how the coffee will taste before you buy it. One key piece of information you may see while perusing the shelves is the coffee processing method. Although not present on every bag, knowing how the processing affects the final taste of the coffee can help you decide whether these beans are right for you.

We will look at the basics of the 4 coffee processing methods and how each one affects the taste of your coffee. Before we can do that, let's talk briefly about what coffee processing is and why it needs to be done.

We all live busy lives; so if you are looking for an easy summarized list, I have you covered! Jump to the bottom of the post for a Quick Summary.

A coffee cherry cut to show the anatomy of the fruit
A coffee cherry cut in half to show the inner layers - image by Tristan Tan

Why Does Coffee Need Processing?

We all know the coffee industry has some confusing terminology, and the term coffee bean is no exception. Coffee beans are not beans; in fact, they are the seeds of a fruit called a coffee cherry. Like other cherries and fruits, they contain layers that surround and protect the seeds.

In particular, the coffee cherry consists of the following layers:

  1. Skin & Pulp: the outermost layer that is often red when ripe

  2. Mucilage: a fruity gelatinous substance that adds sweetness to the cherry

  3. Parchment: a papery layer that protects the seeds (beans)

  4. Silverskin: an ultra-thin membrane that surrounds the seeds (beans)

  5. Seeds: what we know as raw unroasted coffee beans, 2 per cherry

Processing is also a misleading name. Unlike what the term "processed food" brings to mind, coffee processing is simply the removal of the seeds - let's refer to them by their more common name, coffee beans - from the cherry and then drying them to allow the safe storage and shipping of the product.

Now that we understand the basic anatomy of the coffee fruit, the processing methods will be easy to grasp.

4 methods exist that achieve the processing goal; each method is unique and alters the final flavor of the coffee beans. The most common and consistent method of the 4 is the washed process also known as wet-process.

A hand holds parchment coffee under running water
Water running over parchment coffee - image by Michael Burrows

1. Washed Process

Used by a majority of coffee producers, this method consists of removing the skin (depulping) and mucilage from the cherry leaving the bean covered only by the silverskin and parchment; this is known as parchment coffee. The parchment coffee is then dried until moisture levels are safe for storage and shipping.

The parchment protects the bean from the elements, natural yeast, and bacteria during the drying phase. Once safe moisture levels - 12% to 13% - are reached, the parchment will be removed (hulled) from the coffee beans and the beans will be ready for market.

So How Does This Affect Your Coffee's Taste?

The nature of this process allows producers to maintain the high level of control and consistency needed to produce coffee with clean delicate flavors present in the final cup. Essentially, it accentuates the intrinsic flavors of the bean. Intrinsic flavors are the notes that develop inside the beans themselves and are dependent on the variety of coffee, the growing conditions, and terroir.

You will find that washed processed coffee has clean bright acidity and un-muddled delicate flavors. This method is best if you enjoy consistency with clean crisp flavor notes shining through.

What if you are seeking more adventure in your cup; look no further than the natural process.

Coffee cherries dry on raised coffee beds
Coffee cherries dry on raised coffee beds - image by Hai Van Nguyen Tong

2. Natural Process

Natural Process, also known as Dry Process, is the opposite of washed. It is a traditional method where the coffee cherry is dried whole with the beans being removed after moisture reaches a safe level for shipping. The cherries are sun-dried on beds or patios and require regular movement to ensure even drying and limit bruising of the fruit over the three to six-week drying period. Once dried, the beans are separated from the rest of the cherry in a hulling process and sent to market.

Because no water is used in the natural process, it's a more environmentally friendly way to process and works well in areas that receive low levels of rainfall.

So How Does This Affect Your Coffee's Taste?

Natural processed coffee contains fruit and fermented flavor notes caused by more contact time with the mucilage and natural fermentation taking place while drying. The beans absorb sweet and intense notes that dominate the final cup.

This can make for a deliciously unique and adventurous morning coffee; however, drying a cherry whole can create small inconsistencies in the final product that may lead to flavor changes from cup to cup.

If the nuanced flavor changes don't bother you and a truly unique coffee taste excites you, try a bag of natural processed coffee.

The next two methods are less common hybrids of the two former processes. Honey Processed Coffee is slowly entering the mainstream and unlike washed and natural, the name is highly misleading.

Honey processed coffee dries in the sun
Honey processed coffee dries in the sun - image by Muramatsud104

3. Honey Process

Once again we find ourselves with confusing terminology! Although the name suggests the addition of golden sweet nectar during processing, this method doesn't use any honey additions. The name, honey process, is an homage to the stickiness of the coffee during the drying phase.

This method is most notably used in Central America where it originates from. To start, the ripe coffee cherry is depulped removing the outer skin and partially removing the mucilage. The remaining mucilage is left attached during the drying phase causing the beans to become sticky like honey. Once dried, the remaining layers are hulled from the beans.

The honey process uses less water than washed coffee and is more consistent than natural coffee which makes it a perfect balance between the washed and natural processes.

As this method has evolved a spectrum of white, yellow, red, and black honey processed coffee has emerged. Each level indicates the amount of mucilage that remains on the bean during drying; white has the least and black the most. You may see this indicated on labels.

So How Does This Affect Your Coffee's Taste?

The method creates coffees with balanced acidity and sweetness. The white and yellow honey process will be similar to washed coffees in body and flavor; the red and black honey process will be more reminiscent of natural coffees.

Balanced, smooth, and sweet coffee lovers should seek out a honey processed coffee. Take note of the spectrum and know that white and yellow will be crisper and red and black will be sweeter.

While the 3 previous methods are used worldwide, the final process is solely used in Indonesia.

Wet hulled coffee beans dry in the sun without parchment
Wet hulled coffee beans dry in the sun without parchment - image by Bright Java

4. Wet Hulled Process

Wet hulled - "giling basah" in the local language of Bahasa - is a deviation of the washed process resulting in a completely different taste and body. The washed, natural, and honey processes have a three to six-week drying phase, but due to the wet climate in Indonesia, farmers and mills are left with a significantly shorter window to effectively dry their coffee.

To achieve proper drying in such a climate, the coffee cherries undergo the initial steps of washed coffee but deviate during the drying phase. If you recall, during the washed process the parchment is left on to protect the coffee beans and is removed once fully dried to a 12% to 13% moisture level.

In the wet hulled process, the parchment is removed from the beans during the drying phase at a higher moisture level of 25% to 35%. With the parchment removed, the exposed beans are able to achieve the final 12% to 13% moisture levels in a shorter time frame than the former methods allowing Indonesian producers to meet the demands of the wet climate.

So How Does This Affect Your Coffee's Taste?

This method does have a major effect on the coffee's flavor. Removing the parchment during drying exposes the bean to larger temperature swings, natural yeast, and bacteria in the air resulting in earthy, herbal flavors with muted acidity.

Wet hulled coffees are great if you prefer little to no acidity and enjoy earthy flavor notes. If you wish to try this method, search for coffee from Sumatra and Sulawesi. The majority of coffee exported from these two countries is wet hulled.

A woman sits holding a cup of coffee and cherry
From coffee cherry to cup - image by Mary Cherkesova

Let's Sum This Up

When shopping for your next bag of coffee to take home, don't ignore the processing method. Armed with this knowledge, you can better understand what you are buying before spending your hard-earned money.

All Processing methods are similar and have the same goal; however, each one will present different flavors in your cup. To help, here is a quick guide to what you can expect from each method.

  1. Washed Process (Most Common): Clean, crisp, consistent flavors with unmuted acidity accenting the delicate intrinsic flavors of the coffee.

  2. Natural Process (Traditional Method): Fruit and fermented notes with a sweet and heavy body that promises a unique coffee experience with every cup.

  3. Honey Process (No Honey Used): Best of both worlds spanning the gap between washed and natural giving you a sweet well-rounded cup with balanced acidity.

  4. Wet Hulled Process (Exclusive to Indonesia): An adaptation of washed coffee that brings out earthy, tobacco, herbal flavor notes with little to no acidity present.

Running out of coffee is still scary, but this added knowledge should make finding your next bag of coffee an easy and fun experience.

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