How does coffee processing affect flavour?
When it comes to coffee, loads of people know about the importance of origin and will often state a preference. But what’s not as well known is that the way coffee is produced can also have a huge effect on the final cup.
Coffee processing simply refers to the way that the fruit is removed from the bean to produce what we drink; as well as the way in which it is dried. There are various ways this can happen and coffee drinkers will often prefer one method over another, maybe without even realizing!
In order to help you discover which is your preference (and maybe even help you discover something new), we thought we’d put together a brief guide to help you get started.
Washed : this method is the one that most people are familiar with. It is a more consistent way of producing coffee and the end product has a higher acidity, or brightness, a cleaner ‘cup’ and the bean is said to retain more of its individual flavour. The coffee cherry is put through a depulping machine, which removes the cherry’s outer layer. The beans are then soaked to allow them to separate from the mucilage (the sweet, sticky layer inside the outer ‘pulp’ layer surrounding the actual coffee bean) and then fermented and dried. These latter stages can range from the very short (a few hours) to a longer period of days, depending on the climate and water availability in the country in which the coffee is produced.
Semi-washed or Honey process : this process is somewhere between washed and natural in terms of both process and taste. Here, the outer skin of the coffee cherry is removed, but the remaining mucilage (which is removed fairly quickly in the washed beans) and bean is dried or stored for a period. Later, the pulp is washed off and the bean is dried and ready to be made into your coffee blend! Honey processing is becoming more and more associated with Latin American coffee producers, particularly those in Costa Rica and El Salvador.
Various subcategories have emerged, red, white, yellow, black and golden honey, each with subtle variations but generally a semi-washed or honey process will deliver a sweetness but less fruitiness than the natural or sun-dried, with good body.
Natural : humans have loved coffee for a long time - there’s evidence that it has been enjoyed in Africa since at least the 15th Century (no one quite knows where it began to be taken seriously as a drink) and the natural way of producing coffee is the oldest.
Still used in countries with limited or unreliable access to water, the natural technique involves laying out the cherries whole once they are picked and leaving to dry; causing the sugars in the cherry to ferment the bean. Once this has been done, the bean is taken from inside the cherry and is ready to be sold. The flavour is said to be fruitier and have subtler notes than its washed counterpart, as well as more body.
Sun-Dried : Sun-dried coffee can be either washed or processed naturally. It does exactly as it says on the tin, though, as the beans are allowed to dry naturally for up to four weeks. Usually done in very hot countries, such as Kenya and Brazil. The use of the sun to dry the beans is said to give the final flavour an intense sweetness that is not present in other methods of production.
Giling-Basah, Galling-Basah or Wet Hulling : Unique to Sumatra, this process involves drying the beans after pulping, until they hit a certain humidity level (about 30%).
The beans are then turned and moved to reach 20% humidity, then finally the process is repeated to reach 11% - ready to be packaged.
This process gives the raw beans a blue/green hue and results in a more earthy, rounded flavour often with strong body.
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