Looking at a bag of specialty coffee can be a confusing experience as all of the information written on the label can be overwhelming. It can also be frustrating as you have had some bags you have loved, and some you haven’t, and you just want to get another bag that tastes similar to the one you liked – this should not be too much of an ask, should it? Especially with all of that information on the side – it has to be good for something, right?
Well, one of the pieces of information on the bag that will help you line up a coffee that will hit your sweet spot is the processing method and how the processing method will affect the flavours you experience in your cup of coffee. The two most common processing methods that you will continually come across are washed and natural.
To explain the difference between the two, we are going to take a step back and journey to the place where coffee is grown. The roasted coffee beans you use to make your coffee begin their lives as a fruit, quite like a nectarine, plum, or cherry. Inside each coffee cherry is a bean that needs to be turned into a stable product that can be stored, shipped, and then roasted. For this to happen, the organic matter surrounding the bean needs to be removed and the bean has to be dried to an 11 percent moisture content level.
In a washed coffee, that organic matter is stripped off of the bean within days of the coffee cherry being plucked from the tree. The beans are then washed (this removes any remaining sticky mucilage from the bean) before being dried.
In contrast, in a natural processed coffee, the whole coffee cherry is dried first before the fruit surrounding the bean is removed. This means that the coffee bean is in contact with the fruit of the coffee cherry throughout the drying process. This contact time enables a transfer of organic compounds between the different levels of the coffee cherry – the practical effect is that the bean absorbs and takes on some of the taste characteristics of the fruit.
So, how do these two processing methods affect your cup of coffee? Well, the natural processed coffee will taste fruitier and have a heavier body as the drying coffee bean absorbed some of the sugars from the surrounding fruit. In contrast, the washed coffee will not have the heavier fruit flavour, but will have a cleaner mouthfeel, with brighter, with higher acidity and more of a “coffee” taste.
In summary, a washed coffee has the fruit stripped off the bean almost immediately and the coffee bean is dried all by its lonesome self. Conversely, natural processed coffees have the coffee cherry dried intact, as one whole item – the coffee bean is surrounded by fruit. The taste of a natural processed coffee will echo its processing method in that you will taste more of the fruit. In the washed coffee, you will taste more of the coffee bean taste.
Simply, in a natural processed coffee, you will taste more of the process (fruit drying!), while in a washed coffee you will taste more of the bean.
Looking to try something new? Check out our collection of natural and washed coffees here