We love artfully roasting & brewing coffees to bring out the best flavor profiles from our farmers’ beans. But before it ever gets to us, the way that coffee is processed at origin can dramatically change the way that it tastes. Understanding the differences between two popular methods —“washed” and “natural” process — can help you discover more coffees that you love.
Washed vs Natural / The main difference is at what point in the processing the cherry is separated from the seed. Coffee goes through a long, intense process to get from the farm to the cup. Coffee plants produce cherries, which are hand picked when they are at peak ripeness. Each fruit has two seeds inside, which are what we know as the coffee “beans.”
(Image from Masha Community / Burundi sorting coffee before being processed)
In a washed or “wet” process, the cherry skin is removed with a “de-pulping” machine. The seeds, still wrapped in their thin “parchment” skin, are placed in water to ferment and soak off any remaining fruit “mucilage” or residue. The seeds in parchment are then washed with water again and set out in a thin layer on concrete or on large tables to dry.
(Image by Shannon Keith of a de-pulping machine that acts like a cylinder grater to separate the fruit from the “beans” in a washed process)
In a natural or “dry” process, the cherries go straight to drying in the sun with the fruit and parchment layer still on the bean. The drying can take up to four weeks and needs to be monitored closely so they don’t become too brittle and break or too wet and susceptible to mold. In both processes, the beans are then sent to a mill where the hulling, sorting, grading and bagging happens before being shipped to a coffee roaster.
(image from Elizabeth Ortega / Guatemala drying her coffee as part of the “washed” process)
How Process Changes Flavor / Washed coffees can have more distinct flavors while natural processed coffees can taste more fruity and exhibit ferment flavors. Because washed coffees have all of the cherry removed before drying, many people consider them to have more clarity and better showcase the true, intrinsic flavors of the coffee. On the other hand, natural coffees spend more time interacting with natural sugars from the cherry as they dry with the fruit intact, which can lend more unique, fruity, and fermented flavors.
You can compare the difference between the washed coffee from the Masha Community in Burundi and the natural coffee from Kiko in Brazil.
A couple middle-grounds between these two processes are “semi-washed” and “honey” where the skin and most of the cherry is removed but some of the sticky sweet mucilage is left on in varying amounts during the drying process. Honey-processed coffees generally have a little more of the mucilage left on than semi-washed, and use less or no water during the de-pulping process. Both can offer more complexity than washed-processed coffees but tone down the fruitiness compared to natural-processed.
When you start an Onda Subscription you get to try different coffees that use a variety of processes every other week.