Have you ever looked at a bag of coffee and wondered what is a “washed”, a “natural”, or a “honey” coffee? Surely you would hope that your coffee was washed and clean, and you definitely don’t want coffee that’s had honey added to it, flavoured coffee is not cool (unless there is a cocktail involved!). But “washed, “natural”, and “honey” or “pulped natural” all refer to how the coffee has been processed.
What does coffee processing even mean, and what difference could it possibly make to how your coffee tastes? Coffee processing is essentially the chosen method of removing the seed (the bit that we refer to as a coffee bean is actually the seed) from the cherry, and there are three ways you can do this. They can have a much bigger impact on flavour than you might expect, in fact it is the most important stage when determining flavour in the cup.
Cherries are washed in water (before they are dried) & then the pulp is removed. Fermentation takes place to remove the sugars. After 24 hrs they are removed and then dried.
Washed is the most common processing used in specialty coffee. It allows the natural characteristics of the coffee to shine through and represent themselves truly.
Washed processing is more common in countries with plenty of water, and the resources to afford the more expensive equipment needed to process this way. The use of machinery and lack of human error makes for a more consistent product, often with a cleaner, brighter cup profile. Kenyan coffee is a great example of this method.
How are natural coffees processed? Cherries are dried with skin on, usually on raised beds or patios and are raked throughout the day and covered at night. This is repeated for several weeks until the moisture content reaches 10-12 percent. At this point, milling machines separate the seeds from the dry shrivelled fruit.
Natural is the oldest way of processing coffee. Although, just because it's called natural does not make it better for you or inherently better in any way. It is a lot more common in countries where there are less abundant water supplies. Brazil for example, produces a particularly large amount of naturally processed coffees.
Natural coffees tend to produce a complex bean which are heavier in body as the sweet outer layer (mucilage) surrounds the seed for much longer. This can sometimes be a gamble for producers as there is a fine line between getting the coffee perfect and over fermenting these coffees.
Natural coffees have become more popular in specialty coffee over recent years. Ethiopian naturals like the Sasaba produce an incredibly sweet, dried strawberry or candy-like sweetness.
Pulped Natural/Honey process
How are pulped natural or honey coffees processed? A combination of the first two methods. This follows the washed process right up until the fruit is pulped. After this the beans are dried with the mucilage still intact, missing out the fermentation stage.
With a pulped natural or honey processed coffee you can get the best of the other two processing methods.
Costa Rica is particularly known for honey coffees, where there are distinct honey categories, mainly yellow, red, and black. This refers to how much of the mucilage is left around the beans, as well as the amount of time and the humidity levels when drying. With these different levels of honey process, you can really see a sliding scale between washed and natural processing.
What should I drink?
The best thing to do here is to try coffees that have been processed using different methods and see what you like! You would be amazed how different processing methods can make a coffee taste. You may find that when you have tried the different methods that you have a favourite, or maybe you can’t stand one, or that mixing it up is the best way.
If you want to learn a bit more about what you like in your coffee and why, check out our Home ImBREWvement brewing course.
Natural processed coffees can split a crowd- the Climpsons crew are divided!
Stacey Barber, Cafe Manager says: "I love naturals and the rich spectrum of flavours they can deliver. Brewing with a V60 gives you the freedom to keep it clean, fruity and delicate".
Kieran Lamont, Production Roaster thinks they are great - as long as they are well balanced: "the flavours can be pretty punchy so I definitely prefer them in an Aeropress as it has a lot of body which this method accentuates nicely".
Jen Aitchison in Logistics is on the fence: "I find African naturals to be a bit overwhelming, particularly as filter options but as an espresso they can be delicious. Central and South American coffees are much easier to drink both ways".
Nicole Ferris, MD, on the other hand, is on the other side of the fence: "The Fields is always a top quality coffee and I have the utmost respect for it, but for me they taste funky and over-ripe and I could only have a sip of one. Give me a washed coffee any day".
Henrik just likes all coffee, especially The Baron.
Double Take: SASABA
One washing station, two processing methods.
We all know that the Climpson Estate is our signature espresso from Sasaba Washing station in Ethiopia. This washed coffee is so smooth and just like Jaffa Cake - a winner in the cup year after year.
Our latest version of The Fields, drum roll please, is the same coffee, but naturally processed. It’s super fruity, like strawberries and cream. This is because only the ripest cherries are picked then dried for 15-20 days imparting a classic intensity of wild fruit fermentation with a surprisingly clean sweetness (a result of some careful quality control at origin).
We’re selling these coffees as a combo for the limited time we have both to celebrate not only this incredible coffee, but the insane difference that processing has on what you taste in your cup. Doesn’t get much different than Jaffa cakes and strawberries and cream.