Grow coffee, roast coffee, drink coffee. Simple, no? Not at all. In fact, the only simple step in that equation is the "drink coffee" part. And sometimes even that isn't easy. What happens to the fruit after harvesting and before roasting, plays a significant role in the quality of the final cup. This step is known as processing. And just as people make a big hoo-ha about origin and varietal, how the beans are processed is equally instrumental on the final flavour. So what are these processes, and how do they influence the taste? Read on to find out more, and who knows? You may discover you've had a favourite all along.
Coffee production is an all-encompassing term for virtually every step along the way of what happens before roasting. As well as processing, this includes the harvesting, grading, sorting and hulling of the coffee bean, to name just a few.
It is a massive industry and is a significant source of income for millions of households around the world. The step we are focusing on here, though, is what happens to the cherries after harvest. Processing, in essence, is all about drying the coffee beans in preparation for roasting. There are a variety of ways this can be done, with some regions and countries having their own unique methods. But predominantly, it falls into one of three categories. Washed, natural and honey. Each has a different impact on the flavour. And each can contribute to the value of the finished green bean in various ways.
As is often the case in the world of coffee though, there are crossovers, and elements reappear, renamed as something new when they're not. But, I will try to keep it as simple as possible.
The original way, and therefore the oldest method, to process coffee. First practised in Ethiopia and Yemen, this method involves drying the whole fruit intact. In places where the sun is powerful, temperatures are consistently high, and without reliable access to water, this made sense.
Once harvested, the cherries are laid out on elevated drying beds or sometimes patios, for up to 3 weeks. During this time the flavours of the fruit are absorbed by the bean, giving coffee processed this way potent berry, fruity notes. Leaving the cherry on the bean during the drying stage also increases fermentation, giving naturals a winey, almost boozy flavour profile.
Traditionally though, the natural method has been considered to be of lower-quality compared to washed and honey coffees. This was mainly due to inconsistencies in crops as a result of unripe fruit, turning brown alongside ripe fruit during the drying process. However, as technologies and techniques improved, so did consistency. And FiXX Lisbon is an excellent example of this method done well. The Yellow Bourbon variety we use in FiXX Lisbon is processed natural, meaning the coffee bean absorbs the flavours of the unique yellow cherry that surrounds it. Delicious, consistent and natural.
The washed method is the most common in quality coffee production and makes up the vast majority of our FiXX blends. One of the reasons for this is its ability to regulate consistency. After harvest, the cherries are passed through water channels where the ripe fruit will sink to the bottom, leaving the unripe and defective cherries floating on top, which are easily removed. Unlike with naturals, the fruit pulp is removed, leaving behind only the mucilage; which is the sticky layer surrounding the seed, much like what covers the stone of a peach. The mucilage is then removed by soaking the beans in fermentation tanks for 8-50 hours. After this step, the green beans will be rinsed again before being sent to dry.
And this is when the main difference in natural versus washed becomes apparent. Because the fruit is removed before drying, all the flavours must have been absorbed during the growth of the cherry. A shorter fermentation time also gives washed coffees fantastic clarity of flavour. When it comes to coffees processed this way, varietal, climate, soil acidity, and harvest times, amongst other factors, are uniquely fused to the flavour of the final beverage. It shines a light on the integral role the farmer plays and reflects the science behind growing the perfect coffee bean. As a result, the characteristics of the country of origin can become very apparent through this method. The chocolate notes of the Peruvian beans used in FiXX Organic and the sweet, subtle smokiness of the Cuban beans in FiXX Cubano are excellent examples of the clarity the washed method can achieve.
This process is almost like a bridge between natural and washed processing. When done correctly, it can bring out the best of both. As with the washed process, after harvest, the cherries pass through a water channel where the defective fruits are removed. The ripe ones are then de-pulped, leaving you with the bean covered in its layer of mucilage. But this is where the process begins to shift back towards the natural approach. Whereas the washed process would now soak and remove all of the mucilage before drying, the honey process doesn't. Depending on producers' preferences, some, most or sometimes all of this layer is left on the bean while drying. How much is left on dictates how long it takes to dry. And this can drastically impact on the levels of sweetness and gives way to subcategories, such as Yellow, Red or Black honey. So here is where the lines and definitions get blurred.
The term Honey processing first originated in Costa Rica approximately 17 years ago. The farmers there would refer to the sweet sticky layer of mucilage surrounding the bean as "miel"; the Spanish word for honey. And seeming as coffees processed this way tend to be very sweet, it kind of made sense. And so the term held. So even though the Costa Ricans get credited with discovering and naming this process, the reality is, it bears many similarities with the traditional way of processing coffee in Brazil. Here, the terms semi-washed and pulped-natural are widespread. And each mainly describes how much mucilage is left on during the drying process. So pulped-natural could be called Red honey, while semi-washed could be identified as Yellow honey. In fact, it's the semi-washed process we use on the Brazillian beans in our FiXX Classic blend and is the source of its sweetness.
Each of these methods can produce outstanding coffees. Be it the big fruitiness of naturals, the complex clarity of washed, or the sweetness of honey, there is something to love in all of them. But not every farm is suited to every process. Like farmers everywhere that work in unison with the surrounding environment, they are dictated by climate. How much rain fell during the growing of the coffee, to how much rain will fall after harvest can influence this decision. But as well as this, access to water, equipment and labour, as well as market demand, must be considered. Washed, for example, requires not only a great deal of water but also access to equipment such as a pulping machine, fermentation tanks and water channels.
Naturals, on the other hand, without the need for equipment can achieve fantastic quality at a reasonably low cost. However, it is labour intensive. Throughout the drying period, the fruit must be continually raked and turned to ensure even drying, while also being continually monitored to avoid defected fruit spoiling the good ones. It also requires more space for drying, which can limit production. Then you have the Honey process, which faces the challenges of both washed and natural.
Essentially, there are pros and cons to each method. But, the coffee industry is never static. Innovation is rife. New technologies are being discovered and tested each year. Techniques and new methods are being shared between the coffee and wine industries, and who knows?; an original method might be just around the corner. Coffee processing is a blend of science, passion, craft and business decisions, and the best producers and farmers can expertly showcase the art of their kinship to their environment. Exceptional quality requires exceptional skill and commitment. If it didn't, anyone could do it. And this is something worth remembering when you next enjoy your favourite FiXX.
So, which process is the best? Simple, the good one.
Thanks for reading.