Coffee Processing At The Farm: How It Impacts Your Coffee’s Flavor

When you buy coffee beans, you probably focus on things like the roast level, roast date, and country of origin, but there’s another factor that makes a huge impact on the flavor of your beans: the coffee bean processing method.

Now, I realize this sounds pretty boring already, but hear me out.

Flavor differences from processing are just as noticeable as the origin country.

If you ever get the chance to try two different processing methods of the same coffee bean lot, do it! You’ll be amazed at how wildly different they are.

Yeah—processing is a big deal—and if you can learn the flavor differences of these three main methods, you’ll discover a new way to buy coffee beans that are just right for you.

  • Washed Method
  • Natural Method
  • Honey Method

Like I said: it may sound boring, but it’s going to change the way you read coffee bags, buy beans, and enjoy your morning.

Read: Journey of Coffee Bean - Seed to Cup

The Washed Method: Crisp And Clean

This coffee processing method is the standard in much of Central America, South America, and East Asia, though you’ll also find it used in a few African countries.

Coffee cherries are harvested, sorted, and the super-ripe cherries are put through a pulping machine that removes the skin and most of the fruity mucilage. The now sticky beans are then stored in a water-filled tank for 1-3 days. They’re totally soaked this whole time, which allows the sugars in the cherries to ferment.

After this fermentation stage, the beans are moved through a grate and multiple washing tanks to finish removing the fruity mucilage, which is not able to stick to the beans any more thanks to the fermentation. From here, the clean coffee beans are moved to raised beds or large patios to dry in the sun for up to a week.

Read: Coffee Processing - Washed Method

Here’s what makes this process district:

  • The fruity part is removed early on. This means the beans have a relatively pure flavor that’s not really impacted by the cherries, which means these beans maintain their original flavors better than any other method.

  • The process is very controlled. Washing stations have a lot of control over fermentation time, which means there’s very little risk of accidental error compared to the other methods.

  • The coffee is very crisp and clean tasting. This process leads to more pronounced acids and a lower body, which leads these beans to have a particular “brightness” and a high level of “flavor clarity” (it’s easier to distinguish specific flavors).

  • You’re more likely to find specialty washed coffees than specialty natural coffees because the controlled process leads to high-quality flavor.

    The Natural Method: Bold And Wild

    This is the original processing method still used in most of Africa, some of Asia, and a little in South America (mainly Brazil).

    In this method, the harvested cherries are laid out to dry on large patios for 2-4 weeks (yeah, it’s a long time). They have to be turned over constantly to avoid bacteria growth or uneven fermentation.

    When dried to the target moisture, the cherries are sent to a hulling machine that rips the dry fruit from the coffee beans. The beans are then laid out on patios again until they reach 10-11% moisture content.

    Read: Coffee Processing - Natural Method

    Here’s how this method is different:

  • There’s a lack of control. Since the fermentation stage is 2-4 weeks long instead of just a couple days, there’s a lot more room for error and accidents. For this reason, your average natural coffee is a lower-quality bean than your average washed coffee.

  • The fruit adds flavor to the beans. Since the beans are inside the cherry for so long, as the cherry starts to dry and break down, the beans absorb some of those chemical compounds, which generally gives these coffees a more fruity flavor (though, because of the control issues, that doesn’t mean it’s always tasty).

  • The coffee is very bold and often exotic tasting. Specialty-grade natural coffees have a lower acidity, heavy body, and a rich exotic fruitiness that can’t be found in the other processes. There’s little flavor clarity, but the flavors can be wild and fascinating (think a crazy blueberry or strawberry aroma).

  • There’s a reason many coffee pros prefer these natural processed coffees—you’re more likely to be caught by surprise with exceptionally sweet and exotic notes.

    The Honey Method: The Sweeter In-Between

    This newer coffee processing method is actually more like a collection of methods, but we’ll cover them all here. The process comes from Brazil, but it’s now being used on many countries in Central America, Asia, and The Pacific.

    This method really is a sort of in-between method, taking techniques from the washed and natural processes and mashing them into a well-rounded new process. 

    Once harvested, the coffee cherries are sent through a pulping machine that separates the cherry skin from the mucilage-covered coffee beans. Depending on the goals of the farmer, the pulper can remove only a little mucilage or most of it.

    Read: Coffee Processing - Honey Method

    The beans, still sticky with some mucilage, are left to dry on patios. They must be constantly raked for days to ensure fermentation isn’t unbalanced and so that mold or bacteria isn’t able to grow. The more fermentation time, the darker the mucilage becomes, which is where we get yellow, red, and black honey methods—each slightly sweeter than the next. Before being sent to the roaster, the beans are hulled to remove the dry mucilage.

    Let’s see how honey processed coffees are different:

  • The best of both worlds in terms of resources. Honey processing uses some water, but not nearly as much as the washed process. And it takes some time for the beans to dry, but not nearly as long as the natural process. Less water and less time overall.

  • A decent level of control. This method is even a good in-between when it comes to the control on the farmer’s end. Fermentation with so much mucilage has its risks, but since the process doesn’t take so long, there’s still a high rate of success.

  • A good in-between in terms of flavor. Honey coffees usually have a medium body, a medium acidity, good flavor clarity, and an extra-noticeably sweetness. They’re a superb middle-ground when it comes to the flavor experience.

  • This process is well-rounded in almost every way, which is why so many farms are adopting it these days.

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    You really can’t go wrong with any of these processes as long as you’re buying specialty-grade coffee beans (the highest grade of coffee in the world). So what sounds most interesting to you?

    • The clean and bright washed process?
    • The rich and wild natural process?
    • The well-rounded and sweet honey process?

    Try them all and see which flavor realm better fits your personal taste preferences. You may be surprised at which one becomes your favorite.

    A great way to sample these different coffee types is to hop on a specialty coffee subscription. With our Coffee Club, we’ll send you freshly roasted, specialty-grade beans from around the world right to your door. You’ll get a chance to try a variety of coffee flavors and origins—including these processing methods.

    Want to discover your next favorite coffee? Check out the Club!

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