Ahhh Process! The overarching theme of our lives and the essence of pretty much everything and everyone we connect with 🤯
We are people of process, and are stewards of a lot more of 'how the process goes' than we sometimes realise. I feel like in recent years there's been a broad realisation to some of the things we have all been 'skipping the process'. Call it woke or whatever. I think this moment in history is almost a holy moment to put us as humans in position to affect change and rectify some things. Or at least identify our mistakes and look more closely at the problem.
From fossil fuels and single use plastics, to the unmanageable amount of stimulation our brains receive each day from our phones alone, we as people have often seen an end goal or a 'solution' that is achievable or profitable, and then brushed past the process or the outcomes of that process on everything it touches.
Eh, wow! 😬 Didn't mean to go there but it's for sure food for thought right?! This post is actually about coffee processes and how specific changes in what happens at origin affects the flavours and notes you notice or chase in your brews every day.
So, here we are 👇
There are heaps of reasons behind what makes a good brew super tasty, but one of the major steps affecting taste and quality is coffee processing. The goal of processing is to remove everything around the bean before it is sent to be roasted. Remember a coffee bean is a seed. It comes from a coffee cherry that grows on a coffee plant, annnd like any fresh produce has to be cared for meticulously in order to produce a good crop. The farmers that most of you will drink coffee from work SUPER hard on cultivating good coffee plants, individually selecting the best cherries, and processing their crop to ensure it is as good as it can be. And that's before it's even bought, or shipping to be roasted, and then bought to be brewed. FYI: To get the seeds, the cherries and the mucilage around them need to be removed before the coffee 'bean' can be prepared to be roasted and brewed. (there's 2 seeds in each cherry, unless a genetic mutation occurs causes a single seed called a peaberry to be produced)
There have been some new processing methods popping up in recent years like anaerobic, lactic etc. and I have showcased some crazy coffees like these to you through process, BUT the three main types of coffee processing that have been categorised for coffee farming are: Natural (dry), Washed (wet), and honey or pulped natural. When you lift a bag of coffee up you're more than likely going to see one of these words on the bag. If it doesn't, or it says something weird ALWAYS give your barista a good quiz on it. It always makes for good coffee geek out chat 🤙
Below I've hit you with some deets on these methods to hopefully help you connect the dots between what you taste in a brew and how that relates to what the farmers have done with the coffee at origin. We aren't going into crazy depth here but I just want these to be triggers for you to reference as you drink your next brews and explore this rabbit hole of coffee a bit more.
The NATTY process is one of the oldest ways to process coffee. It's as natural as it gets. However, it is also a method that is really hard to do well. Once the cherries are picked, they are set out in the sun to dry. The farmers consistently and continually rake the cherries while they are drying. They have to ensure at this stage that the cherries do not begin to spoil in the heat. This usually takes 14-28 days. It can't get too hot super fast, can't be left too long, can't be exposed to too much humidity. It has to be managed so well. After this, they are dry milled to remove the outer skin. This phase for one lot coffee processed coffee can take around a month. crazy!
Through this process, the sugars in the cherry and mucilage are absorbed into the bean itself during the drying phase, allowing a variety of heavy fruity, funkier notes to make an appearance. Natty coffees also more commonly offer a more bodied brew with more 'bite' and a lower or less apparent level of acidity.
Here's the skinny on the washed process. Key point to make here is it's WASHED, so there is a heap of water used during the process. This just means that in some countries and regions even having access to a water mill is a big ask.
The cherry is depulped to remove the outer skin, while leaving the mucilage on the seed.
The mucilage is removed by either fermentation (sitting in water), or washed off with water in a mill. If beans are fermented, the beans are then washed with water to remove any remaining mucilage.
After the mucilage is removed, the beans are set out to dry.
This process requires a couple more steps, one of which is the need for a washing station. Like i mentioned above, washing stations are expensive and as a result are often shared. This is where co operatives, and companies like Raw Material are crucial for supporting farmers and also helping manage to use, maintenance and improvement of these stations. Once picked and sorted, the cherries are depulped and then run through a water mill to remove all the mucilage before they are then left out to dry. With all coffee but specifically with this process, the terroir (the agricultural components have go into producing the coffee cherries), are super important to produce each coffees unique flavour. Washed coffees therefore usually produce a much cleaner cup with potential for floral notes, higher acidity and juicy flavours.
Here's the sneaky process. A bit of a hybrid. I guess most true to PROCESS this sits right in the middle and is often overlooked by consumers. Honey processing is a combination of washed and natural processing. Generally speaking, after picking, the cherry itself is depulped to remove the skin and most of the mucilage from the bean, but instead of washing off the remaining mucilage from around the seeds, they are set out to be dried. The result of this is that the remaining mucilage is then exposed to the heat and absorbed into the seeds as it breaks down. This results in a coffee that has heaps of sweetness and body like a natural coffee, but also a rounded or balanced acidity in there too giving a brew with more complexity. In places like El Salvador and Costa Rica there are more controlled environments to allow the farmers to experiment with honey processing and determine exactly how much mucilage is left on the bean. In doing this lots of different flavour profiles can be created due to the varying influence of fermentation due to the amount of mucilage left on the beans. Beans processed this way can be named white, yellow, red or black honey referring to the amount of mucilage left on the beans before drying. Crazy right?!
When it comes to choosing coffee, you will most likely gravitate towards one of these processes as your fav, but I would always recommend keeping your mind open and your palette guessin! :)
Hopefully one of the things this post does is spark some thought around how much care is required at the origin stage of the coffee journey from bean to brew. This is only the first stage in a chain of processes that lead to you or your barista adding the final puzzle piece and making a super tasty brew to justify all the hard work that has gone into producing a beautiful coffee. NO PRESSURE! haha
It's also a pointer towards to coffee price. If you can ever see transparency reports on coffee from roasters it is suuuuuper interesting! Onyx coffee roasters are insane at this
I guess this is a journey that we will hopefully hear more about over the next number of years around consumer pricing and how that can transparently be traced back to farmers at origin as well as support the people and businesses along the entire chain. What a God given gift coffee is. I think it's about time we start honouring the process like we've never done before.