You may be surprised to hear that coffee beans aren’t actually beans at all. They are in fact seeds that have been taken from the cherries of a coffee plant. There are two main methods for extracting the coffee seeds/beans, each with their own minor variations. These processes are known as washed and natural.
The most commonly used method of the two is washed (also known as wet). In this process the cherry goes through a pulping machine. This machine removes the outer layer of the cherry skin, leaving the bean covered in a layer of sticky mucilage. This mucilage is usually loosened via fermentation tanks, though sometimes it’s done mechanically. Twelve to seventy-two hours later, yeast and bacteria have done their work to loosen the mucilage. After this fermentation has occurred, the beans are rinsed, removing any remaining mucilage. The beans will then dry three to six days in the sun (or one to two days in a drying machine) until the moisture content of the beans has dropped down to around eleven percent. Within weeks the washed coffee will be ready for shipment. Washed coffees tend to be bright and to have a lighter body compared with other coffees.
Natural (or dry) processing involves one of two methods. With the first method, the fruit of the coffee plant is left to dry on the tree to a certain point. The other main approach of natural processing is to pick the berries from the tree while they are fairly ripe, and then to set them out to dry for weeks or sometimes even months. Whichever method is used, after the cherries have dried they will be cleaned of the skin, mucilage and parchment. One of the many reasons for using a natural process is because it is believed to bring out coffees with great body and accented fruitiness. One reason that the washed process is used is because the natural process can be vulnerable to defective flavors.
There are different variants on each process. A honey process (or pulped-natural process) involves pulping the fruit and allowing it to dry with some (or even all) of the mucilage sticking to the seed’s parchment. This produces coffees similar to washed, except that they are lower in acidity, have more body, and they are usually fruitier in taste. A wet-hulled (or giling basah) process is like the washed process, with the difference that it is hulled at around 25 to 40 percent of it’s original moisture content. This means that the bean inside is still very malleable. Because of this, the processing often results in crushed and damaged beans. Wet-hulled coffees are usually savory to nutty in flavor.
Because coffee processing influences the final flavor of the coffee, it is crucial for us as roasters to know the essentials of these processes. While buying fair-trade and above fair-trade coffee is important to us as a mission, it is also a perk in that these coffees tend to be processed at a much higher quality than their peers, producing a much superior cup of coffee.
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