The ultimate guide to coffee 'processes'
Written by Alex
Cartwheel offers a range of different coffees which have come from a variety of locations, and each one will have undergone one of a multitude of different processing methods! If you have seen our tasting cards, which we attach to every bag of coffee and serve alongside every pour-over, then you will have noticed that we tell you how your coffee has been processed. This blog outlines some of the most common coffee processing practices, explaining the unique properties of each and how they produce different flavours in the bean.
The Natural Process:
Natural coffees are dried with all the fruit still attached to the beans. In most other processes, some or all of the fruit is removed before the bean is fermented. Much of the sweetness of the final product depends on the amount of the fruit that is left on the bean before it is processed – as the fruit is rich in natural sugars. As a result, the natural coffee method highlights the sweetness of the final product and ultimately results in a rounder body. Naturally processed beans are also unlikely to result in any more than a medium level of acidity, making it a low-risk process and a common choice for most producers.
Naturally processed beans are typically dried on raised beds, usually for several days. This drying method allows an even, consistent drying and fermentation. The beans are laid out in a thin layer to avoid a build-up of heat, which can cause rapid, uncontrolled fermentation – resulting in rotten tasting notes and flavours. Yuck!
Macerated Natural Process:
Very similar to the natural process of fermentation, the macerated natural process involves fermenting the coffee beans in sealed bags or containers before the drying process. This method is described as anaerobic, meaning lacking in oxygen. It is believed that the lack of oxygen helps to control the environment resulting in more fruit flavours and sweetness in the coffee.
In a washed bean, the fruit and mucilage are removed so that only the parchment and silverskin remain. This is done because the method is intended to focus on the bean itself, rather than the typical body and fruity notes that are introduced in other processes. The washed process is therefore reserved for coffees with a more developed flavour profile.
Washed coffees are also more consistent due to the fermentation happening at the beginning of the process. Although washed coffee is usually fermented in tanks of fresh water, this can pose an environmental risk with the large quantities of water used and the risk of chemicals making their way into local water sources. However, alternate processes that cause fermentation within the coffee bean can continue for a long time which can actively affect and change the bean’s flavours. In this way, a washed coffee requires less strict quality control and monitoring throughout the process.
Perhaps the royalty of specialty coffees, the honey process typically produces coffees of high quality, often with more developed sweet and winey flavours. However, it is a less common process (particularly for independent farmers) as there is a higher risk of uncontrollable fermentation. This is due to the larger quantity of mucilage that is left on the bean, which introduces more sugar and microorganisms, which, you’ve guessed it, can lead to over-fermentation and rotten tasting notes. To reduce this, they often need a lot of quality control and must dry in thin layers to reduce heat and excess fermentation. On the other hand, these coffees are considered worth the risk as they have some of the most developed flavours in the coffee world! There are several different types of honey production that you might see; they are mostly defined by the amount of mucilage that is left on the bean before fermenting.
In a black honey, all of the mucilage remains on the bean whilst processing. Typically, this is the most risky form of the production, as it introduces the most sugars – the driving force for fermentation. These beans must be dried in the shade to reduce the heat and stabilise the fermentation. After all the work, these coffees often result in a sweet cup, with a heavy body and a good amount of acidity.
A red honey has less mucilage than a black honey, but more mucilage than a yellow honey. Because there is more mucilage, it means that the parchment takes on a red aspect. Once again, a red honey results in a sweet cup (slightly sweeter than a yellow honey), with a medium body and high acidity.
Yellow honey produced coffee has the lowest risk in production. This is due to the lesser amount of fermentation because of the lower sugar content. A yellow honey has almost all the mucilage removed, which means that it heads towards a more standard variety or form of the coffee bean in terms of flavour profile. Coffee produced using a yellow honey tends to be more balanced and accentuates a little of the acidity in the bean.
When you buy your next bag of Cartwheel beans, make sure to pay attention to how they’re processed! Using this guide, you can start to develop your own palette depending on which processes you like the resulting taste of. With our coffees on a constant rotation, you’ll be spoilt for choice, and might find yourself curious to try something new - seeing how each one alters and improves your final brew.