Coffee lovers often pride themselves on knowing the different types of coffee beans, the various roast levels, and the many ways to brew a cup of java.
Some go as far as to only drink coffee from specific countries or specific roasters. Others will only drink single-origin coffee, and some will only drink unique blends. There are those out there who insist on an unsweetened espresso, and many people won’t even consider drinking a cup before mixing it with sugar and cream.
When it comes to determining your favorite type of coffee, it’s all about what it tastes like in the cup. But what you might not realize is that different processing methods can significantly impact the way coffee beans taste.
If you've ever read a package of coffee beans, you may have seen words like washed, semi-washed, or natural but not ever given much thought to what that means.
When it comes to the natural vs. washed coffee debate, is one better than the other?
What is Natural Coffee?
“Natural coffee” (also called unwashed coffee) refers to the dry process of preparing coffee beans for roasting. The dry process is the oldest method for preparing beans, and it often happens in regions with limited access to water, such as Ethiopia and Brazil.
How the Coffee Farming Process Works
Coffee beans are actually coffee seeds that grow inside a little fruit called the coffee cherry.
Coffee cherries grow on coffee trees and get picked as soon as they're ripe and ready for harvesting. To extract the coffee beans from the fruit, you'll need to remove the skin and flesh of the fruit. That can happen either before or after washing and drying the cherries.
When the beans have finished processing, they are ready to send to the roasters for roasting to various light, medium, and dark levels. All the steps that occur in the natural process also happen in the washed process — just in a different order.
The Natural Processing Method
With natural processing, the coffee bean remains in contact with the coffee cherry for longer than during the washing process. That's because the beans stay inside the cherry throughout the entire drying process. This can take between two and six weeks, depending on the region and climate.
Here’s how the natural process goes:
- With natural coffee, the coffee cherries get spread out in the sun right after picking. Sometimes they are laid out on bricks, sometimes spread over cement, and sometimes placed on raised beds or tables. The purpose of this is so that the cherries can dry evenly.
- The cherries are raked and rotated regularly to slow down the process of natural fermentation and reduce the risk of rotting in the sun. This can be a tedious and laborious process, but it’s essential to minimize fermenting and mold growth.
- Once the cherries are fully dry, the outer skin and fruit are separated to extract the coffee beans inside. The cherries are then milled to remove all remnants of the fruit skin and husks.
Note: This is the only method possible in countries where water and the machinery needed to wet wash the coffee cherries are in short supply.
How Does the Natural Process Affect the Taste of the Beans?
Unwashed, natural process coffee tends to have a slightly fruity flavor. Due to the fact that the bean is in contact with the fruit for a longer period of time than in washed coffee.
The sun-dried process helps bring forward those fruity sugar flavors. This can also make natural coffee taste a bit more fermented than washed coffee (where the fermentation is more controlled).
The Pros and Cons of Natural Coffee
The biggest con of natural coffee is that the dry process of preparing the beans often results in less consistent flavors. But on the positive side, natural coffee tends to have a rich and heavy body, which many coffee drinkers prefer.
But the biggest pro of natural coffee has nothing to do with the flavor at all.
The natural process of preparing coffee beans means that coffee farms skip the wet washing process and therefore don’t have to use as much water. Water conservation, wherever and however it takes place, is good for the environment.
Natural coffee farms don't use water to wash their coffee fruits, and because they don’t have to run the machinery to do so, they conserve energy.
Read more about coffee being a fruit in our fun article: Is Coffee a Vegetable?
What is Washed Coffee?
Now that you know all about the making of natural coffee, let's look at how it's different from washed coffee. Washed coffee is the most common method of preparing the beans and takes place on coffee farms in various countries worldwide.
The washed process (or wet process) of preparing coffee beans still requires picking and harvesting the coffee fruits. But once those coffee cherries are picked, they are washed before they're dried.
The Washed Process
Once picked, the coffee cherries go through a depulper to separate the coffee beans from the outer skin of the cherry. At this point, the beans still have the mucilage from the inside of the fruit surrounding them.
The mucilage is a sticky, sugary layer that surrounds the entire bean. Both the beans and that gummy mucilage undergo a fermentation process where they ferment in water for a minimum of one to two days.
That mucilage plays an essential role in the process, as the sugars within it get released during fermentation. This is part of what creates that delicious coffee taste that keeps us reaching for a cup day after day after day.
After fermentation, the beans go through a wash to remove the rest of the mucilage. After that, it's time for the beans to dry.
Just like natural coffee, washed coffee also undergoes a drying process. Depending on the farm and region, the beans are either dried in the sun or dried by mechanical equipment.
The process is complete when the beans are:
- Milled to remove the final unwanted part of the bean — a parchment paper-like coating that protects the bean inside the skin of the fruit
It's at that point that they're ready to send off to various coffee roasters.
In the market for a new espresso machine? Check out why we love the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine.
How Does Washed Coffee Differ From Semi-Washed?
Just to make matters more confusing, we should point out that some coffee beans are semi-washed.
This hybrid processing method starts the same way as the washed method. That is, by depulping the outer skin and removing the majority of the fruit from around the beans. With the mucilage and the coffee bean intact, the semi-washed coffee is then stored to dry for approximately one day.
At this point, all traces of the mucilage wash away with the water, and the coffee beans dry out (in the sun or a machine dryer) in preparation for roasting.
How Does the Washed Process Affect the Taste of the Beans?
Because coffee farmers have more control over every step of the process, washed coffee beans tend to have a more consistent flavor. They’re often lighter-bodied than natural coffee beans and tend to have more complex flavors with brighter and more acidic notes.
The Pros and Cons of Washed Coffee
The biggest pro to choosing washed coffee is the consistency of flavor from bean to bean. Because machines wash (and sometimes dry) the beans, there is more control over the final taste of the beans.
Yet, for some people, the cons of washed coffee outweigh the pros.
Washed coffee requires the use of a lot of water and various machines and types of equipment. All that aids in producing a flavorful bean. However, it requires considerably more energy and produces much more water waste than the natural process.
And because washed beans need that equipment, coffee farms have to hire people who know how to run that equipment. These elements combined cost more money than the dry process. Ultimately, making washed coffee beans more expensive than their natural counterparts.
Did you know you can eat coffee beans? After roasting, that is! Check out our exclusive recipe for chocolate-covered espresso beans.
Which is Better, Natural or Washed Coffee?
Because coffee is a matter of preference, we can't say that natural processed coffees are better than washed process coffees or vice versa. Both coffee processing methods have their pros and cons. Yet, the coffee community generally regards washed coffee as the preferred method.
It all comes down to consistency and flavor.
Many specialty coffee roasters prefer the acidity levels of washed over naturally processed. Natural coffee doesn't have that consistency. It tends to take on more fruity, berry-like flavors, which can turn some coffee drinkers off.
If you want to take a hard stance on which type of coffee process you like better, think about where your favorite coffee is grown. If Ethiopian coffee is your favorite, you probably prefer the natural process. If you prefer coffee from Sumatra or Colombia, you probably like the washed process.
Any coffee producer can create natural coffee beans, but not all producers can make washed coffee. In regions where water is limited, you’ll almost always find coffee beans produced the natural way.
Other Methods for Processing Coffee Beans
Washed and natural are the two most popular methods of processing coffee, but there are some others worth noting.
The Honey Process
The honey process method, also known as the pulped natural process, is prevalent in Costa Rica. During this process, they remove the pulp from the cherry, the mucilage stays on the bean, and the bean dries with it still attached. The stickiness of the mucilage gives the bean an almost honey-flavored taste, which makes for a sweet cup of coffee.
Once the bean is dry, they remove the rest of the fruit and mucilage through a dry milling process rather than through a washing process.
The Anaerobic Process
One of the newer ways to process coffee is with the anaerobic method. This process involves the same fermentation process as washed coffee, just without any oxygen.
Because it's fermented in sealed tanks, the flavors are usually much more complex. Often far from what one would expect if the same exact beans were processed differently.
The Carbonic Maceration Process
Taking a cue from how vineyards process grapes to make wine, the carbonic maceration process is much like the anaerobic process. With this method, the coffee cherries ferment as whole cherries before removing any flesh, skin, or pulp. This allows all the flavors of the fruit to soak into the beans, resulting in bold, unexpected flavors.
So what do all these various coffee processing methods prove?
It proves that coffee growers continue to use traditional methods and experiment with new ones. Always hoping to produce the best, most flavorful coffee beans in the world.
Did you know, coffee can help you reach your daily fiber goals? Read: Does Brewed Coffee Have More Fiber Than OJ?
You'll find all sorts of roast levels as well as decaf and caffeinated versions of both washed and natural coffee beans. The process has nothing to do with how the beans are roasted. It simply refers to the preparation process that takes place between the picking of the coffee fruit and the final roasting stage.
The next time you buy a package of coffee beans, take notice as to how the beans have been processed.
Or, if you’re local to Sonoma County, the next time you visit your favorite barista at Taylor Lane, ask them what process they prefer. You may have a clear-cut favorite and not even know it.
Want to know what natural coffee tastes like? Check out our Kintamani Bali Natural Single Origin.
Taylor Lane always specifies where our coffee was made, how it was processed, and how it was dried. We want you to know exactly what you're drinking in each and every cup.