If you're the type who likes to read everything on a label, you may well have seen terms like 'washed' or 'wet process' // 'natural' or 'dry process' written on your bag of coffee. It's important information to communicate, because even coffees of identical variety and terroir can taste dramatically different when processed under either method.
They both have their charms: Washed coffees tend to be cleaner in the cup, allowing more nuanced and complex flavours to reveal themselves whereas natural coffees tend to offer bigger, front-and-centre fruit flavours, something that many covet as the key point of difference to the typical ‘chocolatey’ experience of more traditional coffees.
Coffee beans as we know them are the dried seeds from inside a cherry-like fruit. The outer pulp and mucilage layers need to come away from the seed somehow, which is where our two methods differ. For a dry-processed lot, the fruit is picked and kept whole, usually left in a nice sunny spot on raised beds and raked regularly to prevent spoilage, until the pulp dries out enough to be ‘hulled’ off by a machine. This method is traditional in Ethiopia, and necessary in locations where water and infrastructure is more scarce. Far from a compromise, however, many coffee producers utilize this processing to produce lots of enhanced body, sweetness, and complexity to stand out on a cupping table.
The washed method uses a de-pulping machine to squeeze out the coffee seeds while they’re still relatively fresh and juicy off the tree, and involves more stages of sorting, rinsing, fermenting, and cleaning to end up with a (hopefully!) consistent lot of parchment coffee, ready to be dried without any interfering flavours of fruit or mucilage to imbue themselves in the seed. Because of this, washed coffees tend to have a lower incidence of inconsistency or negative ‘fermenty’ flavours.
Then there’s the major environmental responsibility that comes with producing washed process coffees. Wastewater containing caffeine, tannins and other polyphenols is toxic for waterways, so needs to be properly disposed of by a facility. Global demand for washed coffees has seen the establishment of facilities improperly handling wastewater for cost or infrastructure reasons, resulting in a negative impact on the local ecosystem. That’s one reason why we believe it’s so important to understand where your coffee comes from (not just that - where all our food and drink comes from really!), and that a great cup of coffee isn’t coming at an unnecessary cost to mother nature.
When choosing single lot coffees to roast for our line-up, we are always searching for lots that stand out as great examples of the places they come from. Tasting the effect that soil, climate, and variety have on a cup’s flavour profile is a big reason why we all get so excited about coffee, so the processing method should support this rather than muddy it. Traditionally, natural processed lots got a bad wrap for falling into that latter category (especially those of a lower, cheaper grade), but we’ve seen how quality control and careful handling can yield some seriously sweet, clean, and unique lots.
So, do you prefer Natural or Washed? Get tasting some different lots and decide for yourself. We like 'em both.