To get the most out of your coffee experience, you need to know more about the coffee that you are drinking. While the country of origin is important, the coffee processing method that is used should also be considered.
There are 4 coffee processing methods commonly used in the industry as well as 3 different harvesting methods that you should know about.
The Coffee Harvesting Methods
The processing of coffee starts when the coffee cherries are harvested. There are three different methods that are used to do this and they are strip picking, machine picking, and hand picking.
Strip picking is popular because it is a quick method of harvesting the cherries and does not require any machinery. This is important because many coffee growing areas have geography issues to deal with and this makes it hard to use machines.
When strip picking, the harvester will strip the whole branch of cherries whether they are ripe or not.
While this is a fast method to use, it does result in a harvest that is a mixture of ripe and unripe cherries which can cause problems if the crop is not sorted correctly before continuing to be processed.
Machine Picking is more limited in use because you need flat land to run harvesting machines. When this is possible, machine picking is an extremely efficient method to use.
However, the harvesting machines are expensive, but overall labor costs are lower as only one person is needed to run the machine. One of the areas where machine picking is commonly used is Brazil because of the relatively flat land.
Hand-picking is the more time consuming and generally only used by specialty coffee manufacturers. The harvester will only pick the ripe cherries from the trees and leave the unripe ones to mature.
It can take up to 10 harvests to pick all of the cherries from the trees depending on the overall size of the farm. While this is a more time consuming and often expensive method, the resulting crop will generally be better.
The Natural Or Dry Process
After harvest, the coffee cherries go through a further processing method. The oldest and original form of coffee processing is the natural process. This process is widely used due to the low costs and the limited additional resources that are required.
When using this process, the coffee cherries will be laid out in the sun to dry. The cherries will generally be laid out on brick or concrete areas when being handled on a commercial scale.
There are other times when the cherries are left to dry on the bare ground and this can have an impact on the taste of the coffee. These beans may have an intense and earthy flavor before of the soil.
There are many manufacturers who use this method and place their cherries on raised beds in thin layers. This will reduce the risk of mold growth while the cherries dry.
This method will also ensure that the cherries are dried with all of their layers intact resulting in some fermentation within the bean.
Once the cherries have dried, they will look similar to a raisin. At this point, the coffee is hulled which removes the outer layers. The beans are then sent to a dry mill to be sorted for shipment.
The Washed Process
Another commonly used coffee processing method is the washed method. This method will generally be used by manufacturers in parts of East Africa and South America. This method is not commonly used in areas where there is limited access to water such as certain areas in Africa.
To start this process, the ripe cherries from the harvest will be sent to a wet mill. In the wet mill, they are loaded and pass through a de pulping machine.
This machine forces the coffee beans out of the cherries. However, the beans will be contained in the pulp of the cherry which is called the mucilage. This is a sticky substance which contains alcohols and sugars which impact the flavor of the coffee.
After passing through the machine, the beans will be placed in a fermentation tank. They remain in the tank for 12 to 24 hours depending on the temperature of the tank. Different fermentation times will vary the flavor profile of the beans and the coffee that they make.
This is due to the fact that the beans that ferment for longer will have more time to absorb sugar from the mucilage making a sweeter coffee. However, if the beans are left to ferment for too long, they could develop a vinegar-like quality.
During the fermentation, the mucilage will be broken down and leave the beans in their parchment. When they are removed from the tanks, they are ready to be washed.
This could be done either in a tank of clean water or in channels. After washing, the beans will be gritty to the touch and ready to be dried.
The beans will then be taken to drying tables or be laid on patios. The beans will dry for 10 to 22 days and gently turned to ensure that they do not grow mold. Slowing drying times will generally create a better balance and complexity to the taste of the bean.
It is important to note that there are times when washed beans are mechanically dried. This generally occurs when the manufacturer does not have the space to air dry the beans. Mechanical drying will generally take around 3 days, but does reduce the shelf life of any green coffee.
The Wet-Hulled Process
The wet-hulled process is also known as the semi-washed process and will generally be used in Indonesia. This process starts in the same manner as the washed process with the harvested cherries being pulped.
The beans will then be partially sun dried and removed from the drying process when 30% to 35% of the moisture in the bean remains.
At this point, the beans will be hulled. The outer layer of protection on the bean will be torn off and a whitish, swollen green bean will be left. The drying of the bean will then continue on a patio. The drying process is complete when the beans turn a dark bluish-green color which is very distinctive.
While this coffee processing method results in some unique flavors to the coffee, there are many risks involved. The early removal of the husk will leave the coffee bean unprotected at a crucial stage of the drying process. This results in the bean being vulnerable to insects and other elements.
The Honey Process
This coffee processing method causes a lot of confusion with manufacturers and consumers because there are a number of ways that it can be completed. The route that is used will generally depend on the country of origin of the coffee.
This is why the method is considered to be a hybrid process and will be open to interpretation depending on what the coffee farmer is aiming to do.
In Brazil, the honey process is actually the Pulped Natural process. This process is the culmination of research into a coffee processing method that requires less water than the washed process, but is also less susceptible to the defects of the natural process. This hybrid process will start with the coffee cherries being depulped.
However, instead of being washed to rid the beans of the mucilage, they will be sent to dry. This process results in a coffee bean that offers a sweeter taste with more rounded acidity.
There are many manufacturers who feel that this provides better clarity to the flavor of the coffee.
In other South American countries, a different honey process is used. The process is often considered to be the true honey process and not a hybrid like the one in Brazil.
These countries will depulp the coffee cherries in a very controlled manner. This will leave a consistent amount of mucilage on each of the beans.
Having an exact amount of mucilage will ensure that the right flavor profiles are created with the beans. The beans will not be sent to ferment as this can have a varying influence on the taste profile.
The drying process is very important in this honey process because the mucilage will increase the chances of mold growth on the beans.
To avoid mold and other defects in the beans, they are turned regularly while they are drying. This regular turning will also protect the beans from insects. This method of processing will also be known as the yellow honey process.
Which Coffee Process Is The Best?
Knowing about the different processing methods is important, but you might wonder which is the best. There is no definitive way of stating that one method is better than the other.
If you are a producer, the method you should use depends on the type of coffee that you want to make and the resources that you have available. As a consumer, the method you should look for will depend on the flavor that you want when you drink your coffee.
A lot of people feel that the natural process will make the most flavorful coffee. These coffees will often have interesting characteristics because of the variable nature of the drying process. If this is the type of coffee you are looking for then you should focus on beans processed in this manner.
Coffee beans that are processed using the washed method will often have strong individual flavors. If you are looking for the specific taste of a certain type of coffee bean, this is the process you should look for.
The highlighting of the bean characteristics is one of the reasons why many specialty manufacturers will use this process.
If you want a sweeter taste to your coffee, honey processing is the best solution. As the beans have time to absorb the sugars in the mucilage, they offer a sweeter coffee which lacks some of the bitterness that puts some people off.
The semi-hulled process can be a bit of a mixed bag with some people finding the highlights in the coffee to be great while others view them as defects.
If you enjoy the taste of Indonesian coffee beans, then this is the process that you need to look for as it is generally used in this region. The coffee will generally have more weight and depth which can be ideal for a great blend.