If you look closely at a bag of coffee beans it might tell you how it was processed. Maybe it was “naturally processed” or “dry processed” or “washed”. And make no mistake: how the coffee beans have been processed has a BIG impact on the taste.
You’re about to find out exactly what naturally processed coffee beans are, and how they are made. You’ll also discover why most roasters avoid selling naturally processed beans, and a weird but cool reason why these overlooked coffees might just be about to take the world by storm.
What are naturally processed coffee beans?
Naturally processed — or dry processed — coffee beans come from coffee fruit that has been dried out in the sun. Once the fruit is dry, it is peeled by hand to get the seed inside. That seed is the coffee bean, still green at this stage. Take a look at these coffee cherries:
So when we say “processing” with coffee, it’s taking those coffee cherries and getting the seed out of them. The seed — surprise, surprise! — is our coffee bean.
So natural processing is the traditional, low-tech way of getting the coffee bean from the fruit. Here’s a photo of it in action:
Traditionally, coffee beans processed like this are considered lower grade. Poorer quality, basically.
The farmers receive less money for their naturally processed coffee beans, so less care is taken in the farming and processing. Some governments have even banned dry-processing to help farmers make more money.
The fact is naturally processed coffee beans are considered a cheap commodity. And to be honest, this is still mostly true today. But that’s starting to change, as I’ll explain in a moment.
What are wet processed coffee beans?
Wet processing is another way to do this. Here the farmer will take the coffee fruit and use intricate and expensive machinery to get the coffee bean. Here’s a look at it.
Wet processed coffee beans make up most of the coffee sold around the world. It’s a bit like how Arabica is considered the gold standard for good coffee. Wet processed is too.
Here’s the two processing methods broken down step by step:
|Dry Processing||Wet Processing|
|Other Name||Naturally Processed||Washed|
|Step 1||Coffee cherry is picked from the Coffea plant||Coffee cherry is picked from the Coffea plant|
|Step 2||Let the cherry dry out in the sun and let it darken from red to black||The coffee cherries are submerged in water|
|Step 3||Left for 4 weeks and raked and turned periodically||The bad/unripe ones float, the good/ripe ones sink|
|Step 4||The cherry is peeled to get the coffee bean||A machine is used to remove all the cherry|
|Step 5||Sent to get hulled, sorted, graded and shipped||Let the coffee bean dry out in the sun|
|Step 6||Sent to get hulled, sorted, graded and shipped|
What does naturally processed coffee taste like?
As I mentioned above, naturally processed coffee beans are considered the cheap, poor quality stuff. But not always.
You see, natural processing has an ace up its sleeve. When you dry the coffee cherries in the sun, a small amount of fermentation to take place. This makes its way into the coffee, you taste an extra pang of fruitiness, or a touch of acidity.
This means naturally processed coffees are known for their strong flavors and sharp tastes. It’s a blessing and a curse, really. Done well and you get a coffee that tastes like it’s from another planet. But it’s not always done well.
The big issue with naturally processed coffee is it’s not easy to get it right. If the conditions and methods aren’t handled properly it’s easy to have a coffee overwhelmed with biting sourness.
It’s simple to put your coffee cherries out in the sun. It’s much more difficult to put them out in the right way on the right equipment where the air-flow is good and they are turned and managed properly. It needs skilled labor and well-trained workers. Not easy for a lot of farmers in these countries.
So what’s this all comes down to is that naturally processed coffee taste unique. And the only way to really know what that is is to try some.
So go and buy yourself a bag. See what the fuss is about. Maybe you’ll fall in love with this new world of bright and beautiful flavors. Or maybe you’ll waste a few bucks. Either way, worth a try, no?
No idea where to start? Well, these days, every city, town and village seems to have a top notch roaster you can pick up quality beans from. Read my article here on where to find them.
Where do naturally processed coffees come from?
Most naturally processed coffees come from Africa. This is partly down to the climate. Dry processing is only possible in hot but dry climates where the coffee cherries will dry out in the sun before the fruit itself starts to degrade and rot. In many countries, natural processing is impossible. If it’s too humid? The fruit will rot before it has chance to dry out.
Another reason comes from how African coffee tastes. Coffee beans from the African continent are noted for their sweetness, light acidity, and fruitiness which complements the flavors dry-processing brings out. If you see a coffee advertising it’s bursting with blueberry notes — it’s probably an African. If it’s dry processed, those flavours will come alive!
Asian coffees, on the other hand, are noted for their musty, earthy flavors. They just don’t pair up quite so well. Actually, where you buy your coffee bean is a HUGE topic. Read my article here for lots more fun stuff on how coffee is different depending where it was grown.
Another part of it is the large quantities of water required for wet processing. The average African coffee farmer doesn’t have enough easy access to those amounts of water.
Which processing is better for the environment?
Aside from anything else, natural processing is the green choice. Better tasting? That’s up for debate. Better for the environment? There’s no contest.
The reason is that dry processing uses little more than manual labor. The sun is the source of energy. That and a little manual labor.
Wet processing uses lots of water and electricity to do the same thing. And anything that uses less water on a continent where some of the lakes have decreased in size by 90% can only be a good thing.
On a personal level, this is why I buy natural processed when I can. The flavors are bright, exciting and sometimes a little crazy. And doing small bits to help the environment helps me sleep a little easier when my head hits the pillow at night.
Is naturally processed coffee healthier?
Despite the name, there is no reason that naturally processed coffee is healthier than other coffees. It’s true that naturally processed coffee is a more “natural” way to get the coffee bean. Put the coffee cherry in the sun, what could be more natural than that? However, there is one very important thing we can’t overlook…
The other ways of processing coffee are also “natural”. In wet processing, a farmer needs to use water and machinery to process their coffee beans, but that doesn’t mean things like chemicals or herbicides are present. It’s just a system that peels the coffee fruit to get the bean. As such, remember there are no health benefits to buying and drinking naturally processed coffee.
Are there other methods of processing coffee beans?
Dry and wet processing are not the only ways of getting the coffee bean, by the way. Most other techniques are a middle ground. Perhaps some skin of the cherry is removed but not all. Or water is used to see which cherries float. That kinda thing.
These techniques have names like semi-washed, wet-hulled or honey processing. A little too much for me to get into here, but this website here does a solid overview.
What to do next
Hey, guess what? I’ve got a secret for ya.
You’re living in the best damn time for coffee. These days, there are high-quality coffee roasters hiding everywhere. Like there’s probably some award winning roaster a six-minute drive from where you’re sitting right now. Here’s how I’d find it.
No luck? There’s a bunch of online roasters who can step up to the plate. Even though you order online, the coffee is roasted fresh and sent in the post that day. You’ll get it at peak flavor. Only a few days after the roast. Here’s some online roasters to check out.
The best thing is all these places will know what natural processing is. They probably even have a few bags of it you can try. Give it a try. I’m telling you, it’s worth the experience.