Washed vs Natural Coffee Processing: What’s the Difference?
You may have noticed two words recurring on coffee bag labels regardless of the country of origin: washed and natural.
What do these terms mean? What is the difference between washed vs natural coffee? Keep reading to learn more about how these two factors impact the final cup.
How Coffee Gets from Seed to Cup
Most of us know that coffee beans start their journey as bright red or yellow cherries. Factors like country of origin and roast level affect the final cup profile.
But did you know that how unroasted green coffee beans are processed also has a massive impact on the flavour of the final cup? In other words, the same Colombian coffee bean’s final cup profile can change depending on whether it was processed using the dry or natural method, washed method, or processed using an alternate method, like pulp natural.
So how do you go about selecting the best coffee beans? What’s the difference between washed and natural coffees? Keep reading to learn about all that and more.
The Anatomy of a Coffee Cherry
But first, let’s talk a bit about anatomy. We’ll keep this quick, we promise.
Each coffee cherry consists of the seed and the pericarp (1).
The pericarp consists of three layers: the peel, the mucilage/pulp, and the parchment. You must remove all three layers before roasting the coffee bean.
Natural Coffee Processing
In natural processing, you first place the coffee cherries into a water tank, where the under-ripe and overripe cherries are discarded. Then, the remaining coffee cherries are placed in flat, raised beds and left out to dry under the sun. Every so often, coffee farmers rake and turn the cherries to ensure they dry evenly and that no mould or rot develops. This process can take up to six weeks, depending on the climate.
Generally, this method works best in climates with relatively low precipitation, like Ethiopia. Also, because the beans are left to dry naturally, the flavours are slightly less consistent from cup to cup.
For an in-depth look at the amount of detailed work that goes into naturally-processed coffee, watch this video of coffee farmers in Ethiopia.
Washed Coffee Process
In the washed coffee processing method, also known as wet processing, you place coffee cherries into the hopper of a coffee mill.
Next, these cherries land in a tank full of water, where you sort them to eliminate the under-ripe and over-ripe cherries. Coffee cherries that make the cut go into a fermentation tank, where they’ll be held for up to 72 hours.
Wash processing yields less complex flavours. Still, some coffee farmers and roasters prefer this method because it yields a more consistent cup profile (3).
Before roasting the beans, the coffee cherries must be de-pulped to remove the peel, fruit, and parchment. This is the rule in both natural and wet coffee processing methods.
In the washed processing method, the coffee cherries are de-pulped by passing through various filters before they finally come to rest in a fermentation tank.
In the natural method, however, the coffee cherries are only stripped of their peel, mucilage, and parchment. You de-pulp them only after layers have dried over the bean.
Difference between Washed and Natural Coffee Flavour Profiles
All this info is great, but how does natural and dry processing affect the flavour?
Since natural processing leaves the peel, pulp, and parchment intact, farmers can develop more complex flavours through fermentation. Microorganisms gradually break down the proteins, sugars, and other substances in the coffee cherry’s pulp, which results in lower acidity and more sweetness in the final cup.
By contrast, washed processing allows the bean’s natural flavour to shine. While enzymes still initiate chemical changes within the bean, the lack of peel, pulp, or parchment means there is necessarily less sugar for the microorganisms to break down. This results in less overall sweetness and more acidity (2).
According to Veronica Belchior:
Both …coffees experience fermentation, but there is a lot less…for the enzymes to work with in washed coffees because the pulp has been removed.
Washed vs Dry Coffee Cup Profiles
Naturally-processed coffee beans taste fruity and winy due to their prolonged exposure to complex sugars in the coffee cherry’s pulp. There are definite blueberry and strawberry notes on the nose, and the flavour can bring caramel sweetness and even chocolate to the cup. Lastly, naturally-processed coffees tend to be medium to full-bodied.
By contrast, washed coffees have a more acidic bite, and the acidity is reminiscent of lemons and limes. However, natural flavours of the bean, like floral and spice notes, shine through much more readily since there’s less contact with the sugars in the pulp. Finally, washed coffees are generally lighter in body, too.
Interested in more unusual processing methods? Watch Steven from Home Grounds sample some experimentally processed coffees in this video:
The difference between washed and natural processed coffees lies in the flavour of the final cup. Washed coffees will give you more bright, floral notes, while natural processed coffees yield a much sweeter, fruitier flavour profile.
Have you tried both washed and natural coffees? Which one do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below or in our Home Grounds Facebook group.
Semi-washed coffee refers to coffee beans with the outer peel and some mucilage removed. These beans are then left to ferment and dry for two days.
Finally, the farmers remove the rest of the mucilage and parchment, and the beans are left to dry. These beans tend to be more earthy in flavour and are medium-bodied in the cup.
Honey-processed coffees are coffees prepared with the honey processing method. In honey processing, the coffee bean removes the outer peel and some mucilage. The percentage of mucilage left on the bean as it dries in the sun determines the final cup’s level of sweetness. Black honey processed beans, for instance, contain the most mucilage as they dry, so it imparts a syrupy honey sweetness to the final cup.
Washed coffee is not better than natural, nor is the natural better than washed coffee. Washed coffees yield a more consistent cup and preserve more of the bean’s natural flavour. On the other hand, naturally-processed coffees yield more fruitiness and less acidity, but they also vary more in flavour from cup to cup.
So in short, it depends on what you prefer.
- sepriyany. (2017). Anatomy of a Coffee Bean – Red Berry Coffee. Redberrycoffee.co.id. http://redberrycoffee.co.id/anatomy-of-a-coffee-bean/
- Belchior, V. (2019, June 24). How Does Processing Method Impact Coffee Chemistry & Flavour? Perfect Daily Grind; Perfect Daily Grind. https://perfectdailygrind.com/2019/06/how-does-processing-method-impact-coffee-chemistry-flavor/
- Lane, T. (2021, May 24). Natural vs. Washed Coffee: Is One Better Than the Other? Taylor Lane; Taylor Lane. https://www.taylorlane.com/blogs/read/washed-vs-natural-coffee