What makes coffee taste like coffee? That's a more complicated question than you might think. At every step of a coffee bean's life, something intervenes that could drastically alter its flavor: Plant variety, agricultural approach, terroir, processing, roasting, storage, and, of course, brewing all play a huge part in how your morning cup tastes. Today, let's explore one of these influences: processing.
What we call the coffee bean is actually more like a seed or pit—it grows inside a thin-fleshed fruit not unlike a cherry (which is actually what it's called by most coffee professionals), which ripens about nine months after the coffee plant flowers.
In order to prepare the beans for roasting, they must first be removed from this outer casing using one of several techniques—a "washed," a "pulp natural," or a "natural" method—which may vary based on factors like regional climate, tradition, and the coffee's intended flavor profile. This can be a very tricky part of the life cycle of a coffee bean, as even the highest-quality crop can quickly be ruined by mold, over-drying, inattentiveness, bad weather, or pest infestation.
But what are these techniques, exactly, and what effect do the different methods have on the overall flavor?
Washed or Wet Process
After picking, the coffee bean is removed from its cherry, sometimes underwater, or in specially designed machines. Once the fruit is sloughed away, the beans are dried in their parchment, either by the sun, often on large cement patios, or in drying machines. This type of process is part of what contributes to the clean, classic Latin American coffee profile; beans treated this way can be sweetly chocolate- and nut-flavor forward, often with a subtle fruitiness.
Also sometimes called "semi-washed," this style of processing involves removing the skin of the ripe coffee cherry, leaving the bean to dry in the sort of sticky guts of the fruit—this can be especially precarious, as the beans in this gummy-coated state are vulnerable to bacteria and mold, and need to be monitored constantly. Because of the extended period of time spent inside the cherry, these coffees tend to have a creamier mouth feel and deeper fruity flavors, and can sometimes have a bit of an earthy quality.
Natural or Sun-Dried
This traditional form of coffee processing is as old as the beverage itself. Still commonly practiced in Ethiopia (coffee's birthplace), in this method the cherry is dried around the bean—either after picking or, as common in Brazil, on the branch of the coffee bush—then husked off and discarded. This process, too, calls for a lot of extra attention: The fruit must be constantly turned to avoid spoiling or uneven drying. Also called "sun-dried," these coffees tend to have much syrupier body than washed ones, and often have very pronounced fruit characteristics. People often exclaim, "This tastes just like blueberries!" upon their first taste of natural-process coffees; others are put off by the intensity of the flavor.
Have you ever tasted a sun-dried coffee? For many people, it's an absolute eye-opener. For the curious, we at Counter Culture Coffee currently have a beautiful naturally processed lot from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia; it reminds me of freshly toasted bread with a thick schmear of blackberry jam (but, you know, with more caffeine).