Coffee Processing: How Do You Get from Cherry to Bean?

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A coffee bean, partially in its cherry [Photograph: tonx on Flickr]

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

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[Photograph: tonx on Flickr]