Coffee starts as a cherry on the plant. How the outer cherry husk and mucilage (a sugary substance produced by the coffee plant that has a honey like consistency which covers the inner seed) is removed will leave a significant impact on the final taste in the cup. This is the stage referred to as processing.
In the documentary A Film About Coffee, there was a fantastic analogy shared by George Howell (founder of the Cup of Excellence) that signifies its importance.
“Processing, if you’re getting ripe fruit & ripe coffee, that’s the landscape. So now you’ve picked the beautiful landscape, but the processing is like window through which you see the landscape. If the processing isn’t perfect, your window’s dirty.”
One of the most common options is known as Wet or Washed Processing. During this method the beans are removed of their outer cherry (the cherry husk) and are then fermented in water, which makes it easy for the mucilage to come off the bean. Once it’s gone through this washing, it’s put out to dry. In terms of a taste profile it results in a cleaner cup of coffee. It could be a little less sweet than other processing methods, but that isn’t always true. The one prominent and consistent characteristic tends to be the cleanliness with this processing method.
On the other end of the spectrum is Naturally Processed Coffee. The husk or mucilage is not removed from the beans until after the coffee is completed the drying stage. With this additional time where there is contact of the fruit and sugary mucilage on the bean, sweetness is most definitely imparted on the bean. When you have your first cup of a naturally processed coffee, you’ll know it. The notes will be incredibly prominent – you’ll probably get what is described as a "fruit bomb" in the cup - potentially big blueberry or strawberry notes.
In between both of these two previously mentioned choices is Honey Processed coffee. It’s a bit less common than the other two options but definitely increasing in popularity, especially in farms who want the cleaner cup of coffee but don't have as much access to significant amounts of water. With this option, the coffee cherry is sliced open and the exterior cherry husk is forced off of the coffee bean. However the mucilage is left on for the drying phase. Mucilage with its honey like consistency is what gave birth to the name of the processing method. Even diving further into the Honey Processing, there are a few methods – white, red, yellow and black. Each one of these colors are referring to the different amounts of mucilage left on the bean. With some having more mucilage, it means more contact with the honey-sugary substance, which generally means more sweetness in the bean and therefore in the cup. It's a great middle ground for processing and some of our favourite coffees have been honey processed because of that combination of cleanliness and sweetness.
The majority of coffees fall in one of these 3 buckets - washed processed, naturally processed or honey-processed. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people trying new things.
In the February 2016 issue of The Roasters Pack, we featured a Detour Coffee roast from Costa Rica that goes by the name Sumava De Lourdes. With this coffee, the farmer Francisco Mena wanted to try something different – so he experimented. He fermented the coffee with the honey-sweet mucilage instead of water and dubbed it a “Sugar Sweet Process”.
We had Geoff Woodley, the Lead Roaster & Green Buyer at Detour explain what this process is all about.
“Usually coffees are fermented to remove mucilage,” Explained Geoff. Rather than removing the mucilage, they used extra mucilage and fermented the coffee.
Essentially this coffee follows all the steps of the washed process, but instead of water being added to coffee, more mucilage is. This is wild and an incredibly interesting way of doing the processing.
"We were totally interested in trying out the results for sure. With coffee you have to try a few things multiple times to try and get results... You can’t draw too many conclusions from the first experiment, but it’s pretty neat to have a different process on the table too. I think the results are pretty tasty, I’m enjoying the coffee a lot,” furthered Geoff.
Who knows, perhaps we'll soon be updating this page with a 4th or 5th processing method!