Deccan Coffee 101 | Coffee Processing | India
There are three predominant ways coffee has been traditionally processed: washed, natural and honey natural (Modern Method). There are alternatives, but these are both rare and typically localized, such as wet hulling in Nilgiris.
Washed coffees focus solely on the bean. They let you taste you what’s on the inside, not the outside. You see, a natural or honey processed coffee requires that the coffee cherry around the bean be flavorful. Washed coffees, however, depend almost 100% on the bean having absorbed enough natural sugars and nutrients during its growing cycle. This means the variety, soil, weather, ripeness, fermentation, washing, and drying are absolutely key.
Washed coffees reflect both the science of growing the perfect coffee bean and the fact that farmers are an integral part of crafting the taste of a coffee bean. When looking at washed coffees, it becomes apparent that the country of origin and environmental conditions play a vital role in adding to the flavor. This means that the washed process is able to highlight the true character of a single origin bean like no other process – and it’s the reason why so many specialty coffees are washed.
Natural/Dry Processed Coffee
The natural process, also known as the dry process, is a back-to-basics approach that stems from Africa. The fruit is left on the bean, and there’s little disruption to the coffee while it dries. Although it needs less investment, it still requires certain climatic conditions to ensure the drying of the fruit and seed in time. Over time, the natural process has become considered a lower-quality method that can lead to inconsistent flavors. This inconsistency is often the result of unripe fruit drying and turning brown alongside ripe fruits. However, there are many who believe this process actually has the potential to create the most flavorful coffees – and that a comeback is just around the corner. If consistency can be achieved, then many argue that natural coffees can match washed coffees for clarity, and also provide some more interesting notes and characteristics as well. You can see this happening in India, among other places.
A nicely picked and processed natural coffee can bring out incredible cupping notes, and offer consumers amazing sweet flavors – “Some of our naturals end up tasting more like a tropical fruit salad or fruit compote than coffee.” And what’s more, natural coffee is the most eco-friendly.
Honey/Pulped Natural Coffee
When done right, honey processed coffee can literally taste like someone has put honey and brown sugar in your cup of coffee – although the name actually comes from how sticky the beans get during processing. In many ways, this type of coffee is halfway between a washed coffee and a natural process coffee: it’s fruity, but not in as exaggerated a way as some naturals. It often has a more rounded acidity than washed coffees, with intense sweetness and complex mouth feel.The honey process is strongly associated with Costa Rica & Africa. In recent years India & subcategories have developed: yellow, red, golden, black, and white honey. This reflects the ability this process has to influence the taste and overall profile of a coffee. It can become a highly scientific process, as the level of mucilage – which influences the sweetness and depth of body of the coffee – is monitored and controlled. Typically, the more mucilage left on the bean, the sweeter the taste.
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How Do Producers Decide What Process to Use?
Most coffee producers want to produce the most profitable, and therefore the best-tasting, coffee they can, but they’re limited by the environment. Coffee, more so than most food stuff, has a very close bond to its surrounding environment.
Producers will often wait to see how much rain has fallen before decide whether to produce washed, honey, or natural coffee. If it’s rained a lot, it’s harder to produce good natural process because coffee cherries can start splitting. If it hasn’t rained, conditions are great for honey process or natural process because no sugars will get washed away.
Some farmers use refract meters on their farm to measure sugar content. This helps him decide if the sugar content is high enough for natural processed or honey processed coffee. However, they also aim for high sugar content in their washed coffees, since it results in a sweeter cup.
Experiments & Innovations: The Future of Coffee Processing
Devaiah of Iggodlu Specialty told me that traditionally producing countries have favored one particular process. Yet he explained that this is now changing – thanks to the demand for specialty coffee. An increasing number of farmers are now willing, where environmental and climatic factors allow, trying other processing techniques. For example, in Coorg, Chikmagalur, and Tamil Nadu, some farms are turning towards the natural and honey processes. By doing this, they can create new, unusual flavor profiles that add value to their crop.
This goes beyond simply choosing a processing method: some producers are experimenting with the absence of oxygen for fermentation, while others are looking at catalysts to speed up fermentation. Some are also looking closer at their environmental impact, and trying to process coffees while cutting down the use of water. New machinery and knowledge-sharing are also helping to create more unique cup profiles.
Coffee processing rarely makes it into the industry headlines or coffee shop discussions, but it’s an integral part of crafting the flavor and character of your cup of coffee. So next time you pick up a honey processed specialty or a natural processed Coorg coffee, you’ll know what to look forward to.