You’ve just opened up your Kaldi’s subscription package, and begin to examine the bag of coffee before you. “Nicaragua Roger & Isabel Mairena Natural.” What does that mean, “natural”? As opposed to what, artificial? GMO?
We’re here to assure you that, no, this doesn’t mean our coffees that don’t say natural are some lab-concocted faux-coffee. We’re also writing this to fill you in on some of the odd technical language you may see on the bags of specialty coffee you buy from us, and how that can inform your coffee drinking experience.
Though we commonly refer to coffee as “beans”, it’s a bit of a misnomer: the symmetrical coffee bean most people know is really one half of the seed of the coffee fruit, or cherry, which grows on a small tropical tree. The roasty chocolate-caramel sweetness of our French Roast blend or the pleasant acidity and mild nuttiness of our Mexico Oaxaca la Cañada are developed partly by our roasting profiles, but would be impossible without their unique origins and, most importantly, their processing at origin. (See our Sourcing page for insight into our supply chain.)
Coffee Processing: Processing refers to the process of taking a coffee cherry to the state of a raw, unroasted, green seed. There are a variety of ways to process coffee and these can vary based on the intention of the producer, the resources available, and the surrounding climate. There are three main types of processing and each type will influence the final flavor of the cup.
This blog will briefly cover the three main types of processing.
Natural or Dry Process: The coffee is picked and subsequently sun-dried in the full cherry. This type of processing can produce a cup of coffee that is sweet and dominated by fruit flavors. Blueberry and strawberry are common flavors found in coffee processed this way, as keeping the cherry around the seed alters the seed’s fermentation. The body--the tactile feel and viscosity of the liquid coffee, from tea-like to milky--can be heavier than that of other processes. For example, our Ethiopia Tiqiset Wakqo from a few months back, and our Nicaragua Roger & Isabel Natural. Natural dry processed coffees are the traditional method in many regions without reliable water access.in.
Washed or Wet Process: In this process, the cherry is removed before the coffee is fermented with the aid of water. The fermentation helps remove the sticky mucilage layer from the seed before the coffee is dried. This process produces coffees with crisp acidity and nuanced flavors. We have had many Washed coffees currently in our recent lineup, including Rwanda Sholi, Ethiopia Nano Genji, Peru Yambrasbamba, and others. Washed coffees are often described as having “clean” flavors and a balanced body.
Honey/Semiwashed: The coffee is depulped and then laid out to dry with the mucilage layer intact. This process can produce flavors that closely resemble a natural or washed coffee. This depends on the producers intended outcome for the coffee. A recent example would be the Costa Rica Roger Urena Hidalgo White Honey we had at the start of 2020. A honey process coffee can be lighter-bodied and more nuanced than a natural, while still offering some of the same juicy fruit qualities. The level of this is dependent on the amount of mucilage left on the seed when drying, and this is referenced by the color that you see in front of the process: white, yellow, red, and black. White is closest to washed and black is closest to natural.
So how do they taste?
Each of these processes has its own taste profile that comes with it. Generally speaking, the below is true but can vary from coffee to coffee:
If you want:
Really clean acidity and nuanced flavors: washed process
Big body and intense fruity flavors: natural process
A little more fruity pop mixed with a nuanced flavor profile: honey process
WHAT COFFEE PROCESS IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
In spring 2020, we had a very special release: 3thiopia. One of our most popular special releases ever, this triple Ethiopian blend was a wild roasters’ experiment gone delightfully right. The taste experience went a little like this:
First sip: taste the clean, stone fruit notes of the washed coffee component.
Second sip: hone in on the intense fruity burst of the natural.
Sip number three: enjoy the watermelon-like, juicy acidity of the honey process.
We were thrilled with how this blend turned out, and are even planning future releases. Stay tuned!
Want to give them a taste?
Want to try all three coffee processes side by side? Stay on the lookout for our Single Origin Sampler. We list out the coffees that are currently in the box, and we try to provide a good mix of origins and processes. Nothing brings out the characteristics of coffee like context, and this box provides just that. Host a little home cupping session, or just enjoy a tasty tour for one through coffee’s technical side.
Terminology for the processing of coffee
Separation: This step takes place after the coffee has been harvested. This step is done to remove any visual defects or unwanted cherry before processing begins.
Hulling: This step occurs after the coffee has been dried. Hulling is the process of removing the parchment layer from the coffee seed utilizing a huller. In the case of Natural coffees, Hulling also removes what’s left of the entire cherry.
Grading: A small sample (approx. 300grams) of coffee will be taken and graded. The grading process is looking to determine the number and type of defects that exist in the lot of coffee being graded.
Polishing: This can be an optional step during the milling process. Polishing is the act of removing any additional silverskin that has made it through the hulling process.
Sorting: This step removes any debris, such as stones or twigs; detectable defects; and separates the coffee into a more uniform size range.
Written by Yosef Rosen and Andrew McCaslin