The difference between washed, unwashed, and honey-processed coffee

If you’re into coffee you may have come across terms such as washed, unwashed, and honey-processed coffees. Have you ever wondered what these terms mean? Working in the roastery I come across these terms a lot, but only had a vague idea as to what they meant. This gave me inspiration to write this article, which will describe these quite well known, but perhaps less well understood, coffee processes.  

As coffee consumers, and even us as a roastery, we only ever see the bean (or seed) of an original product. Coffee actually grows as a cherry, with the seed surrounded by a fruity mucilage and a skin. After being picked these outer layers are separated and removed. It is how and when these outer layers are removed that defines whether a coffee is washed or unwashed.

Dry processed/Natural Coffee

Dry-processed (also known as ‘natural’) coffee is one of the oldest methods of coffee processing. It refers to coffee that it dried as a whole cherry after being picked, and left to dry on raised beds. Once common practice, this method has in some places fallen out of favour to other methods. It is however still common in areas with limited access to water such as areas of Ethiopia and Brazil.

 

A step-by-step guide to natural processed coffee

  • Coffee cherries are harvested and any unripe fruit is separated
  • The ripe cherries are then left to sun dry on patios or raised beds (raised beds are generally preferred because they allow better air circulation).
  • Over the course of 2-6 weeks the cherries are rotated and raked daily to ensure equal rates of drying. This process is crucial to prevent spoiling, which would result in flavour defects.
  • Once dry the fruit is sent to mills for hulling (the process of separating the bean from the dried fruity mucilage).
  • The final process before being exported is dry milling, which is the removal of the seeds outer skin.

Which flavour notes can I expect in natural coffee? Natural coffees tend to offer fruiter, berry-like flavour notes because the beans have more time to interact with the sugars from the cherry as enzymes break down mucilage around the bean. Natural coffees also tend to be sweeter.

 

Wet/washed coffees

In contrast to natural coffees, washed coffees involve separating the bean from the fruit prior to the drying process. This a water intensive method, but is now quite common practice in the coffee industry.

ETHIOPIAN SIDAMO GR. 2 WASHED - Green Coffee Beans

 

A step-by-step guide to washed coffees

  • Cherries are harvested and soon after floated in water tanks, and any unripe cherries are removed.
  • The cherries are then run through depulpers which removes the seed from the rest of the fruit.
  • After depulping the beans are generally moved to fermentation tanks. In these tanks microbes are used to remove any remaining mucilage that has stuck to the bean.
  • Water is then used to wash any remaining mucilage off.
  • After being washed the beans reach the drying stage. This is done differently depending on the producer, but drying methods for washed coffees include raised beds, patios, and machine drying.
  • When the desired moisture level is achieved the beans are dry-milled, removing the beans outer skin, and are ready for export.

 

Which flavour notes can I expect from washed coffees? With the sweet fruit removed before drying, washed coffees tend to carry more flavour from the bean itself. Expect more acidity, lighter body, and nutty flavours.

 

Honey-processed coffee

You may have also come across the term ‘honey-processed’ coffee. Consider this a bit of a hybrid between washed and unwashed coffee. You’ll recall that washed coffees are depulped and then fermented and washed. Honey processed coffee goes through the depulping process, but the washing process is omitted. Most of the fruit is removed, but some golden mucilage remains around the bean, which looks similar to honey, and is from where the process gets its name.

Variations of honey-processed coffee (white, yellow, red, black) are simply a reference to the amount of mucilage that is removed prior to drying, and typically the less fruit that is removed, the sweeter the end coffee.   

  • White- 80-90% mucilage removed. Dried on raised beds and exposed to the sun.
  • Yellow- 50% mucilage removed. Dried in low wind and medium sunlight. Raked 3-4 times a day generally for 1 week.
  • Red- 10-20% mucilage removed. Dried on raised beds in shaded conditions. Raked once in the morning and once or twice in the afternoon.
  • Black- Left with 100% fruit on the bean (as little mucilage removed as possible). Dried on raised beds in complete shaded conditions.

Which flavour notes can I expect from honey-process coffees? Honey-processed coffees offer a diverse rang of flavours, and farmers and speciality coffee producers are increasingly experimenting with this method to find new flavour profiles. As the name suggests, honey-processed coffees are generally sweeter, although this is also dictated by the amount of mucilage that remains on the bean during drying.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief dive into different coffee processes, and how small differences can have quite drastic changes on the flavour profile of the coffee. Why not do a bit of your own research and compare some different coffees at home? We’ve chosen some of our favourites to get you started.

Natural- Uganda Rwenzori, Brazil Finca Cachoeira

Washed- Guatemala Antigua, Rwanda Liza Washed

Honey- Peru Tapir Andino Red Honey, Costa Rica Hermosa Honey

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