Walking into the conference room for our weekly staff meeting, our fearless “coffee talk” leader Peter Giuliano asked us to smell three different coffees, which were presented in cupping glasses as dry grounds, and note their fragrance. One of these coffees was Huabal, a “washed” coffee from San Ignacio, Peru. The other two were “naturals”, coffees from similar regions in Ethiopia (Idido from Yirgacheffe and Elias Benata from Kochere).
Natural coffees (also referred to as dry-processed or sun-dried) are dried in the fruit that surrounded it when it grew. The cherry is picked, set out to dry, and then the seeds (aka coffee beans) are removed. Coffee produced by this method is heavy in body, sweet, smooth, and complex.
“Washed,” or wet-processed coffee is a relatively new method of processing, in which the layers surrounding the coffee bean are removed, resulting in a cleaner, brighter taste.
Upon smelling the fragrance of the naturals, especially Idido (pictured above), I detected a much stronger fruit fragrance. Although the packaging noted “concord grape” and “strawberry jam,” I picked up a lot of blueberry (which was ever-present in the pour-over that was prepared for us during the meeting).
Naturals are more intense and have more of this blueberry characteristic in the higher-quality yields. It was noted that this flavor profile is why naturals are such a great tasting introduction because of the identifiable, strong blueberry flavor (unlike some others like grass or stone fruit).
While wet-process coffee tends to be preferred by many (professional coffee tasters often shy away from natural coffees as they get more experience because they are too strong and can have a yogurt-like flavor), the dry process of naturals has been around much longer. Some 300 years ago, all coffee was produced via the dry process.
The traditional dry processing method in Ethiopia
- Cherries are picked and laid on a mat on the ground to dry
- Dried cherries are then crushed with a mortar and pestle
- Remaining product is then winnowed to remove the fruit, leaving behind the coffee beans to be roasted
There are some problems with this traditional method. First off, changes in weather conditions and the dirt around the mats holding the coffee cherries can affect the drying process and create a very earthy, dirty taste in the final product. There is also the possibility of the fruit molding by this process due to lack of air circulation. Because of these factors, 90 percent of coffees made by this process are of poorer quality.
Updates have since been made to natural coffees to ensure a better product. One of the most significant improvements involves a raised bed for the drying coffee cherries. The raised-bed method involves more effort – the cherries must be turned by hand consistently over the first 72 hours – but this process allows for more air circulation around the drying fruit and it is less susceptible to mold.
Some may wonder why the dry process is used if it yields an unreliable, low-quality product; but for some countries, the dry process is the only process. Countries like Ethiopia, Brazil, Yemen, and Indonesia make naturals because they do not have the water resources of those countries in which the primary export is washed coffees. In some areas of Ethiopia, it is actually illegal to produce coffee utilizing the washed method.
Even though the argument against dry processed coffees exists (due to the risk of over-fermentation and negative impact on the bean itself), this process has remained fruitful for many countries in their efforts of production and export.