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Processing is often overlooked. But in fact, it is just as important as roasting and brewing. If you really want to understand coffee, processing is the key.



When laymen talk about coffee, they often like to talk about dark or light roasts, or which country the coffee was produced in.
And while it’s true that these are indeed contributing factors to the deliciousness of the bean, something very important often gets overlooked in coffee discussions: And that is the processing

There are dozens of different coffee processing procedures, and they all add their own unique touch to the bean’s final flavor. Not unlike a coffee grinder or a brewing style might push the flavor in a certain direction.

15 years ago most specialty coffee on the market was washed, but in recent years  farmers, exporters and roasters have launched something that could be described as a processing revolution

As more and more experiments are being done all over the world, it’s becoming clear that the difference between a coffee that is good and one that is world-class, is often down to processing

In this post I’ll go down the rabbit hole of coffee processing and tell you everything worth knowing about this fascinating and often overlooked part of the coffee cherry.


But before we get into processing, let’s just have a nano-sized biology lesson. See, the coffee bean technically isn’t a bean. In reality, it’s a seed, and this seed is developed inside what we call a ‘coffee cherry. Technically, coffee farming is fruit farming.

Processing is all about turning that fruit into a stable and homogenized product that is ready for export, where it will eventually be roasted.


Plant: The coffee cherry changes from green to red and matures slowly as harvest season approaches

Picking: During harvest season, pickers will visit all coffee trees. Ideally, they’ll only pick the ripe cherries.

Processing: After the cherries have been collected they will be processed. In its essence, processing is all about removing the pulp and drying the seed without creating mold or fermentation problems. There are three main ways to process coffee:

Washing (aka wet processing)

The Natural method (aka dry processing)

The honey process 

Dry milling: The last step of processing is to remove a protective layer called ‘the parchment’ that sits outside the bean. It’s a thin but hard shell.

Green bean: This is the finished agricultural product that is ready for export. The moisture level should be around 10-12 %. It should be stored carefully.

Roasting: The green bean is bought by the coffee roaster, where it can be stored for up to a year. The roaster will usually be located in the country of consumption.


When you go into the finer subtleties, there are countless of ways to process coffee, but generally speaking they fall into three main categories: Washed, natural and honey.

Each processing method results in different flavors, and this is important to note if you’re looking for particular characteristics in your coffee.

In the following sections I’ll go in-depth with the finer subtleties of each of them.


The oldest method for processing coffee beans is the natural processing method. You may have heard it called ‘dry processing’ as well. 

This kind of processing is very crude and basic in its most simple form. The cherru is harvested and placed on raised mats, beds, or patios to be dried in the sun.

Once the cherry has reached the correct right moisture level, the coffee will be hulled to remove the coffee cherry’s skin and the pulp. Typically this will take 2-4 weeks.

Historically, natural processed coffee was considered low-grade, since it doesn’t remove defect cherries the same way that washing does. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong during the drying process, so the farmers need to pay constant attention to the cherries to avoid mold or over-fermentation.


The washed process is the most common and also the most consistent coffee processing method. 

The washed process is the most consistent method when it comes to quality. Washing takes place at a dedicated wet mill. At the bigger farms in Latin America, there is typically a washing station on-site, while in Africa it is common for smallholder farmers to bring their cherries to local washing stations owned by coops.First, the freshly picked coffee cherries are put in water. This is a way to sort out cherries that are unripe or have some other defect. The bad cherries will often rise to the surface. They are called ‘floaters’.

The cherries then go through a de-pulper that will remove the outer skin and pulp.

A layer of slime will be left on the seed though – this is called mucilage and can be compared to the sticky layer that coats the stone of a peach.

In order to get rid of this mucilage, the seed will have to ferment in water tanks for 8-50 hours. The time the seeds are allowed to soak depends on the equipment, climate, and the preference of the producer.

After that beans will be floated and rinsed once again. The beans are then dried on concrete patios or raised bed until they have reached a moisture content of 10-12 %.


This processing method emerged in Costa Rica around 15 years ago. However, the traditional Brazilian way of processing coffee bears many similarities. 

The beans are depulped and laid out to dry with the slimy outer layer (called mucilage) remaining.
In spite of the name honey processing has nothing to do with actual honey. The name originated from Costa Rica, where coffee farmers would compare the sticky and sweet mucilage stuck to the bean with honey – “miel” in Spanish. Ironically, this coffee tends to be very sweet and fruity, so the name somehow makes sense. In recent years honey processing has become popular with coffee snobs in all parts of the world, because it tends to combine the best aspects of both the washed and natural process.


While natural and washed coffee are easy to understand, the definitions can become somewhat murky when we talk about the honey process.

Especially because some coffee regions have used a different terminology to describe what is essentially the same.

The pulped naturals of Brazil could also be called ‘honeys’ or maybe more precisely ‘red honeys’, as the process is similar.

Sometimes you’ll also hear the term semi-washed, which can again be compared to yellow honey.It seems that the specialty coffee industry has taken a liking to the term ‘honey’, so this will most likely prevail in the future – maybe except when it comes to the of Brazil.

15 years ago most specialty coffee on the market was washed, but in recent years  farmers, exporters and roasters have launched something that could be described as a processing revolution


Even though the vast majority of the coffee produced in the world reasonably could be said to land within the one of the three methods outlined above, there are other processing methods out there that are worth a closer look.

Some are historical relics that still have a small but loyal fan base, while others are new and cutting-edge methods that aim to modulate flavor notes or fermentation even more.

While processing has been more of an afterthought in the last century and before, there’s no doubt that it will be an area of massive focus for future generations of coffee farmers.

We have already seen techniques from the wine industry move in to coffee processing, and there is no doubt that this is just the beginning.

Source: The coffee Chronicler

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