What Are The Methods For Processing Coffee? Explained Here

Natural, washed, and honey are the three different methods of processing that coffee berries undergo before they are made available to you in the form of beans or powder. 

Just like wine and beer, coffee begins with a fresh product. While beer begins with the hogs, and wine with grapes, your coffee comes from coffee cherries. For these cherries to become the roasted coffee bean as you know it, it has to go through several processes. 

These processes can take different forms and have a huge role to play in getting the perfect coffee flavor. This article covers all you need to know about coffee processing, its methods and how they influence its taste. 

Coffee Processing – At a Glance

Coffee Processing

In simple terms, coffee processing refers to how coffee beans are extracted from the cherries. The processing method used plays a huge role in determining the final product. 

Even with the perfect growing and harvesting conditions, badly processed beans can destroy the flavor of the final roast. Therefore, to get the best quality of coffee, farmers have employed several coffee processing methods.

Over the years, three major techniques of processing coffee emerged –Natural (Dry Process), Washed (Wet Process) and Honey (Pulped Natural process). Apart from the difference in flavor obtained from these methods, other factors come into play to help farmers determine the particular process to use. 

Their climate conditions, capabilities, cost of processing and availability of natural resources like water– are all the variables that are important in deciding the best processing method to use.

Let’s take a closer look at these methods and discuss their steps.

Coffee Processing Methods

As revealed above, there are several methods of coffee processing, however, this article will focus on the three dominant techniques. They include:

  • Natural/Dry Processing
  • Washed/Wet Processing and 
  • Honey/Pulped Natural Processing

Natural/Dry Processing

Natural processing, also called dry processing, is the oldest and most traditional method of processing coffee. It involves completely drying a freshly picked coffee cherry in the sun on thin layers before removing its seeds.  

Natural Processing Steps

  • Step 1: First the ripe coffee cherries are harvested and sorted to remove the damaged, unripe or defective cherries. 
  • Step 2: The selected cherries are then placed on dry beds. These beds could be either patio or raised drying tables.
  • Step 3: The beds are taken out to the sun to sun-dry. Note that no part of the coffee is removed before sun-drying.
  • Step 4: As the cherries begin to dry, the seeds start to ferment. To ensure that it ferments evenly and to prevent mold and rotting, the cherries are routinely turned and raked. 
  • Step 5: After a few weeks, the cherries are completely dry and the seed should be fully fermented. During this time, the sugar and mucilage stick to the seed and they reach a moisture level of about 11%.
  • Step 6: Once they are fully dry, the coffee cherries are taken to the machine hull to separate the pulp and akin from the seeds. 

This coffee processing has both been praised and criticized. While it comes with a lot of advantages, it also has some limitations. 

Pros and Cons of Natural Processing

When brewed, the coffee tends to have more body than other methods. This is because of the fruit remnants left in the coffee beans. Natural processed coffees are very difficult to replicate because of the inconsistency in fermentation. 
This method creates a unique flavored coffee taste.Requires intense care and supervision to prevent molding.
This is the cheapest method of coffee processing It is very risky as rain or high humidity can lead to the growth of fungus on the cherries.
It is eco-friendly. Unlike wet processing which requires a lot of water, dry processing only requires little amounts of water. Lack of range in flavor. This is because the coffee seeds obtained from this method majorly turn out fruity and sweet. 

Flavor Profile

Flavor Profile

As a result of the time spent in fermenting the coffee seeds with the cherry intact, naturally processed coffees often come with deeper and more complex flavors. The flavor is often described as sweet or fruity.

This is no surprise considering how the seeds are full of stewed fruits, milk, chocolate and cocoa powder flavors. Common flavor notes to expect are strawberry, tropical fruits, blueberry and honey. You can also find some with a note of alcohol and fermented flavors.

Fun fact: This method of processing originated from Ethiopia and is the major method used there because of the lack of water. 

Washed/Wet Processing

This is a very popular method of processing coffee. It is the entire opposite of natural coffee processing. In this method, the coffee skins are separated from the seeds before drying.

Many prefer this method of processing coffee as it provides the coffee with a clearer and brighter flavor. 

Washed Processing Steps

There are two ways to carry out the washed technique:

  • Ferment and Wash Method
  • The Machine Wet Processing

The difference between these two methods is in the first step. 

  • Step 1:

Ferment and Wash Method:  Here, after harvesting the cherries and sorting the ripe ones, the cherries are placed in large tanks of water and left to ferment. This breaks down the pulp and separates the coffee seeds. 

The Machine Wet Processing: Here, the selected cherries are first mechanically scrubbed until they are separated. This is done using machines called depulpers.

  • Step 2: After separating the seeds using the depulper the seeds are then transferred to large tanks filled with water and left to ferment for 24-72 hours. The time required depends on the climate. It takes a long time for cooler climates and shorter when the climate is hotter. 

Note that, if the coffee beans are left for too long, this can affect the flavor of the coffee. 

  • Step 3: The seeds are then washed again to remove any remains on the seed. 
  • Step 4: Now the beans are ready to dry. They are then transferred to drying beds or brick patios. This step is similar to that of the natural method. 

Although there are mechanical ways to dry these seeds, many farmers prefer to sundry.

  • Step 5: To ensure that the seeds dry evenly and to prevent molding and rotting, the seeds are turned regularly. 
  • Step 6: The dried seeds are then dehulled to remove the papery layer.

Pros and Cons of Wet Processing

This method is the quickest and most efficient.The wet processing method is considered to be environmentally wasteful. Apart from the large amounts of water used in washing, the washing stations also release tons of solid waste. 
This is a more stable way to process coffee. It produces a consistent flavor and can be easily replicated.The cost of processing is quite high as it requires several infrastructures, energy and technology.
When properly done it reduces the risks of defects in the final product. Because it requires a large amount of water, it cannot be effective in drier countries.

Flavor Profile

The wet method produces a pure and light coffee flavor. The true flavor of the seed is not influenced by the fruity cherry and this gives the coffee a cleaner and more crispy note than the dry-processed coffee. 

The body of the coffee is light and bright as well as a result of the cleaner acidity which balances the sweetness of the coffee. Though there is still a bit of guilty flavor, the coffee flavor is clear and easier to differentiate. 

A lot of praise has gone to this processing method because it brings out the true quality of the bean. It is definitely a favorite among roasters and baristas, due to its higher complexity.

Fun Fact: The washed coffee process is the most common coffee processing method in the world. 

Honey/Pulped Natural Processing

No! The honey method does not involve using honey. This method got its name – Honey– because of how sticky the bean gets during the process. It is a combination of natural and washed coffee processing methods. 

Though quite rare because of its demanding nature, it is a very efficient method. Through this process, farmers can conserve water while still producing a clean cup.  

Honey Processing Steps

  • Step 1:  The cherries are harvested and sorted like other processes. The ripe cherries are separated from damaged or unripe ones.
  • Step 2: After sorting, the selected ones are de-pulped using a depulper.  The machine is set to still leave the cherry’s mucilage on the seed. 
  • Step 3: After depulping, the seeds are placed on patios and dry beds and left to sun-dry. Because the mucilage left on the bean is reduced, the risk of fermentation is reduced. 
  • Step 4: Drying takes about 4 days to 2 weeks. Once dry, the bean is dehulled. This involves removing the thin parchments and dried mucilage.

Note that the mucilage left of the seed determines how dark it turns out after it dries. This also determines its final taste and flavor.  The more mucilage is left the darker and sweeter it turns out. 

Types of Honey Processed Coffee

There is a variety of honey-processed coffee based on the mucilage level: 

  • Black Honey Coffee: If 90%+ of the mucilage is left on for drying.
  • Red Honey Coffee: If approximately 80% of the mucilage remains for processing. 
  • Yellow Honey Coffee: If approximately 50% mucilage is left to dry.
  • Golden Honey Coffee: If approximately 25% mucilage is left to dry.
  • White Honey Coffee: If less than 25% mucilage is left to dry.

This method is considered the best of all processing methods as its advantages outweigh the disadvantages. 

Pros and Cons of Honey Processing

This method is the best of the other two methods. It also brings out a higher level of flavor and acidity in coffee. The honey method requires complex handling, high technology and a favorable climate. 
This method is environmentally friendly, as it requires little water and uses the sun to dry.
The risk of rotting and molding is lessened with the process.

Flavor Profile

Flavor Profile

Honey processing brings out the coffee’s natural sweetness and when it is done correctly it improves the coffee’s taste. Honey coffee seeds possess some of the body and sweetness of the natural process and still retain the acidity of the washed process

Apart from this, it offers a higher note of sweetness than the washed and also has a clean and bright body, unlike natural processed coffee.  

This method is fast becoming popular among farmers as it allows them to control the flavor profile of their coffee. 

Fun Fact: The method is very popular in Brazil being its originator. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are a few frequently asked questions related to coffee processing: 

Why Does Coffee Need to be Processed?

Coffee processing makes it possible for the coffee roaster to work before the bean can be ready for consumption. After harvesting, the cherries need to be processed immediately to avoid coffee spoilage– which would be a waste of effort.

What Happens After Coffee Processing?

Coffee processing is just a step in getting the coffee from the tree to your cup. There are still other stages and prices it has to go through before it is ready for consumption.

The green beans obtained after following either of the coffee processes are often transported in large jute bags to the country where they are needed. The coffee roasters perform their magic and then sell to you the consumers. 

Final Thoughts

There you have it, the main methods of coffee processing. So, next time you purchase a coffee bean, look out for the processing method used and you’ll know what to expect. 

With this information, you can now enjoy the variety of flavors and appreciate their crucial differences. However, you should note the final coffee flavor also results from other factors like brewing and roasting the coffee bean. The way you make your coffee also has an additional effect on the final flavor. 

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Jeff Stone
Jeff is a coffee aficionado. He loves a couple cups of joe first thing in the morning. He like trying out new grounds and gear and then writes about it here. When he is not sipping java, he is usually writing it for his clients as a software engineer.

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