February 2021

As we are all here rejoicing in the occasional snow fall, holding off the usual February malaise, and generally feeling fed up and frustrated with the virus, there is plenty happening on the farms in Central America. The crop is finishing ripening and being picked with COVID precautions in place. Once picked the coffee cherry is moved to beneficios and patios on the farms for processing and drying.

There are a few different ways that coffee can be processed, and they all end up doing essentially the same thing but with different cup profile consequences. When we talk about processing, we are talking about removing the skin, fruit (or pulp), and parchment from the coffee cherry, leaving just the seed (which we call the bean even though it is not a bean) ready for grading, bagging, shipping and roasting. All the methods result in a bean ready for roasting, but they vary greatly in practice and results. So, let’s start at the end.

The most complex method is the traditional washed process, it used to just be the washed process but as there have been a few modifications along the way we now preface it with traditional. The fruit is placed in large plunge-pool type tanks and any cherry that floats is relegated. The remaining sinking cherry, heavy with sugars and delicious, is pumped through to depulpers which remove the skin and a small amount of the fruit. From here the parchment covered beans are sent to more tanks and left to ferment for anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days depending on the local conditions. The parchment covered beans are then washed in fresh water and set out onto concrete patios or raised platforms to dry. Once the coffee has reached the correct humidity it is sent to silos to stabilise after which the parchment is removed, and the beans are ready for shipping. The mechanically washed process generally skips the fermentation stage and heads straight to the washing. Coffees processed using the washed methods tend to have clarity of fruit and brighter acidity along with less full body.

Traditional washed process coffee from Finca El Pastoral drying on a patio
Finca El Pastoral, Nicaragua

In comparison the pulped natural process skips both the fermentation and washing. The coffee is sent directly to the depulpers which remove a little to a lot of the fruit pulp depending on requirements before moving to drying, hulling and bagging. Variations on this method include the honey processes from Costa Rica. Coffees processed this way tend to have less fruity acidity and more body than the washed coffees.

Pulped natural process coffee from Sítio Grota São Pedro drying
Sítio Grota São Pedro, Brasil

The most basic method and the most difficult in some ways is the natural process. Here the cherry is spread out to dry on the patios or tables. When the coffee reaches the required humidity the dried skin, pulp, and parchment is all removed in one go leaving the bean ready for roasting. And this is where it all gets very interesting. These coffees can have some wild and fun flavours. They are the Marmites of the coffee world and you can either love them, hate them or learn to appreciate them. Maybe all three in one lifetime! The method was derided for many years as something done to poor quality coffee at the end of the harvest after all the good stuff was processed traditionally or with one of the pulped natural methods. But over the last decade or so this method has been picked up and developed by skilled and innovative farmers and the results are always interesting and definitely exciting. We have some terrific coffees processed using the natural method; full of very ripe fruit and alcoholic sweetness, but they aren’t necessarily for everyone. If you see words like funky, dried fruit, bubble gum, pear-drops or boozy in the tasting notes you are probably looking at a natural processed coffee, and if any of those words alarm you in terms of a cup of coffee then proceed with caution. On our counter a gentle introduction to natural coffees would be the Alemayehu Daniel, a bag of which is in the two-bag subscriptions this month.

Natural process coffee from Finca Las Lajas drying
Finca Las Lajas, Costa Rica

Of course, this is all a generalisation and a very brief description of the ways in which processing can affect flavour. More in more detail in the future.

Our best, Monmouth x