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My coffee is processed?

My coffee is processed?

Well, yes, but not processed like a Rice Krispy Treat.

When the coffee seed is ready to harvest, several things can happen to that wonderful little seed before it makes it into the roaster for toasting, then into your mug for sipping.

First, here's a little breakdown of a coffee cherry.

Once the coffee is removed from the tree, the coffee seed needs to be separated from the skin, and the pulp removed from the internal seed. With that, we find ourselves at our first two pathways to processing: washed and natural. Just because the word "natural" is tossed around, it doesn't mean it's better for you, or the better of the two processes. This isn't Whole Foods, Janet.

So with that established, let's begin our very quick breakdown of the several largely known processes of coffee. All of this information we have, is complied from our friends at Cafe Imports. You can visit their Processes page for more details.

Natural Process

The natural process is one of the oldest techniques for processing coffee. The cherries are dried under the sun with the skin and mucilage still intact around the seed. You can find natural processed coffees in the majority of coffee yielding origins.

Leaving the cherry intact is what makes this process unique. It leads to some of the broad flavor characteristics attributed to this process. Some of those flavors  are notes of berries, fruited acidity, winey coffee cherry, and ripe fruit skin. During processing, there's a fermentation process where the yeast and bacteria inside the fruit start breaking down sugars and acids. This happens until the coffee beans reach a certain moisture level - about 11%. Factors like temperature, sunlight exposure, and drying can affect this fermentation process.

This process generally takes longer, and has more risk involved than a washed process. It requires more space and attention to prevent issues like mold or overfermentation.

From Cafe Imports, it's important to note that:

"Modern Natural coffees are harvested ripe and intentionally dried, typically on patios, raised beds, or drying tables; they cannot be dried in mechanical dryers as Washed coffees can."

Washed Process

Often the most effective way to process coffee beans after harvesting, is called the Washed or Wet process - although, it doesn't always involve water.

In a broad term, "Washed" means removing the coffee cherry from the seed quickly and cleanly. Some differentiate between "Fully Washed," which uses water, and other methods that mechanically remove the mucilage.

"Fermentation" is a term often misunderstood in this process. It doesn't just happen in fermentation tanks, but starts as soon as the fruit is picked, creating points for microorganisms to break down sugars. This fermentation can continue as long as there's fruit material or enough moisture available.

Different lengths of fermentation are used in the industry. "Open" or "dry fermentation" involves depulped beans sitting in open-air tanks or buckets with their mucilage for up to 72 hours. "Underwater" or "wet fermentation" can take longer, depending on various factors.

People commonly attribute a washed processed coffee to being the truest representation of the flavor that seed holds.

Honey Process

A newer method called the Honey process, has gained popularity in Central American coffee-producing countries. Similar to Brazil's Pulped Natural process, Honey coffee involves removing the cherry's skin and allowing the seed to dry with some, or all, of it's sticky fruit mucilage intact. This combines the desirable qualities of a Natural coffee with a faster drying time, and reduced risk of defects.

Cafe Imports notes that in Costa Rica and other regions, producers may adjust the amount of mucilage to control the coffee's flavor profile. Different levels of Honey, like Yellow/Golden, Red, and Black, correspond to varying degrees of mucilage removal and drying modulation.

Brazil Natural

Brazilian Naturals differ from Natural processed coffees elsewhere in a few key ways, as noted by Cafe Imports. One notable distinction is the harvesting method, with large farms in Brazil, often using mechanical strip-picking machines to harvest ripe cherries efficiently. This contrasts with manual picking techniques that are more common in other regions. Also, Brazil Naturals are typically dried on patios rather than raised beds.

According to Cafe Imports, the climate, coffee verities, and processing methods in Brazil contribute to distinct flavor profiles. While Brazil Naturals do exhibit fruity characteristics, these flavors are more akin to coffee-cherry pulp rather than the blueberry and strawberry notes found in top Ethiopian Naturals. They also tend to have lower acidity and a heavier body.

Wet-Hulled Process

Indonesia, particularly Sumatra, is renowned for its unique processing method known as Wet-Hulling, which significantly alters the flavor of the coffee. This method is distinct from other common processing styles and is influences by environmental factors, market access, and local traditions, as explained by Cafe Imports.

The Wet-Hulling process involves several steps. First, after harvesting, the coffee is depulped using small machines, and then is stored in containers where the mucilage remains attached to the seeds. The coffee is then transported to a market or collection point while still retaining high moisture content, typically between 35-50%. At this stage, specialized machines remove the mucilage and parchment layers simultaneously before the coffee is dried on tarpaulins.

In certain areas of Sumatra, the wet parchment coffee undergoes brief fermentation before being washed clean of its mucilage, and given a pre-dry before Wet-Hulling.

As Cafe Imports highlights, Wet-Hulling involves drying the green coffee beans rather than parchment coffees as seen in other regions. This early removal of the parchment layer contributes to the distinct flavor profile of Sumatran coffees, but also increases vulnerability to environmental factors and contaminants. But Wet-Hulling does offer advantages such as rapid drying (which is particularly beneficial in Sumatra's damp climate), and provides flexibility for producers, especially smallholder farmers in remote areas.



Ethyl Acetate (E.A.) is a naturally occurring organic compound found in bananas, and is also produced as a by-product of fermented sugars. According to Cafe Imports, it can be used as a solvent to remove caffeine from green coffee beans.

First, the coffee beans are sorted and steamed for 30 minutes under low pressure to open their pores, preparing them for decaffeination. Then, they are placed in a solution containing water and ethyl acetate. Here, the E.A. bonds with the salts of the chlorogenic acids inside the beans. This process is repeated over eight hours until no caffeine is detected.

Afterward, the beans are steamed again to remove any remaining traces ethyl acetate. Cafe Imports notes that while E.A. can be harmful in high quantities, it's safe for human consumption at low levels. Finally, the decaffeinated coffee beans are dried and polished for export.

Anaerobic Fermentation

Anaerobic fermentation, a practice gaining recognition in coffee processing, involves fermenting coffee in a low-oxygen environment for a certain period. According to Cafe Imports, by sealing fresh coffee in a container carbon dioxide is released from the fermenting fruit concentrates, displacing oxygen. 

The microbial species present during fermentation begin in breaking down the fruit tissue and release flavor compounds. By favoring specific microbe species through controlled fermentation environments, unique flavor profiles can emerge, as seen in well-cared-for anaerobically fermented coffees.