An Introduction To Coffee Processing
An Introduction To Coffee Processing

Typically, anytime we hear the word “processing” when it comes to food and beverages in this day and age, we are told to steer clear of those items. When it comes to coffee, the term processing refers to how the coffee fruit is handled or treated after it is harvested. The same variety of coffee, grown on the same farm, at the same elevation can taste extremely different if it is washed compared to natural process. 

There are a variety of coffee processing methods used by experts to extract the coffee bean from its fruit. The method you choose can affect the bean's flavor profile during the roasting process, making extraction both a delicate balance between art and science.

What Is Coffee Processing?

Coffee beans are the seeds of a coffee cherry. Coffee cherries are made of a combination of several layers, including outer skin, pulp (soft fruit), mucilage, parchment, and silverskin To get to the coffee seed, the surrounding fruit must be removed or processed before roasting can take place

Coffee Processing Methods

From wet processing to dry processing, there are three main coffee processing methods that are widely used to process coffee beans.

Let’s start by taking a look at the four main methods of processing coffee after harvest:

Natural processing is the oldest coffee processing method. The coffee cherries are picked and the coffee is dried with the fruit completely intact. This method often gives the coffee a fruity flavor due to the fruit drying on the seed. Also referred to as “dry process” due to the minimal amounts of water used, natural processing is the original method of drying coffee. While it tends to be more common in arid regions where water is a limited resource, we are seeing naturals from all parts of the coffee-growing world. Drying can take two to six weeks or longer. The key with this method is to prevent any exposure to moisture and avoiding mold or undesirable fermentation.

Ideal Fellow Brew Method: Stagg [X] or [XF] Pour-Over Dripper
Our Stagg Drippers are a great way to taste the intensity of flavor in a natural processed coffee.

The honey method doesn't involve the use of honey for processing but instead refers to a sticky honey-like substance that remains on the seed after the skin is removed. The syrupy substance gives sweetness to the bean, delivering generally -round-bodied, viscous, and highly sweet flavors in the coffee. Also referred to as “pulped natural” or “pulped dried”, the skin is removed from the coffee fruit and the fruit is left on the seeds in varying amounts. Starting with the least amount of fruit to greatest, white, yellow, red, and black are the various types of honey process each with a distinct effect on flavor and body. As the fruit dries it gets sticky and gooey resembling honey. The added sugars from the fruit tend to impart an added sweetness and a syrupy body to the coffee. The term “semi-washed” is often used for a similar coffee processing method with very minute differences from honey processing.

Ideal Fellow Brew Method: 

Prismo Shot

Honey process coffees can be syrupy sweet! The metal filter of Prismo allows all the nectar to flow into your cup.

This is the most common form of coffee processing, but fully washing a coffee also consumes the most water. With all of the fruit removed before drying, washed process reveals the terroir of the region where the coffee is grown more than any other method. When a coffee is washed, the coffee cherry is mechanically de-pulped and then fermented for 24-48 hours to remove the remaining fruit/mucilage. The coffee is then moved to a flat concrete patio or raised bed to dry. Drying time for a washed coffee can take between one and two weeks in most regions.

Ideal Fellow Brew Method: Duo Coffee Steeper
You’ll want more than just one cup of a good washed coffee and the capacity of the Duo is perfect for brewing more than one cup at a time.

There are many new and exciting post-harvest processing methods in the coffee industry these days like anaerobic, carbonic, and lactic. The resources to try these new methods can be out of reach for some farmers. There are some groups in the various coffee-growing regions working with farmers that have more limited resources to improve their access to alternative processing with the crops that the farmers currently are producing. Planting a new coffee can take 2-3 years before the trees produce fruit, and some, if not most, farmers can not wait that long between harvests. The future is very bright (or chocolatey, caramelized, etc.) for these experimental post-harvest processing methods.

This is by no means a full list of all the various methods for processing coffee post-harvest. We didn't even cover tree dried! All of the aforementioned factors play a huge role in the given coffee's flavor once it has been roasted and brewed. How do you determine which one you like the best? Try them all! With that though, even our own individual desired flavors can vary depending on something as simple as the time of day, brewing method, or whether we want to drink our coffee hot or cold. A natural Ethiopian coffee can taste like strawberry cream pie when brewed as espresso and made into a cappuccino. If we take that same coffee and make it as an iced pour over it might not be quite as delicious. A washed Guatemalan coffee might be a better bet for the iced coffee, but when we brew that as an espresso it may not have the same intensity to stand up to six ounces of milk.

As coffee lovers, we are very fortunate to have so many options in terms of the almost endless list of flavor profiles post-harvest processing can impart on a given coffee. Bottoms up!

All photography by Evan Gilman of Royal Coffee

For any lingering questions about coffee processing (or heck, anything coffee-related), feel free to reach out to our Education Lead, Johnny Randolph at johnny (@)