Natural coffee is the oldest method of processing coffee in the world. In fact, it accounts for the vast majority of Brazilian commodity coffee, as the country’s weather is perfect for such processing. Now, however, the scene is shifting. Natural, or dry processed, coffee is becoming seen as a specialty product, with coffee drinkers asking for it and more farmers producing it. But what’s the fuss about, and why is this market shift happening?
After coffee is harvested from the tree, it must be processed - and this is normally done in one of three ways.
Fully washed coffee, as the name suggests, involves water. Whole coffee cherries are soaked in water, with the good berries sinking, and those of an inferior quality rising to the top for easy removal. The good cherries, still in the water, are then pressed through a screen to remove the skins and some of the pulp, with one of two further processed being used to remove the remaining pulp. The cherries are either fermented with microbes to break down the cellulose before being washed further, or undergo machine-assisted wet processing - or being mechanically scrubbed in water - to reveal the beans.
The semi-washed or “pulped natural” process involves mechanical removal of the outer skin, after which the beans coated with mucilage - the pulp of the fruit - are stored for up to a day. The mucilage is then washed off before the beans are left to dry in the sun. Read more on the difference between fully and semi-washed coffee here.
Naturally processed coffee, however, uses no water whatsoever. It’s a labour of love: cherries are handpicked when at exactly the right stage of ripeness, often by winnowing them in a large sieve. They are then spread out in the sun to dry and turned on a regular basis to ensure even drying, for up to four weeks, before being hulled by machine: it’s a far slower process.
Traditionally, natural processing is conducted out of necessity rather than choice: it’s the method used by farmers without ready access to water. It’s not without its risks, either: natural coffee is prone to spoilage and rot. This is because it relies heavily on the weather: temperature and humidity levels are everything for dry processed coffee - get that wrong and the cherries will either ferment or rot. This and the lack of specialist equipment needed mean that it gained a reputation as a commodity, lower quality product: virtually all of the coffee produced in Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of coffee, is natural coffee.
Now, however, things are changing. Specialty coffee farmers are turning their hand to naturals. The process itself hasn’t changed - it’s a very basic means of processing - but even in places such as Burundi and the south of Ethiopia, where rain can affect processing, specialty natural coffees are starting to come to the fore. An increase in fruity flavours that are often developed throughout the natural process are finding favour in the 3rd wave coffee scene. The increase in popularity of pour-over brew methods work well with light, fruity and natural coffees. The past, present and future of natural coffee was a topic discussed at the 2015 New York Coffee Festival. Timothy Hill of Counter Culture Coffee spoke about current practices in natural processing and his positivity about the future, with coffee farmers striving hard to improve both consistency and quality. Five Brazilian producers also made the cut in the 2015 Cup of Excellence - Naturals awards.
While the process remains the same, the cupping scores for a natural coffee can easily be increased by better sorting of the cherries to ensure only those of a high enough quality are dried. Mechanical harvesters can be calibrated to pick only the cherries that are hanging the most loosely on the branches, while Brazilian equipment manufacturer Pinhalense has also created a machine to separate beans based on their density, leading to a better cup profile for natural coffees.
Others are making improvements to the drying process itself. In Ethiopia, for example, cherries are traditionally dried on mats on the ground, leading to the possibility of contamination of flavour by dirt, and an increased risk of mould because of a lack of air circulation. Today, some farmers are using raised beds, which resolve both of these issues.
As water scarcity becomes more of a problem across the globe, could we see further advances in dry processed coffee in the future? According to Dr Flavio Borem in his talk at Symposium 2015, each bag of washed coffee requires around 3,240 litres of water (which would be a tank around 1.5m high, 1.8m in diameter) to process - much of which will end up as waste water. Droughts are a huge problem for the coffee industry - in fact, washed coffee is illegal in some parts of Ethiopia because it uses so much water - so specialty dry processed beans seem like a natural solution. We’re certainly enjoying the natural revolution here at DR Wakefield, with these coffees, which are often sweet, smooth, complex and heavy-bodied, taking pride of place in our current stock list. With consumer demand on the rise, have you thought about roasting naturals?
Want to learn more about the difference between coffee processing methods? Find out more on our blog.