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Natural coffee: Fresh and funky, or too much of a good thing?

Love it or hate it, natural coffee is produced using the oldest method of processing coffee that there is.

Ultimately, it is the way in which coffee cherries – once picked – are processed which will heavily influence the cupping profile of the beans.

The cherries can either be wet processed (washed), dry processed (unwashed) or a mix of the two (semi-washed). Natural beans are the ones that are not washed, or dry processed.

It is often used in countries where there is not a great deal of rainfall throughout the year, combined with long periods of sunshine, as the climate lends itself far better to drying out the beans. 

Processing the cherries

Once the cherries are picked, they need to be sorted and cleaned – not only to get rid of any organic debris that may have been harvested with the cherries, but also to remove any cherries that aren't up to standard.

Sometimes washing channels are used to filter out the good beans from the bad ones, as the unripe ones will float to the top and can be easily picked out.

Then, they are spread out in the sun to dry – perhaps on large patios or sometimes on raised platforms at waist height – with the coffee raked and turned to ensure an even and thorough drying process. This may take as long as four weeks.

After this, they are stored before being hulled (to remove the outer layers of the now-dried cherry), sorted, graded, bagged and shipped – at which point they come through our door and the trading process is complete.

A delicate process

While this may seem infinitely simpler than wet processing or the semi-washed method, it is just as meticulous and must be very carefully managed. 

If the coffee is over-dried then the beans will become brittle and likely break in the hulling process which comes afterwards. If the harvest is not sufficiently dried, moist beans can be equally devastating as they may spoil and will be far more prone to becoming mouldy or ruined with fungi and bacteria.

Equally, with the beans dried while still within the fruit, it can be difficult to sort them and ascertain which ones are either unripe or have been excessively dried. For this reason, processors have to be extra careful when looking out for inconsistencies before moving to the next stage.

Once cupped

As with all coffee, trying to define whether or not a particular flavour, aroma or blend is better than another is a fairly impossible task. This is because it is entirely subjective. While an acidic, citrus coffee may be right up somebody's street, another person may prefer one that is more mellow.

Similarly, some people reserve a special place in their hearts for natural coffees; others, a not-so-special spot in the back of their cupboard.

Natural coffees tend to produce a flavour profile that presents a heavier, fuller body, with sweet and smooth aromas. One of the defining features of an unwashed coffee is an overwhelming berry flavour. This is because the beans are dried while still within the cherry.

This is what tends to be the main bone of contention between tasters – is this a good thing or one to turn your nose (and palate) up at? Are naturals nicer or is the cleaner, smoother cupping profile of a semi-washed or wet-processed bean more preferable?

DR Wakefield trader Phil Searle is a fan of naturals – but more so in the afternoons. "It's great to get some really lovely fruity flavours," he says.

"It's an acquired taste but really keeps the industry interesting. It's funky and unusual and sometimes needs to be explained that that's what it's supposed to taste like," he added, saying that it tends to be younger generations who find this variety of coffee "exciting".

Meanwhile, our managing director Simon Wakefield seems to be less keen than Phil. Having learnt in Papua New Guinea that coffee that is too fruity could be fermented, he says: "For me personally, a lot of the naturals are too close to this for comfort! It's a coffee which I can manage half a cup of but no more – the really intense fruit flavours are too much to enjoy."

So, it would appear that the jury's out – and that it is unlikely a definitive verdict is going to be returned any time soon.