Washed vs. Unwashed Coffee: Comparing Wet & Dry Coffee Processing MethodsCLICK HERE to subscribe to our weekly emails on finding and brewing amazing coffee!
Whether it’s a bag of grounds from the store or fresh from your favorite shop, the coffee you drink comes a long way before it hits your cup.
When farmers are harvesting the coffee, it can go through several different processing methods. The top two methods of preparation are “washed” and “unwashed.”
Keep reading to find out more about these different methods, and why they matter to you and your brew. Each of these methods brings its own strengths and weaknesses to the table and can greatly impact the flavor of your coffee long before it reaches your French Press or drip coffee maker.
To Bean or Not to Bean?
First, it is important to understand what the coffee bean is and how it is prepared. And here’s the kicker–coffee isn’t actually a bean. It’s a fruit.
The “Bean” Breakdown
Coffee resembles a cherry-like fruit that is usually a red or yellow on the outside. On the inside are two seeds (which are the actual “beans”) that are surrounded by a soft layer of mucilage and a thin skin known as parchment. Once the “cherry” is harvested, the seeds must be separated from the cherry without losing the aroma that is contained within the mucilage.
However, this is easier said than done. Over time, different ways of achieving this extraction have developed to best separate the inner seeds from the fruit. This is where the different processes come into play.
Methods of Processing Coffee
Knowing a little bit about these processes can help you understand the variations between coffee flavor and quality. It can also help you predict, compare, and critique how some coffee could or should taste.
Also known as the “wet process,” the coffee cherry is pulped by a machine, removing the red or yellow outer skin of the cherry. Once this is done, the seeds with their mucilage (the gummy, pasty, substance that surrounds the seeds and gives coffee its sweet flavor) are then fermented in water for 1-2 days, or sometimes longer.
Fermentation releases the sugars and amino acids within the mucilage layer. This is what creates the delicious flavor of the coffee. How long the fermentation process is affects how much the mucilage layer breaks down and how strong the flavor of the coffee can be.
Of all the coffee processing methods, the washing method is the most common and often produces the highest quality coffee. However, it requires a lot of skill and water in order to perform correctly. Some of the world’s finest (and often most expensive) coffees are created through this process.
Known as “natural coffee processing” or the “dry process,” this is the oldest preparation method, and has been in use for hundreds of years. Farmers then place coffee cherries on a flat surface where they are then washed dried in the sun. This process normally takes about 2-6 weeks, and the beans are raked and rotated so that they roast evenly.
Once the seeds have dried, they are then removed from the cherry. The removal of the seeds is the most difficult step in this method because it’s difficult to perform and control. However, coffee producers around the world use this method more often because this strategy is slightly easier than the washing method.
This method is most popular in locations with low humidity, low rainfall, or an undependable access to water.
The semi-washed method is exactly what it sounds like. This is a more modern, hybrid method, combining aspects of both the washed and unwashed methods. First, machines remove the outer skins and the beans are exposed to dry in the sun. Once the drying process is complete, farmers store the seeds for about 24 hours and then dry them.
The preparation of the coffee influences its taste. The method in which the coffee beans are processed is the largest contributing factor to the flavor of the coffee we make every day.
This is a relatively new process in the coffee-community. This often creates a bean that is much cleaner and brighter and tastes much fruitier than the unwashed method. If you prefer your coffee to be a little more on the acidic side, finding a bean prepared using the washed method is essential.
The unwashed method creates a coffee that is heavy in body but remains sweet, smooth, and complex. In many cases, countries that have very dry climates like Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Brazil use this method. The large amount of sunlight in these areas helps to dry the beans effectively.
The general consensus is the unwashed method produces a bolder coffee with more body and increased complexity, while the washed method produces a much more acidic coffee with enhanced clarity. Beans created using the semi-washed process are an attempt to combine the best of both worlds of the two methods, often giving a bolder coffee with increased acidity when compared to the other methods.
Some will prefer the fruitier tastes that the washed method brings while others will enjoy the sweeter full body coffees created by the unwashed method. At the end of the day, both the washed and the unwashed methods can create a truly amazing coffee that provides enough body and flavor to impress even the most critical of coffee aficionados.
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