There are two main processing methods, Washed using water and Natural or Dry processing. There is also honey processing, but for this article, we want to focus on the natural or dry processing method, as we have just launched a new single-origin from Burundi, and this happens to be an exceptionally well processed natural coffee.
There is often a rather heated debate on the flavor pros and cons of natural versus washed and there are many coffee lovers who have polarizing vocal opinions. Here we would like to introduce you to the "option" of considering whether you are a washed / natural or pure coffee lover.
What many people don't understand, is that the choice the farmer makes in which processing method to use, has zero to do with end flavors he is trying to achieve, as it is not uncommon for farmers to have never actually drunk their own coffee. The farmer rarely has a choice.
But rather it is all to do with processing the coffee so that they can sell it, and whether the region they are growing in has access to freshwater. Countries with tropical conditions and good rainfall will traditionally use the washed or wet process method. Countries, where water is a valuable commodity, will complete the processing method without water, using the dry or natural processing method. So, it's way more common to see dry-processed coffees coming out of Africa and washed coffees coming out of Central America for example, but that's a wild generalization.
There is much less cost to the farmer if she/he is naturally processing their coffee on their own farm, which is common, as they do not need to purchase pulpers and machinery, or have the electricity to run the equipment; or have to consider water usage or the management of their wastewater. But there is more that can go wrong.
With natural coffee, the cherry is picked off the tree when it is red and fully ripe, then washed in freshwater where any cherries that are "floaters" are separated and removed. The fruit (or coffee cherry) is then passively dried, often on a raised African drying bed, with the end goal being to separate the seed from the pulp and obtain a clean tasting, not fermented flavor. Once the coffee is dried to the desired moisture content (around 11 - 12%) the coffee can be bagged in the parchment and wait to be sold, as this keeps the coffee beans fresh. Once sold, it will be sent to a dry hulling mill where the seed is milled from the dried parchment and the beans are usually also polished, it will then make its way to a seaport for export.
To generalize, naturally processed coffees usually present with a heavier body, with bold ripe "jammy fruit" flavors (think red wine); while washed coffees are generally more clean, balanced, with vibrant acidity and lovely fruity sweetness (think white wine).
Naturally processed coffee processing is definitely retail-driven and becoming more accepted. I remember about 8 years ago it being more common for baristas competing in the World Barista Championships to use natural coffees in competitions. I also remember the first time I cupped a natural in Ethiopia that was not processed well, and I left that cupping table thinking all-natural coffees had that funky fermented taste which was not an immediate hit for me. We saw a lot more experimentation ourselves and it seemed to be the roasters that were asking the farmers and co-operatives to experiment with processing.
Dry processing coffee is actually harder to get right and the risks of defects are increased so there is definitely more risk for the farmer - but, if he pays attention to all the details and he knows he has a customer like us willing to buy it, it is becoming more common to be able to source exceptional naturals.
Our new natural is a Red Bourbon variety from the Ngozi region in Burundi. They do have water here and the producer also has washed coffees, but he has chosen to naturally process this coffee. All the conditions are right, and we are so excited to have found this coffee. It presents with rich dark aromatic spices, predominant flavors of dark chocolate and plum jam, and if acidity isn't your thing and you like a big body, please try this coffee, it makes an excellent espresso!