Natural vs. Washed Coffees

Men raking green coffee beans through troughs of water

Coffee is our passion. From meeting the farmers who grow the beans to our small-batch roasting process, we love bringing quality, fair trade coffee to your table to share with those you love.

Everyone has their preferred flavour profiles when drinking specialty and organic coffee, but those tasting notes don’t just come from the type of beans or how it’s brewed. There’s actually so much more to it — including the fermenting process. 

Prepare yourself for some serious coffee knowledge!

After growing in optimal conditions, coffee cherries are picked by farmers and fermented to extract the flavour from the coffee bean. Two of the more common types of fermentation used by coffee farmers are the washed and natural processes.

But before we explain the difference between these two processes, it’s essential to understand the layers of a coffee cherry. The actual coffee bean is encased in many different layers, including skin, mucilage, and parchment. 

Washed Coffees

Fully washed coffees are the most common type of fermentation. Farmers extract the seed of a coffee cherry from all the different layers by using a type of thresher called a depulper.

Man pouring red coffee cherries into green depulper
Close-up hand holding red coffee cherry with some pulp removed exposing green bean

It’s then placed in a large vat filled with other coffee seeds and water and ferments in the open air, gaining access to free, wild yeast. During this process, the starches break down into sugars until the coffee flavour comes alive.

Green coffee beans ferment in large wooden pools filled with water
Coffee beans spread out to dry in sun

Washed coffees are the coffees you know and love as they provide a consistently cleaner, brighter cup of coffee.

Natural Coffees

Natural coffee fermentation isn’t commonly done, but it’s the oldest method of processing coffee. There are a few different ways of naturally fermenting, but to keep things simple, we’ll discuss the most traditional method called a “full natural.”

This dry process occurs when farmers harvest and dry the ripest coffee without removing the fruit first. In a washed coffee, we mentioned that coffee seeds are stripped from the fruit and access yeast in the open air. However, with natural coffees, the coffee seed accesses the same wild yeast naturally from the fruit and skin of the cherry. Once it’s fully dried, the seed is separated, bringing out a complex, full-flavoured, often fruity, taste to the coffee.

Closeup on coffee cherries laid out in sun to ferment

This method requires farmers to take great care throughout the entire process, and more often than not, we see this in countries with little-to-no access to freshwater sources. It must be closely monitored as any coffee that takes on mould can ruin the entire batch.

It’s important to note that natural coffees provide a very different flavour than the average coffee drinker is used to. These coffees genuinely take on such a complex flavour compound that it can be a surprise for people to find such a new taste to coffee. Many people love drinking natural coffee, especially after they get to know the deeply complex flavour. However, a lot of people find the flavour extremely off-putting and, as a result, choose to drink only washed coffee after that.

Talking about natural versus washed coffee can start quite the conversation between specialty coffee lovers. And for those who really want to delve into the coffee world, there are a variety of fermentation processes the coffee industry has started playing with — such as closed fermentation, commonly seen in craft beer brewing, and yeast strain inoculation, something wine aficionados will recognize. 

It’s also important to note that there are many coffees on the spectrum in between washed and natural. You can also find Pulped Natural (semi-washed) coffee and Honey Processed (mostly washed) coffee. This is a lot of information to take in, we know, but we’re passionate about coffee and want to share our knowledge with you!

Level Ground consistently offers mainly washed coffees. However, we’re always on the hunt for fantastic quality natural coffees that fit both our taste and sourcing practices and will typically try to have one natural coffee. When they come across our palate, we’re always happy and proud to share these specialty coffees with you.

Newer post