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Part of a Process, Chapter III: Dry/Natural and Honey Process Coffee

 Pictured Above: Pre-sorted coffee cherries; dark, ripe cherries will be hand-selected to undergo the dry/natural process
Photo Credit: Ryan Lodge


Dry/Natural Process

At one point avoided because of perceptions of cloying sweetness, overly floral notes, and even vinegar-like fermented flavors, the dry or natural process is gaining ground in the specialty coffee industry by overcoming those stereotypes—in fact, well done dry processed coffee can be something balanced, complex, and delicious.

In undergoing the natural process, cherries are plucked from the shrub and then simply dried on patios or raised beds. In the case of Metric’s El Pilar Natural y Honey Hybrid, the natural lot is dried over twelve days. The coffee cherry is left on the bean throughout the entire drying process. Because the cherry stays intact, distinct flavors from the fruit are introduced to the bean. The bean itself interacts with natural microbes of the cherry that impart unique regional flavors, natural sugars, and fermented fruit tones naturals are known for as enzymes break down the mucilage. Before export, the cherry’s pulp and parchment are scrubbed mechanically from the bean.

Although ideal for drier climates, Central and South American countries are keen to master the natural process. It can prove to be very labor intensive, requiring manual sorting to sift out defects and careful attention in assuring drying occurs consistently and completely. Yet it can be done, and coffees like this El Pilar Natural y Honey prove that this processing is viable anywhere if enough work and attention are given to it. As the process gains traction, we can find natural processed coffees that have it all—balanced and unique fruit flavors working in tandem with the inherent flavors of the bean.  The trick is, just like with wet processed coffee, to do it well. It is yet another example of the forever changing nature of the coffee industry, and another reason why cupping everything with an open mind is important. 

 Pictured Above: Mill worker turning coffee cherries via the dry/natural process at Finca El Pilar
Photo Credit: Ryan Lodge

Pulped Natural/Honey Processed/Semi-dry

 Gaining popularity across Central and South America is the honey process. 

“Honey process” is an admittedly conflated term that refers to a process in which some outer layers remaining in contact with the bean during the drying process. Some grade honeying with how many outer layers are left to dry with the bean, and some grade honeying in terms of how often the bean is turned during the drying process, or in general how long the drying is managed (yellow, red, and black are terms referring to the length of time the bean is dried with the mucilage left on). Although terminology and definition of such terms differ across producers and roasters alike, the important part of the honey process is that some parts of the the sticky outer layers are left to ferment, lending an amplified acidity unique to both the region and the coffee. 

For Metric’s Guatemala El Pilar Natural y Honey Hybrid, select lots are honeyed to a “yellow,” with some skin of the cherry and a portion of the pulp being removed before being left to ferment and dry. These lots are blended in with with natural process coffees, and the result brews into a balanced yet vibrant brew. Pleasant wine-like acidity and strawberry notes come through beautifully, and showcase the best of natural and honey-processed coffees all in one cup.

Part of a Process, Chapter II: Wet/Washed Process Coffee

Pictured Above: Coffee cherries just about to begin the washing process
Photo Credit: Ryan Lodge

After the cherries are plucked from the branch at the peak of ripeness, they find their way to the mill. Each mill is unique, operating with different techniques and equipment. Community co-ops, families, and sometimes just a few individuals run a mill. Some use relatively costly tools like parabolic dryers, fermentation tanks, high-volume sorting and hulling machines. Other mills utilize traditional manpower and natural resources to process their coffee. But all techniques are aimed at producing a viable final product and all are valid ways of producing outstanding coffee. 

There are a few main ways coffee cherries are processed: the wet process (washed), the dry process (natural), and the pulped natural process (honey).

As a refresher, the coffee cherry is comprised of several layers. Moving from the inside out, it goes as follows: bean, silverskin, parchment, pectin layer, pulp, and the outside layer (skin) of the cherry. By the time the cherry arrives at the mill, we are at the point of getting down to the core—going from a red ripe cherry to green coffee beans ready for export.

Wet/Washed Process 

The idea of the washed method is to remove ALL layers of the cherry from the bean. Without the flavors of that cherry, what remains is solely the inherent flavors of the bean itself. Washed coffee aims to bring the essence of the bean front and center.

After arriving at the mill, the cherries are “pulped,” removing the pulp and the outside layer of the cherry from the rest. The remaining bean then undergoes a period of controlled fermentation to encourage remaining tissues to separate from the bean. Sometimes cherries are soaked in water over a period of hours or days. Alternatively, after resting through a fermentation period, some mills choose to mechanically scrub down the beans rather than soaking.  

After this rather intense and detailed process, the bean must be dried. Every mill has its own method of drying the beans. Some have large cement patios that have direct sunlight. The beans are attended to regularly and are flipped over with large rakes to even the drying process. Other mills employ parabolic dryers that loom over tracks of raised beds in a greenhouse-like setting.  Many use combinations of these methods depending on the coffee, and still others have entirely innovative approaches to the process. Whatever the method, atmospheric conditions and rigorous human attention are of utmost importance. Drying typically is complete between seven and ten days, and the beans are then hulled, sometimes polished, weighed out, bagged, and sold. 

Washed coffee benefits from a notable consistency. Defects are sorted out at several points throughout the process, and because the cherry is removed, there is nothing masking the flavors the bean possesses. The naturally occurring acidity and sweetness can come through with every complexity and nuance available to the palate.

Most of Metric’s coffee selections are washed, with our latest release being the Xenacoj y Pichol from Finca El Pilar in Guatemala. Producer Juan Carlos Chen specially processed and selected two lots and united them into blend that reminds us of toffee, dried fruits, and candied nuts. The careful attention to processing ensures that every cup is crisp and clean, and highlights the incredible quality of the bean.

Pictured Above: Washed coffee beans being turned in raised beds at Finca El Pilar
Photo Credit: Ryan Lodge