The Natural Process and its Influences on Taste & Flavor

The Natural Process and Its Influences on Taste & Flavor

Coffee is complex and a multitude of factors contribute to the flavor that ends up in your cup. Much like wine, the final flavor depends on the variety of tree grown, the agricultural conditions of the farm, and the coffee processing methods performed upon the beans post-harvest.

More than 100 coffee varieties exist, and each differs from one another in size, shape, and flavor. Certain varieties are common to specific geographies, or farmers may seek out and select varieties specifically for their flavor profiles or the resilience of the plants.

No matter which variety is cultivated, farmers must choose a processing method for their coffee. There are three primary methods to process the red cherries and extract the bean: 

  • Dry/Natural/Unwashed Process
  • Wash/Wet Process
  • Honey/Pulped Natural Process

Dry/Natural processed coffee beans are dried in the full cherry prior to the depulping (a mechanical separation of skin and pulp and before being placed to dry out-red). Post-harvest processing methods can vary based on geography and customs for handling coffee.

[Farmer: Ni Nyoman Ranki, Wayan Arca's mother, demonstrating washed/wet/full wash process at their farm in Kintamani, Bali, Indonesia.]

[Coffee Process: Honey processed beans or Gayo Manis Madu from the farm of Philipe Gunawan in Sumatra, Indonesia.]

[Coffee Process: Dry/natural process at the farm of Ketut Jati in Kintamani, Bali, Indonesia.]

Today, we will only focus on the natural process and discuss the other methods in the next article. Natural process, dry process, unwashed, or natural sundried all refer to the same method of processing that usually involves the coffee cherries being sun-dried in thin layers on brick, cement patios, or in raised drying beds with intermittent rotation. During this process, the entire cherry is left intact. They are raked or turned by hand at regular intervals, up to once every hour, to ensure that the cherries are uniformly dried. Depending on the weather conditions, it may require three to six weeks before theyare dried to their optimum moisture content. The dried pulps are then removed by machine to isolate the coffee beans. Sugars from the drying cherry imbue the coffee bean with sweetness and impart more soluble solids to the bean that amplify its body.

The soon-to-be coffee beans still nestled in the center absorb some of the characteristics of that sweet pulp and flavorful cherry skin, until the milling stage when the dried fruit and parchment layer surrounding the beans are hulled. While other processing methods require water to treat the cherry, the natural process, also known as dry process or dry natural, does not. This process is a more traditional method of processing coffee – in fact, it is the oldest way of processing coffee, often used in countries where rainfall is scarce and long periods of sunshine are available to dry the coffee properly. Coffees from Sulawesi, Brazil, Sumatra, and Yemen are dry-processed, as well as some from Ethiopia, Mexico, and Nicaragua. It is also very labor intensive, as the drying cherries need to be constantly raked, but advocates tout its lower environmental impact, as well as its unique flavor profile.

[Coffee Process: Ketut Jati processing coffee cherries harvested from his farm in dry/natural process in Kintamani, Bali, Indonesia.]

In recent years, the natural process has become more popular in places that traditionally fully wash their coffee as a way for farmers to add value to their coffee, thanks to the process distinct flavor profile. As mentioned, with the natural process, coffee cherries are dried with the fruit still intact, which allows more organic material to make its way from the coffee pulp into the seed (as clearly seen on the outside of unroasted natural process coffee).

The dry-process (when done well) produces coffee that is sweet, smooth, complex and heavy-bodied. It imparts a distinctive fruity flavor to the cup, often reminiscent notes of "citrus, lime acidity," or a strong "sweet, blueberry or strawberry like jam”.

[ Farmer: Ketut Jati representing natural or dry-process in his farm in Kintamani, Bali. ]

Naturally processed beans tend to have more fruity and fermented flavors because the seed has more time to interact with the natural sugars from the cherry as enzymes break down the mucilage around the bean. Generally, the natural process produces a heavier-bodied cup. However, these are also challenges linked to the natural process. If producers don’t carefully dry the harvest, turning them often and removing over-ripen then funky flavors will emerge in the roasted beans and it will taste dirty and over fermented.

The best natural processed coffees are dried on raised beds common to Africa, a quality practice that, over the past decade, has been disseminated across the globe. Processing the natural way can be riskier than other methods because if the beans are not dried carefully and evenly, the coffee can produce strong off-flavors known as "ferment." Haphazard processing can lead to "dirty" natural, meaning there is a chalky, lingering taste on the tongue.

This is why many exporting organizations who source from multiple smallholder farmers promote the washed process instead, where a producer removes the cherry immediately after harvest. In fact, the cherry pulp discarded after the washed process emits a rotting fruit odor as it decomposes, and that’s precisely what coffee pros try to avoid with naturals.

The vast majority of coffee producers will claim the virtue of their processing method. In Guatemala, for example, dry processing is a bad word and rightly so. Due to their high humidity, a dry processed coffee will almost definitely be fermented, which is why only their lowest grade coffees are dried without pulping.

Traditionally, for coffee origins where the washed or wet process is available, dry natural has inherited something of a stigma. In the past, farmers in many regions applied this process to the leftover coffee not suitable for export, so as not to waste time and resources on the added steps. Regardless, it's the oldest way of processing coffee, and the predominant method in some of the most well-known regions, Brazil and Ethiopia in particular.

[ Photographer: Christian Burri. ]

Only recently has the specialty coffee world begun to recognize the high-quality potential of the natural process, which is described as incredibly diverse, offering a fuller-bodied brew, with notes that can include tropical fruit, bergamot, black tea, and dry chocolate. Nonetheless, you don’t have to be a specialty coffee taster to detect the flavors that are evident in naturals because the flavor tends to be really strong and apparent.

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