Coffee Tasting Coffees, Washed Coffees - Part #1
We’re continuing our deep dive into the factors that separate different coffees in the hope that it will aid you on your coffee educational journey and help you make more informed coffee purchasing decisions. We’ve already looked at coffee varietals, which are the differences in the coffee beans themselves, and here we’re exploring the next stages of the journey between harvesting and exporting coffee - coffee processing.
Coffee processing - does it matter?
You’ll commonly see the processing information as a descriptor on coffee bags, on the menu at your favourite coffee shop or as one of the coffee subscription settings that you're able to personalise when you subscribe with GUSTATORY. For example, you may one time read 'medium-roast, washed Colombian coffee' in which you may be then thinking ‘...wait, this coffee has been washed? Who's washing what here, for what purpose? What's an un-washed coffee anyway?’ - is this detail necessary? In short, yes, it is if you'd like to enjoy and get the most out of your coffee, but no, this isn't about your laundry or dishes.
There are a few different processing methods and we’ll be covering three (part #1: washed coffees, part #2: natural coffees, part #3: honey processed coffees), but to begin, we’ll start with the washed coffee method given this is perhaps the most common one and is hugely popular in the speciality coffee industry.
Washed coffees - an introduction
Also known as ‘wet’ coffee, the washed method is the process of removing the fruit, which encapsulates the coffee bean as it grows, before the beans are dried. Given this act of removing the fruit, it comes at no surprise that a common descriptor for washed coffee is ‘clean’ tasting. With the fruit being washed away before the drying process, it ensures as little of the natural sugars and flavours from the fruit seep into the bean, thus providing as little influence on the end taste as possible. The result is the truest taste of the coffee bean, whereby all the notes associated with the varietal and origin can be fully discerned in the taste. In fact, you’ll commonly see the washed processing method used for varietals with a complex flavour profile as it’s imperative that all the tasting notes and subtleties are preserved in the cup.
Part of the processing journey is a period of fermentation where the coffee is allowed to rest and develop. Fermentation can be up to 24 hours and it’s a variable that can directly impact the taste. In the washed processing method, as the fruit has already been removed by this point, it’s easier for farmers to replicate a taste from batch to batch. Other processes involve fermenting the coffee with the fruit still intact, and such a short fermentation timeframe for washed coffees is so to provide as controlled a process as possible - as we will cover in the natural process, 24 hours is in stark contrast to the timeframes, and indeed control, utilised there. What with washed coffees only having a short 24 hour window, there are generally less inconsistencies between batches to develop. It is due to these such inconsistencies that the other processing types at one time became less favourable and washed coffee quickly began to assert its dominance with producers.
Washed coffees - the best of the best?
This brings us to the thought you may now have, ‘...if washed coffees are so consistent and clean-tasting, then why process coffee in any other ways?’ To answer this, we think there are two main factors. Firstly the other processes bring about different characteristics and for these, we will cover in each of their seperate articles. As for the second primary reason, we need to consider the environmental impact of washed processing. Washed processing has often been scrutinised for being wasteful due to the volumes of water used during the process. Unfortunately, the waste water isn’t always discarded safely, which, in many of these economically-underdeveloped countries, leads to both a social and environmental impact that can’t be ignored. Could that water be better used elsewhere to help communities? It’s certainly a contentious point and one that perhaps needs more investigation. On this, for a brief overview on the environmental impacts of coffee and what is being done to combat these impacts, please do check out our earlier insight on how environmentally clean is your coffee cup?. We’ll look to build on this in the coming months as there is certainly more to said from us.
As above, washed coffees can be considered the truest taste of the coffee bean, and with this, the best of coffee varietals that are washed will bring about really genuine flavours - think clear, definitive tastes akin to the environment that the coffee has been grown in. By this, washed coffees grown in high altitudes will be distinctly delicate and floral, whilst those in lower altitudes distinctly chocolatey. Whilst many say that such trueism means that the best of coffees tend to be washed, in contrast there is also the opinion that natural and honey processed coffees are often more interesting and funkier tasting for some coffee drinkers. Other nuance processing methods do also exist too, thermal shock, carbonic maceration etc, and we add 'for some' in the previous claim as many coffee drinkers simply do not like funky coffees, whilst others love them - it's all personal choice.
Customise your coffee subscription
Lo and behold, whichever type you may prefer, you may use the above mentioned coffee subscription settings when subscribing to GUSTATORY to ensure you receive the coffees that you know you'll love and avoid those you'd rather not receive. We know, all so good, right?
In summary, the washed processing method provides unrivalled consistency and clean-tasting coffee. That being said, due to the more unpredictable nature of other processing types, these are often supported by more stringent approaches to quality assurance. Alternative methods are, therefore, by no means inferior, but please do read more on these in our part #2 and part #3 articles.
GUSTATORY (adjective): curating excellence in taste.