Understanding the Process: Part 1 Natural/Dry

We begin the new series on coffee processing methods by studying the process that is natural.



Images by Sarah Allen

It’s a common belief that coffee tastes the same way: dark or bitter and without a distinct flavor. However, there’s more to coffee, and the flavor is determined by many different aspects: origin country and varieties, processing techniques, and roasting method, to give a few examples. This series will examine different methods of processing and fermentation methods employed by producers of coffee.

Let’s discover the first kind, the natural process.

Natural Process Basics

The natural (or dry ) process is the most ancient and possibly the most intuitive method of processing coffee. It doesn’t require any machinery and can be performed by hand. After the harvest, coffee cherries are spread out in thin layers and then dried in the sun for between two and six weeks. Traditionally the coffee cherries were laid out over the earth, however now they can be placed on raised tables, beds, or bricks or even cement squares.

When they reach ripeness red and are taken from the trees, natural-processed coffees are dried with their fruits on them. After they’ve dried and have the consistency of raisin they are picked manually, or — in Brazil which is where this process is commonplace–by automated harvesters.

After the cherries are laid outin the trays, they remain there for the duration of the drying process. Then, the human hand interferes: to slow down the natural fermentation process and decrease the possibility of rot or mold the cherries need to be rotated frequently. Once the coffee is dried the remaining husk and fruit are removed mechanically, and the coffee can be stored or ready to be shipped.

What is the Natural Process affects flavor

Although the flavor of coffee is dependent on a variety of factors but we can draw some common characteristics of the beans that are processed naturally. Whatever their origin they are typically heavy and rich in body. The process usually imparts fruity notes, due to the long-lasting interaction of the natural sugars and beans. Common notes include blueberry, strawberry or tropical fruit. The natural process can produce flavors that are described (especially by its most vocal critics) in terms that are sour, such as wild fermented, barnyard.

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Once harvested, dry/natural-processed cherries are laid out on patios or raised beds, as seen here.

Why should you use the Natural Process?

Producers might decide not to use the traditional method for a variety of reasons. First , the process isn’t always predictable and result in less consistency in the coffee flavor and more difficulties in replicating flavors from the past harvests. This unpredictable nature increases the chance of waste caused by mold and other flaws that could reduce the income of the producer. Natural fermentation is also more expensive due to the higher costs for labor, as the lengthy and laborious procedure of constantly raking and turning the cherries demands extra attention and manpower.

It’s also crucial to remember that natural processes are only appropriate for dry regions. In Kenya for instance there are two distinct rain seasons and two harvest times. The main crop that is harvested between October and December, and the first crop that occurs between May and July occur during the rainy season which makes natural fermentation difficult to use in the region.

The cherries were picked by a harvester that is mechanical and will be processed at the mill to get rid of leaves and sticks.

A Process that can bring the Best

Why do we opt for the natural method? The main reason is that it performs well in dry areas with limited water resources, or in areas in which it is difficult to get access to wet mills. Natural processes can also be more beneficial to the environment as it doesn’t require a huge amount of electricity or water either, both of which are essential in large amounts to run wet mills.

Natural fermentation, once often used for less expensive coffees is now gaining recognition. Due to the distinctive sweetness that natural fermentation produces it is now seen as an opportunity to demonstrate the potential of the harvest of coffee.

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About the Author

Tanya Nanetti (she/her) is a barista for specialty coffee who is a traveler as well as a dreamer. When she’s not in front of the machine (or exploring a hidden area of the globe) she’s writing articles for Coffee Insurrection which is a website dedicated to specialty coffees that she’s created with her boyfriend.

This article was first published at Barista Magazine, an online magazine dedicated to baristas and coffee professionals.

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