How do you take your coffee? Two creams, a dozen sugars? Nine splendas? Lots of high fructose corn syrup in that latte? Or are you more of a purist that loves the delicate nut and chocolate notes of a Guatemalan? How about the sweet caramel finish of the best straight espresso shot in town? Well, before you can drink up Joe in any method, coffee beans have to be removed from the cherry. Even organic coffee. That is done in a couple of ways depending on the country of origin and it is called processing. In addition to the growing region's effect on cup taste, each method of processing helps to give the bean a distinct flavor profile in the overall final taste of the coffee.
The wet process is the process in which the fruit is removed from the seeds (beans) before they are dried. The wet process method is also called washed coffee. In this method the fruit is removed in water and the beans are usually dried on patios in the sun.
Wet processed coffees are like those from South America, Colombia and some from Ethiopia. Most Central Americans like Guatemalan and Costa Rican are wet-processed as well. These coffees are cleaner, brighter, and fruitier. Most countries with coffee valued for its perceived acidity, will process it using the wet-process.
The dry process is another method, also known as unwashed or natural process. It is the oldest method of processing green coffee beans where the entire cherry is cleaned and then placed in the sun to dry on tables or in thin layers on patios, completely intact and the dried cherry is removed after it has dried. This will give the coffee a sweeter taste due to the fruit drying intact.
Most of the coffees produced in Brazil, Ethiopia and India use the dry method. In rainy areas however, it is not practical. However, there are many characteristics that are directly related to the way these coffee beans are processed as well. Dry-processed coffees are like those from Indonesia, Ethiopia, Brazil, and Yemen. The dry-process (also known as the natural method) produces coffee that is heavy in body, sweet, smooth, and complex. This processing method is often used in countries where rainfall is scarce and lots of sunny days are available to dry the coffee properly.
Another method used in Brazil mainly but also used on some farms in Sulawesi, Indonesia and Sumatra. These are known as semi-dry processed coffee (aka pulped natural or semi-wet process). The coffee is prepared by removing the outer skin of the cherry and drying the coffee with the sticky mucilage and the inner skins still clinging to the bean.
As for the pulped natural method of processing coffee beans, eliminating the fermentation stage that removes the silver skin allows for a coffee that has both wet and dry characteristics. Therefore, more sweetness than wet-processed coffees, some of the body of dry-processed and some of the acidity of a wet-processed coffee. This type of processing only happens in countries where there is relatively low humidity and the coffee can be dried rapidly without fermenting. The country that has made this process famous is Brazil. FYI fermentation occurs when the inner slimy mucilage is removed before drying. Pulped coffee beans are put into cement fermentation tanks with water where they are allowed to ferment for 16-36 hours.
Usually re-passed cherries, or floaters as they are also called are discarded but some particularly have a flavor profile that is sweeter than most pulped coffees. These particular cherries float in the water during wet-processing because they have dried too long on the tree before being collected allowing the bean to stay in contact with the mucilage for a longer amount of time before fermentation begins. These are sometimes called raisins as well. This method may be considered a fourth method of processing coffee. However, these coffees are usually very limited.
Now before you go gaga and pull up to the local Starbucks for a taste test, get real! You won't find anything near cupping quality at the green giant. You have to go to a quality independent coffee shop or roaster of gourmet coffee beans. Most of these places are your local independent coffee house. And if you drink your coffee black you are ready to go! You can really pick out the flavor profiles of any coffee when you drink it in its natural state. If you are one to drown your brew in cream and sugar or are a vanilla latte junkie forget about it! You won't taste anything but sugar. Drowning the coffee will not let the natural flavors be enjoyed and savored.
There are natural sugars inside coffee beans just waiting to come alive. This is what the roasting process does. As the bean heats from the inside, the sugars naturally caramelize and permeate the surface. The degree of sweetness and other flavors are directly related to the length of the roasting period. That is why dark (French) roasted coffees usually taste burnt. Dark=burnt coffee sugars. Get it? In order to get every nuance and note out of a coffee, it must be cupped. That is, 'slurped' from a spoon. By doing this, the coffee has a chance to literally cover the inside of your mouth and tongue therefore engulfing your taste buds. There really is not a better way to test coffee.
Basic coffee tasting terminology is:
Acidity - This is a pleasant tartness that is you can taste on the back of your palate. It should be distinguished from sour, or an unpleasant sharpness. An acidy coffee is almost like a dry wine.
Aftertaste -The sensation that is experienced after the coffee is swallowed. It is also known as the finish.
Balance- It means that no one quality overwhelms all others, but there is enough complexity in the coffee to arouse interest.
Body- The overall mouth feel. This is the sense of heaviness, richness, and thickness at the back of the tongue when you swish the coffee around your mouth.
Flavor -Acidity has something to do with flavor, and so do aroma and body. Some coffees just have a richer, fuller flavor than others, whereas other coffees have an acidy tang that tends to dominate everything else
Even if you are not planning to 'cup' coffee as we professionals do, you will get more out of your cuppa Joe by drinking it black. So, give yourself a treat sometime and try coffee black if you never have. If you have and didn't care for it, chances are you did not have high quality Arabica coffee beans for your brew! You can't find the true flavor characteristics of a coffee bean unless you use the high quality stuff! Go to your local independent coffee shop and ask to talk about their whole bean selection. They may just have some amazing coffees. Some local coffee houses are doing coffee tastings (cuppings) nowadays. It seems to be an in thing. Try it sometime!
Tony DiCorpo is a coffee roaster, barista and coffee business consultant. He has authored many articles on coffee and the coffee business. Tony has extensive experience in business and collectively more than 20 years experience in sales, business management, entrepreneurship and the coffee business.