Coffee Basics: Processing – What is the difference between natural sundried and washed processes?

Drying sundried coffee
As you might imagine, at Counter Culture Coffee, we talk about coffee a lot. We’re passionate and sometimes use industry terms to convey complicated concepts. That said, we also want to make sure that we talk about coffee in a way that anyone can understand. To that end, we’ve started a new series that aims to shed light on coffee subjects in an accessible way.

The first entry in our new Coffee Basics series is about the two most common processes for removing the coffee bean or the “seed,” from the coffee fruit or “cherry.” We’ll delve into the differences between two commonly used processes and how they affect the flavor of the coffee. As we talk about this, we’ll reference the different parts of the coffee cherry: the skin or pulp, mucilage, parchment, and the seed or what most people refer to as the bean, so here’s a helpful diagram that shows the different components inside a coffee cherry.


How is coffee processed, and what are the types of processes?

Because coffee seeds (commonly referred to as “beans”) grow inside fruit that grows on trees, there are multiple steps involved before we get to the actual coffee seed that we roast, grind, brew, and drink.
After the fruit from the coffee trees is harvested, the cherries have to be processed to remove the skin and pulp from the seed. To do this, there are two main processes: washed and natural sundried.


The Natural Sundried Process

Natural process, dry process, unwashed, or natural sundried all refer to the same method of processing that usually involves drying coffee cherries either patios or raised beds in the sun. To prevent the cherries from spoiling, they are raked and turned throughout the day and then covered at night or during rain storms. This process, which can take 3-6 weeks normally, is the more-traditional method of processing coffee. This process of drying the cherries out in the sun originated in places without reliable access to water and usually works best in areas with low humidity and infrequent rain — such as parts of Ethiopia and Yemen — although we do have some farmers using the natural process in other places.

After the cherries have been dried to the optimum level, they are sent to mills to separate the seeds from the rest of the dried fruit, otherwise known as being “hulled.”


The Washed Process

The second process is the washed or wet process. In this method, the cherries are removed from the seeds before the drying process. To do this, the cherries are first sorted to ensure consistent ripeness levels, and then are run through depulpers—machines that squeeze the cherries until the seeds pop out. Then the seeds and skins are separated, and the seeds move into tanks where they go through either a ferment-and-wash method or a machine-assisted wet process to remove the rest of the mucilage—the remaining fruit—to clean the seeds before they are dried.

In a ferment-and-wash process, the remaining mucilage is broken down by microbes and yeast via fermentation and then is washed with water again to remove the mucilage from the seeds. In a machine-assisted process, the cherries are mechanically scrubbed and most of the mucilage of the seen is removed through friction. After the seeds are washed, they are dried in the sun on patios, raised beds, or in machines.


How do these different processes result in different flavors of coffee?

Because the seeds of natural sundried processed coffee are encased in the cherry for longer, the resulting flavors from this process are generally more fruity and fuller-bodied. The natural sugars in and around the seed are infused into it during this process and result in a higher sugar content than washed coffees.

Washed coffees, on the other hand, result in flavors more inherent to the bean itself, rather than the pulp and skin.


How can I tell which coffees are natural sundried and which are washed when buying Counter Culture coffee?

In the middle of each product page for our coffees, there is a section between roast levels and “additional notes” that shows the process that was used for that particular coffee. For natural sundried coffees, it will also be printed on the front of the box or bag under the name of the coffee.

At the end of the day, we love the coffees that result from both processes. We hope you do too and are able to taste the differences—and that you’re able to explore and talk about coffee in a new way.