If you’ve ever purchased a bag of our coffee, you’ve probably seen information on the label about its processing method. Perhaps your favorite barista opined about the “best black honey Costa Rica” she had ever tasted. The terminology can be confusing, even for coffee nerds.
Taste It: There’s no better way to learn about processing than to get your tasting spoon dirty and compare differently processed coffees side-by-side. That’s exactly what we’ll be doing Saturday, June 25th, 2pm at the roastery. Check out the facebook event pagehere. We’ll have three coffees, all grown on the same farm, processed three different ways (washed, red honey & yellow honey). It’s a rare treat to be able to isolate so many variables and hone in on a single factor all by itself, so don’t miss it.
So what is processing? Simply put, it’s the way that the seed of the coffee fruit (what is commonly refereed to as the “bean”, is removed from its fleshy pulp and gooey layer of mucilage underneath. There are three primary ways of doing this:
The washed coffee process immediately removes the fruit from the seed with a mechanical de-pulper and then places the seeds in wet, open air tanks to remove the remaining mucilage layer via fermentation. The mucilage is very high in sugar, so wild yeast and other microbial life from the environment quickly go to work eating away at it, leaving only the seed and it’s hard outer casing, called “parchment”, intact. The coffee is then dried on patios, raised beds or in mechanical driers to lower the moisture content. After the coffee is fully dried, the parchment, the final layer surrounding the seed, is stripped mechanically.
Though they do undergo fermentation, washed coffees are typically low in fruity fermentation flavors. Washed is the most common processing method for specialty coffee in Central America (Costa Rica, Guatemala, etc.) and East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda). Our Yirgacheffe Kochere is a particularly exceptional example of this method.
Honey/Pulped Natural/Semi Washed
Honey coffees and all of their variations (white honey, black honey, red honey, etc.) are mechanically de-pulped, but the mucilage layer underneath is left remaining. The coffee is dried with the mucilage still intact or mostly intact, resulting in a very different fermentation process. The name “honey process” comes from the sweet smell and taste of the mucilage. Different colors of honey are achieved by leaving more mucilage (black honey) or less mucilage (white/yellow honey) on the coffee before putting it out to dry.
Honey processed coffees have more fruit influence than their washed counterparts. The pulped natural process was pioneered in Brazil, where the vast majority of specialty coffee exports are still processed this way. The name “honey” came into popularity as the method spread to Central America, where farmers called the mucilage “miel” (honey in spanish).
Natural processing, the oldest method, leaves the full coffee fruit intact when it is dried. The fruit dehydrates, shrivels and darkens in the hot sun (or, less ideally, a mechanical dryer) and then can be easily removed from the seed underneath with a little friction. The coffee ferments with the full fruit as fuel.
This method imparts a strong influence of fruit to the coffee and good examples of natural processing can have tasting notes of blueberry, strawberry, peach and more. Natural processing is the least resource intensive of all of the processing methods, as less water and specialized equipment are required. The process is used across practically every coffee growing region, but it is most characteristic of Ethiopian coffees, like our Sidama Ardi.
The way in which a coffee is processed is extremely influential to the resulting flavor profile. Try tasting all three methods on coffees from similar regions to experience the effects of each and determine what you love the most.
Writing this probably won't make me any friends but here it goes. Automated pour-over machines like this are one of the silliest things to ever strike our industry. I cannot possibly imagine a more roundabout way to brew a cup of automatic drip coffee. The thought process behind the invention seems to be that there is some kind of inherent "betterness" about pour-over coffee that transcends traditional understanding.
Here are my quick thoughts on why we brew pour-over coffee in our lab and yet I still dislike the automated version without experiencing cognitive dissonance.
Why Pour-overs are fantastic:
The theatrical effect. Hand brewing an individual cup of coffee for a customer as they watch is one of the most powerful ways to bring them into the experience.
In a light volume commercial environment, pour-over coffee can reduce waste without compromising quality.
Why traditional auto-drip machines or "batch brewers" are great:
Enclosed brew beds prevent heat loss.
High end shower heads provide even saturation of the grounds
You'll notice that automated pour-over machines don't really provide any of these benefits. Please feel free to put me in my place. This concludes my rant.
Good espresso is an elusive and flighty goal at the best of times, but even more so when extracted under the concentrated parameters that we (and most of the 3rd wave coffee movement) have subjected it to. Extraction ratios edging ever closer to 1:1 have given us punchy, aggressive shots, usually focused on highlighting a single flavor element. The nuanced, diversely fruited Ethiopians become strawberry bombs, the complex and clean Central Americans become chocolate fountains. It isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's easier to say, "this tastes like strawberries" than trying to communicate a more subtle and complex flavor profile. Indeed, some of the most memorable shop interactions we've ever had have been when a customer can actually taste a specific flavor in the espresso. This is made much easier when a single characteristic is front and center.
Unfortunately, however, I think it's like ripping out pages of a book to get a reader to focus on a specific chapter. The coffees that we source are without exception multi dimensional. While our Sidama Ardi Espresso is a mind-blowing explosion of strawberry, there's an entire extra layer of peach, jasmine, apricot and lemon that never came through. Our San Rafael Espresso is like biting into a snickers candy bar but hidden below the surface, orange zest, melon and maple lay dormant. It's a tragic waste, but I think a different approach to both our roast profiles and espresso parameters is the solution. In recent experimentation, we've found that lighter roast profiles coupled with extended extraction parameters open up a whole new spectrum of flavor characteristics in our espresso.
First off, this idea isn't new. Chatting with Lorenzo Perkins at a BGA event in 2012 challenged some of my preconceived notions of the necessity of the almost molasses-like body of the espresso I was pulling. His (slightly depressing) blog post made me start thinking about espresso in a more philosophical sense. The final nudge that made me venture out of my comfort zone was Tim Wendelboe's dramatically under-recognized post from earlier this month. Being locked in to the normale requirements while developing roast profiles for Patrick Burns and Andrew McCaslin to compete with in the Big Central Regional competition didn't hurt, either.
Starting in October, we will be relaunching Epoch Espresso as a roast profile instead of a blend. Coffees that we find to express themselves favorably through the portafilter will have an extra option on our website for the Epoch Profile. Epoch Espressos will be very lightly roasted and will flourish under longer extraction parameters. 18 grams in, 40 ml out will be the recommended starting point. This will allow us to paint with a broader palette. We'll be able to expand on the nuance and complexity of our coffees through this medium while keeping Spitfire Espresso and non-Epoch single origin espressos for those who like it up front and punchy. We're extremely excited about all of the possibilities that will open up from this project and we can't wait to hear feedback as we roll out Epoch Espressos.