Washed vs Natural Coffee

Washed vs Natural Coffee
Photo by Delightin Dee / Unsplash

Washed coffees often taste “clean” and mildly sour, whereas natural coffees taste "fruity" and sweet.

If you drink coffee and you're a little familiar with the coffee bean, then you already know about light roasts and dark roasts. But can you taste the difference between a washed coffee bean and a natural coffee bean?

Choosing between washed vs natural coffee depends on whether you enjoy flavor profiles that are more mild and smooth, or coffees that are fuller-flavored and fruit-forward. The versatile coffee plant is filled with complex flavors, and when processed differently, they can change the coffee flavor completely.

Our recommendation is to go with a washed coffee if you’re looking for something sweet and consistent, and to try natural processed coffees when you’re seeking something surprising and complex.

What is Washed vs Natural Coffee Processing?

Photo by Dang Cong

Washed vs natural refers to how coffee turns from a fruit into dried coffee seeds that are ready for roasting. Coffee is a cherry-like fruit that typically contains one to two seeds encased in pulp and a sticky, sugary membrane called mucilage. The mucilage and pulp layers together form the fleshy “fruit” layer of coffee cherry.

Photo by Cherry & Leaf

Washed and natural are the two most popular coffee processing methods to turn a coffee cherry into a green coffee seed that's ready for roasting. Both processes use fermentation and drying to impart flavor into the dried coffee seed, and ultimately into the final cup.

What is Washed Coffee Processing?

In washed coffee processing, coffee farmers mechanically separate the pulp from the seeds of harvested coffee cherries. After the seeds are fermented, farmers flush the coffee seeds with water to further remove any mucilage left on the seeds, hence the term “washed” process. Washed process coffees are then dried before being bagged and exported to roasters. The entire coffee process occurs in four steps:

  1. Depulping
  2. Fermentation
  3. Washing
  4. Drying

1. Depulping

Freshly picked coffee cherries are funneled into a machine with gears that squeeze the cherries, separating the seeds from their fruit. These machines can be powered by a motor, but are often hand-cranked. Depulping results in coffee seeds that are mostly separated from their fruit, but are still wrapped in sugary mucilage.

2. Fermentation

Following depulping, coffee seeds are added to a fermentation tank for fermentation. Coffee farmers can monitor and control the level of fermentation by controlling temperature and oxygen exposure. However, washed process coffees are traditionally left to ferment in open tanks, without much interference from the producer.

3. Washing

Following overnight fermentation, coffee farmers will use fresh water to remove the remaining mucilage from the coffee seed. Usually, farmers will fill and refill the water tank until most of the mucilage is removed.

4. Drying

The remaining coffee seeds are transported to be dried on a flat surface. Depending on geography and the farm’s financial resources, coffee seeds are either left to dry in the sun or mechanically, using machines that look like large drums on a rotating axis.

Where is Washed Processed Coffee Grown?

Washed coffees are very popular in producing countries where water is abundant. Coffee producing countries in Latin America like Colombia and Guatemala produce some of the best washed coffees in the world. In Africa, Kenya has a long tradition of producing washed coffees that are clean-bodied and acidic (often compared to currants).

To triangulate a classic washed profile, we recommend comparing light-roasted coffees from Colombia, Guatemala, and Kenya.

What is Natural Coffee Processing?

In contrast to washed processing, natural processed coffee cherries are fermented with their fruit intact. In natural processing, coffee cherries are sorted and weighed and then immediately transported to a drying surface without pulping.

The name of this process derives from “natural” sun drying, and has nothing to do with nature or organically grown coffee. Moreover, because water is not used in this form of coffee fermentation, natural processing is often called “dry processing”, even though both washed and natural process coffees undergo some sort of drying before they’re ready to be roasted.

In natural coffee processing, cherries are dried on raised beds in the sun, and rotated every few hours to prevent bacteria development and to ensure even drying. Because fermentation and drying occur simultaneously, coffee farmers have to carefully monitor for molded cherries, temperature, and rate of drying.

The entire process takes 3-4 weeks and can involve rotating cherries across sun-exposed and shaded drying surfaces depending on weather and humidity.

Where is Natural Processed Coffee Grown?

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and it’s also the most iconic producing region for naturally processed coffees. When purchasing a natural process coffee from Ethiopia, pay special attention to coffees grown in the Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Gugi regions. These natural processed coffees are exciting and often pack a fruity punch.

How Do Washed Vs Natural Processing Affect Taste?

In natural processing, the entire cherry is left intact during the drying process. Therefore, sugars and enzymes are constantly in contact with the raw coffee seed during fermentation. This causes naturally processed coffees to taste intensely fruity and to smell floral and aromatic.

In contrast, washed coffees tend to have milder sweetness and acidity, and emphasize flavors that feel “crisp” and clean. Roasters often describe washed process coffees with flavor notes like “apple” and “champagne”.

Is Washed Coffee Better Than Natural?

While some roasters have traditionally preferred washed coffees over naturals for their consistency, washed coffees are not inherently better than natural coffees.

On the contrary, as fermentation processes have become more nuanced and scientifically more advanced, natural coffees are becoming increasingly popular amongst specialty coffee roasters and drinkers alike.

Choosing between washed and natural coffees depends on whether you enjoy flavor profiles that are more mild and smooth vs coffees that are fuller-flavored and fruit-forward.

Either way, you're looking at an interesting and unique coffee experience.

Honey, Anaerobic, and Fermentation Processing

Washed and natural are the most popular forms of coffee processing, but in recent years, additional processing methods such as the honey process and other processing methods have gained popularity amongst producers and drinkers alike.

Honey Processing

Honey processing was popularized in Costa Rica and El Salvador and is often thought of as a compromise between washed and natural processing. Rather than removing all the fruit of the coffee cherry ala washed process, honey processing involves removing just the outer skin of the cherry and allowing the rest of the fruit to remain intact during drying.

Honey processed coffees tend to have the sweetness of a natural, but the balance and clean-profile of a washed coffee.

Anaerobic and Fermentation – Emerging Processing Methods

Processing methods involving fermentation within sealed tanks and with added compounds have become increasingly popular. Often these processing methods result in a boozier cup profile. Roasters and baristas alike are still discovering the qualities of these modern processing methods.

Learn More

We recommend the following resources to learn more: