The goal of the Merit 101 series is to help educate all levels of coffee enthusiasts who want to learn more about who we are at Merit, as well as the many aspects of coffee.
Post-harvest processing (or just process for short) describes the steps that turn coffee cherries into the raw, green beans that we roast. If you know a coffee’s process, you can make some educated guesses about its flavor profile.
Getting Creative A unique honey process coffee dries at Finca Chelín in Oaxaca, Mexico. Farmer Enrique López is one of the most inventive producers we work with when it comes to process.
Great coffee begins its life as a flower on a shrub. Each self-pollinated bloom takes half a year to develop into a ripe coffee cherry, which looks like a large cranberry with two coffee seeds inside. Between the flesh of the fruit and the seeds is a casing called parchment, which provides extra protection for the seeds.
Layers Inside each cherry is a protective casing called parchment, which holds two green seeds that we will eventually roast. Above right, some parchment with the fruit completely removed using the washed process.
During the harvest, pickers pluck the coffee cherries off the tree. Three things have to happen to make green coffee:
- Decide to remove the fruit or not.
- Dry down to 10-12% of its original moisture content.
- Remove the parchment layer (and any remaining fruit) from around the seeds.
That first step is the biggest determinant of flavor, and on a basic level forms what we call “processing.” Variations here can create coffees as different from each other as red and white wine.
Here are three major processes:
No fruit removed for drying
A natural process lot dries in cherry in the bright sun of Jimma, Ethiopia.
Natural, dry-process, or cherry-dried: this the most ancient way of doing it, but definitely not the easiest. Cherries are simply picked off the tree and dried with the skin intact. This process produces coffees with a distinct berry flavor and sometimes a bit of a winey funk.
Some fruit removed before drying
In honey process coffees, bits of the remaining fruit cling to the parchment layer as they dry. Finca La Senda, Chimaltenango, Guatemala.
Honey is a newer, more experimental approach. The skin is removed, but a layer of fruit remains. Its name comes from its honey-like texture as it dries. Honeys have a wide range of flavors depending on the exact protocol, but they usually have more sweetness and fruitiness than a washed coffee.
Honey coffees often come with a color designation: red, yellow, purple, black, white. A darker color (red and deeper) have more of the fruit left on for drying and will taste more like a winey natural. Lighter colors (yellow and lighter) sway more towards the flavor of a washed.
All fruit removed before drying
A depulping machine is used to strip the skin off the cherries. Tank fermentation (top) and water/manual agitation break down and wash off the rest of the fruit, resulting in (bottom) a clean, hay-colored parchment for drying.
Producers remove the skin, then use wild fermentation to break down the remaining fruit so it can be washed off, giving the process its name. The most widely used coffee processing method, this took hold during colonial rule because coffee dries 2-3 times faster when the fruit is removed. Washed coffees lean toward traditional coffee flavors like chocolate and caramel. This process provides a “clean slate” to show off other aspects of the coffee’s cultivation, like cultivar and terroir.
Looking for the process on your favorite coffee? On every Merit bag, you’ll find it listed right below the name of the coffee on the label. If you see something other than washed, honey, or natural, check out the info sheet on the product page for more details! We work with innovative producers that are redefining coffee processing, creating unique flavors along the way.