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Washed vs. Unwashed Coffee

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Have you ever gone to a coffee shop looking for a specialty coffee bean and stumbled upon "washed coffee beans?" Were you confused about its meaning? Well, I'm here to explain to you what this means and why beans are washed in the first place. 

It's not always the roasting process that brings the defining characteristics to a coffee bean. Did you know that the way coffee is processed plays a pivotal role too? Those special classes of finished beans may come from the fermentation process, the elevation, and whether or not workers implement the washed or unwashed method.

So what is distinctive about these methods? Which processed method produces better coffee? And how do they impact the flavor of the coffee? Let's discover this all together!

What is specialty coffee processing?

The word processing has a very negative connotation attached to it. Whenever we hear the word "processing," we immediately think of something made with chemicals. But in the case of processing coffee, you might be surprised to learn that this is far from reality. 

Coffee beans used to brew a cup of coffee are seeds of a berry known as a coffee cherry. Typically there are two seeds inside a coffee cherry (apart from some exceptions such as peaberry bean). So for brewing a delicious cup of coffee, first, we need to remove seeds from the coffee fruit. However, It is not easy to remove these seeds. Each coffee fruit has several layers: An outer skin (pulp), mucilage, parchment, and the silver-skin covering the seed. 

Specialty processing removes these layers. There are many different ways to do it, and each method has a disparate impact on the coffee's final taste. 

Typically, specialty coffee processing methods involve two steps: 

  • Removing fruit from coffee cherries
  • Drying each bean to an appropriate level

What does the washed process look like?

The difference between processing methods is the way these two steps take place. Let's first take a look at the washed processing method.

Sorting: After coffee producers pick coffee cherries for the day, they begin to sort them out. Sorting helps to separate any defective or unripe cherries from the mix. One useful sorting technique is to put all the freshly picked cherries in water. Higher quality cherries are denser than the lower quality, so a sign of a defective cherry is one that floats in water.

Pulping: The next step involves removing the skin from the cherry (pulp) with the help of a machine called a "depulper."

Fermentation: After pulping, the next step is to ferment the coffee seeds. Fermentation typically takes place in specialized tanks, requiring 18 to 24 hours to ferment. During the fermentation process, microorganisms produce enzymes that ultimately break down the mucilage layer.

Drying: The last step comes with a lot of risks. With all the layers removed, the final step involves drying the fermented bean. Small farmers dry coffee beans in the sun, while big producers use mechanical dryers to do the work. Some farmers prefer a combination of beans dried in the sun, but also work with dryers when it makes sense to use them.

The washed or "wet method" is one of the most common and popular ways to process coffee. Washed coffee highlights the real character of the single-origin bean. It produces high-quality coffee beans that exhibit a sweet flavor profile.

One of the main criticisms of this processed method is that it uses large amounts of water. So this method is not advantageous to employ in areas prone to water shortages. In addition to the added wastewater disposal, the process introduces potentially harmful chemicals into local streams, resulting in potentially dangerous environmental and health hazards.

What's the difference between washed and natural coffee?

Most specialty coffee processing requires a hybrid of multiple methods. The washed or wet process involves removing coffee cherry layers with machines before the bean is dried in the sun and shipped to coffee roasters.

The other more traditional way to process coffee is called the "natural process" or "dry process" method. Workers prepare naturally processed coffees differently, and the result of the dry process tastes more substantial in body than washed coffees. 

Unlike the washed processing method, dry processing involves keeping the fruit intact and undisturbed. The sorting and screening process of red cherries is the same, but it does not include washing. Instead of washing, the cherries are put straight into floatation tanks where any excess dirt separates from them. Then clean cherries are dried out in the sun. They're spread out evenly in a single layer and stirred twice an hour. During this stage, workers pick out any defective cherries. The whole drying process can take a lot of time, from two to three weeks, depending upon weather conditions.

This coffee is more accessible and less costly to produce in terms of hardware and can achieve a premium price. In wet conditions, there is always a risk of losing the coffee crop. But since this coffee grows in some of the driest microclimates, it significantly eliminates that threat. Natural processing coffee also doesn't require massive amounts of water, thus its good for the environment.

As the washed process has many environmental disadvantages, the dry method has a fair share of drawbacks too. Natural processing is not effective in humid or wet areas. On cloudy days, the drying process takes more time than usual, and it can cause coffee fruit to rot. This process is also very labor-intensive and can produce highly inconsistent results. It is crucial to separate the unripened green coffee from the batch. If workers do not remove them on the first day of drying, the green fruits will turn brown, making it would be impossible to distinguish from ripened fruit.

If you are looking to buy washed and unwashed coffees, there are many reasonable options available on Amazon. "Unroasted Green Coffee" by Equator Coffee Roasters is made from organically raised, raw washed coffee beans. Gesha Washed Coffee by Lederas del Tapias is another good choice. In terms of unwashed options, Ethiopian True Blue Coffee is a good catch.

What is semi-washed coffee?

The wet and dry processes form the ends of the spectrum. In between these two methods, there are quite a few hybrid techniques. The difference between these methods is in how much mucilage coffee workers remove from the coffee.

Semi washed method is also known as the "wet-hulled" process. It combines the effects of both washed and unwashed processes. As the name implies, workers rinse the coffee bean using a very minimal amount of water to wash out excess mucilage. With this method, they remove the outer skin of the coffee fruit; however, the pulp remains intact. Drying generally takes place on the patio or raised beds until the bean receives the suitable moisture content. After drying, the pulp remains wet, and the beans are extracted, just like in the drying process.

Flavor differences: Washed VS Unwashed Coffee

Many factors affect the aroma and flavor notes of your coffee experience. Light roast or dark roast, hot brew, or a cold brew! Each approach will have a different impact on the flavor of the final product. But even before roasting and brewing, there comes a significant contributing factor that affects the flavors- the way coffee beans are processed.

You might be surprised by the contrast in flavors between washed and unwashed coffees. Every coffee producer markets his coffee to be the best. However, both methods bring uniqueness to the coffee you brew.

Washed Method

This method is a relatively new addition to coffee processing methods. Generally, washed coffee beans have a higher level of acidity. The controlled fermented beans impart a certain amount of bitterness, which lasts until brewing. It often produces clean and bright notes that taste entirely different from unwashed beans. If you prefer your coffee to be acidic, you should coffee prepared with the washed method.

Unwashed Method

The dry-process creates a coffee that is not only heavy in the body but also tastes sweet. Countries with dry climates, such as Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Brazil, adopt this method. These countries experience enough heat to ensure that the beans dry to an appropriate level.

In the unwashed process, the bean is left in the sun to be dried, so it takes more of its flavors from the surrounding fruit. When the coffee is processed naturally, It develops fruity sugars within the coffee seed that appear during the roasting process. So you won't have to add any syrups to enhance the flavor of your coffee. It will have an inherent sweet touch to it due to the caramelization of extra sugars developed within seeds. 

Semi-Washed Method

The general agreement is that the washed method produces clean acidic coffee. In contrast, the unwashed method results in a cup of bolder coffee with enhanced sophistication and a more substantial body. The semi-washed process combines the best of both, resulting in a coffee that is bold and heavy with slightly high acidity.

In other words, we can say that washed coffees represent the pure flavors of single-origin coffee beans, whereas unwashed coffees are a representation of the character of fruit from which they were grown. A semi-washed coffee bean will have the improved clarity of that as a wet bean, and the prominent sweetness of that as an unwashed bean. We can't say one coffee is better than the other.

Although washed coffees are more popular due to their consistency and purity, another reason for this preference is the acidic nature of washed coffees. 

Final Thoughts

In the end, it all comes down to your taste and preferences. Both – washed and unwashed methods can create fantastic coffee beans. Some people prefer dark roasts over light roast. Similarly, not everyone is going to enjoy the flavor of both of these processing approaches. Some will prefer the acidic taste that the washed method brings, while others will enjoy the sweeter taste and heavier body of the unwashed process.

While these processes are quite different from one another, there is one thing they have in common. They both provide a unique coffee experience that will get you hooked. Its time to learn to roast and brew coffee using both washed and unwashed beans and find out which one appeals to your taste buds more. 


About the author

My name is Brandon and I love cold-brew coffee. If you're a fan of everything homebrew, then we'll get along just fine. I also enjoy riding my Onewheel around town, and going on adventures with my future wife! As an online work-from-home advocate, it's important that I stay connected to the world while being able to maintain a healthy work/life balance.

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