Washed coffee, natural or honey? The 3 Main Coffee Processing Methods Explained

Café lavé, naturel ou miel? Les 3 principales méthodes de traitement du café expliquées

W hen we talk about the process of processing coffee, we are talking about the method used to transform coffee cherries into green beans.

To better understand the differences between these processes, let's first take a look at the anatomy of a coffee cherry:

Coffee processing methods differ depending on the number of layers removed before drying and always involve fermentation and drying time as well as several sortings. The process chosen by the producer greatly influences the quality and final characteristics of a coffee.

Here are the 3 main approaches used:


Drying patios at San Miguel coffees, Antigua, Guatemala,
Credit: San Miguel Coffees

The washed process is the most commonly used method for graded coffees.  " speciality " .
Upon picking, the skin and pulp are removed mechanically using a pulper. The grains are then left to ferment in basins (with or without water) in which the mucilage naturally detaches thanks to enzymes. The duration of this stage can vary greatly (between 10 and 72 hours) depending on weather conditions and regional traditions. The coffee, still in its parchment, is then rinsed with plenty of water and left to dry on patios or raised beds where it is frequently stirred for uniform drying.


Natural process on African beds at the Ana Sora washing station, Guji, Ethiopia.

The natural process is the oldest of all and only works in dry climates.
The cherries are first picked when fully ripe, washed and immediately spread out on patios or drying beds where they are tossed to dry evenly. The grain remains inside the fruit which ferments and dries for a period of 3 to 4 weeks. When the process is well mastered, the result is a sweet cup with intense notes of fruit jam as well as a syrupy texture. On the other hand, since fermentation is particularly difficult to control, we can regularly find less pleasant notes linked to fermentation defects.


Process Red honey that dries at the La Lia micro-mill, Tarrazu, Costa Rica.

Miel or Honey is a hybrid process that lies between washed and natural.
It is particularly popular in Costa Rica. There are 4 different levels of Honey : Black, Red, Yellow and White.

For white and yellow Honey , the cherries are first pulped and mechanically washed, leaving a very small amount of mucilage (honey) around the grain.

Red and black Honey are more lightly pulped to leave as much mucilage as possible.

From this stage the coffee is left to dry and the final result depends on the temperature and weather. In dry weather, the coffee will dry more quickly and remain quite pale. On cloudy days, the coffee will be subject to more humidity and shade, which will slow drying and cause the sugars to oxidize and the mucilage to darken in color. It is also common to cover drying beds in order to produce black honey .

The result of this process is a particularly sweet and balanced cup.
This process is also called pulped natural in some other regions of the world.

The type of processing is a topic rarely discussed outside of discussions among coffee pros, but it is, along with several other factors, an integral part of the character of your cup of coffee. So the next time you pick up a bag of Costa Rican Honey or washed Nicaraguan, you'll have a better idea of ​​where their delicious flavors come from.