The natural (or dry) process is the oldest way of treating coffee on earth. At first glance it appears straightforward enough – pick the coffee cherry and lay it in the sun, wait until the cherry has dried up like a raisin, remove the skin to reveal the green bean – Voila! Natural processed coffee! Even the name suggests simplicity.
What we can’t see is that beneath the cherry skin, there’s a lot going on. Tim Hill from Counter Culture Coffee describes the difference between washed and natural coffee as analogous to white and red wine. With white wine, the skin and tannins are left out, whereas with red wine the whole grape is involved. In the same way, the natural process brings the flavour from the cherry into the coffee beans.
The goal of natural processing is to create a sweet, smooth and complex coffees with lots of body. To achieve this the cherries must be perfectly, uniformly ripe – too green and the beans will be sour, overripe cherries will create beans that taste funky and fermented, like off fruit.
The ripe cherries are laid on special drying beds, raised from the ground to allow air to circulate around the fruit. Over a period of 25 – 35 days, the cherries will be checked, turned and raked so that the fruit dries evenly onto the beans. Once the fruit and skin have been fully dried, the cherries are put through a hulling machine to peel off the thick, dried fruit skin.
At the end of the process, the beans will be infused with the flavours of the fruit – deeply sweet and rich. In our August Bean of the Month the Brazil Dolce Cerrado, the Andrade Brothers have created a coffee with the sweetness of stone fruit and strawberries in the aromatics and full-bodied chocolate flavours.