Do you ever wonder why coffee tastes like coffee? The answer boils down to a few key steps in its production, turning it from a fruit into the roasted brown bean we call coffee. One of these key steps is called processing. An operation where the skin, and flesh surrounding the seed are removed, before it is dried. The way a coffee is processed, has a significant impact on the final flavour in the cup, for better or worse. It can highlight a complex array of flavours that are naturally in the coffee, or deliver some off notes, effectively ruining the coffee.
There are multiple processing methods. At Tambia, we have invested in mills that allow us to choose between wet, honey and natural processes. Wet, or washed, processing is one of the most common methods in Colombia. While honey and natural, or dry processing, is less common, and done on select lots.
The reason coffee is processed is relatively straightforward - we value the seed, aka the coffee bean, of the cherry that grows on coffee trees. Let’s take a step back though and visualise life on a Tambia coffee farm during harvest. Each day tens of people are climbing the steep slopes of the farm to pick the red cherries from the trees. We track where they are picking, so we know the varietals and we can plan how we will process the coffee.
Once coffee is picked, it is brought to a processing station. There is a lot of coffee, and it is time sensitive, because if the fruit is left on the seed in an uncontrolled way, it can over ferment, ruining the day's harvest.
So, we make choices about the optimal way to remove the fruit from the seed, based on the flavour profile we want to have in the final cup. With Tambia coffee, we have the rare opportunity in the coffee world, of being able to connect directly with you, about our coffee.
The 3 main processes we offer are washed, honey and natural. Our washed coffees tend to have flavours like chocolate and toffee, with a gentle acidity, like biting into a red apple or a handful of ripe summer berries. This is because we remove the skin and then soak the pulped fruit (pulp is what we call de-skinned coffee cherry), in water. The fermentation here breaks down the pulp around the seed, leaving just a hard wooden shell called parchment, before it is sent for drying. The fermentation is light, so you don’t taste the kind of dominant fruit flavours we develop in our natural processed coffees. Our house washed coffees are a fine balance of flavours and delicate sweetness and acidity. See our washed coffees.
Our natural processed coffees involve no water. The ripe cherries are dried on raised beds, this allows air to flow underneath and on top of the cherries for an even drying. The layer of cherries is carefully managed and so is the temperature and exposure to moisture. This is a complex process, and we are limited in how much coffee we can process in this way, so we reserve it for special lots of coffee from each harvest. The flavours can be truly exceptional when done well - have you ever had coffee that tastes like fruit punch, tropical fruit, candy, dried strawberries, if not, you should try our natural processed coffees. All these flavours are a result of the fermentation process and of course the inherent qualities of the coffee itself.
We’ve described the washed coffee, a process with water, a natural coffee, processed without water, and now we have the honey process, a coffee that is made with minimal amounts of water. Honeys are another special process requiring careful management. The skin is removed using the pulper which requires a small amount of water, then, instead of soaking the pulped fruit to remove the pulp, we put it on the drying beds and carefully manage the drying. The fun part here, is that the more pulp we leave on the fruit, the more fruit forward flavours like the natural come through, and the more we remove, the more it tastes like a washed coffee. So, we develop our honeys to be in the middle, very sweet, thus the name, but without being as exotic as the flavours of the natural. See our honey light and honey espresso coffees.
Reading about the steps of coffee processing is kind of like being served a meal, and reading the recipe before you eat it. To really understand coffee processing, we suggest tasting coffees from different processes. You can check out our coffees linked above if your curiosity has been aroused. When you read the flavour notes and descriptors on the coffee label, it will all make a lot more sense. Enjoy! ☕️