The coffee bean is the seed of a coffee cherry. Think of it like a normal cherry with a pit. Two “beans” grow inside of the coffee cherry. In order to access the bean in the way that it is roasted and served, the coffee cherry must go through a process of stripping off fruit.
Two main processing methods that are used around the world are Natural Processing and Washed Processing. Both methods aim to meet the same standards of lowering the moisture content of the bean from 60 to 11/12% and avoiding the development of defects.
Natural Processes for coffee are the oldest processing method. They might even be referred to as “traditional” processing. When coffee is naturally dried, coffee cherries are picked and spread out on to brick patios or raised drying beds. The drying process can take weeks or months, especially in a humid climate. Trying to dry the coffee too quickly can often times result in a loss of flavor. Inconsistent drying practices can also promote defective flavors (like rotten fruit) to develop. Once dried, the skin and remaining fruit is stripped off of the bean with a machine. Common flavor profiles include blueberry, strawberry, and/or tropical sweetness and acidity.
Washing Processes can vary depending on access to water, technique, and region. Generally, washing coffee is a much more extensive process. As soon as the coffee is harvested it is taken to a machine to strip off the skin and fruit (mucilage). The beans are then transferred into large vats of water to soak (a fermentation process). Coffee is then dried on brick patios or raised drying beds. Fermentation water is drained and disposed of. Washed coffees tend to have a pronounced acidity and a delicate, complex flavor profile. The demand for washed coffees has increased in the last decade because high quality coffees are often times washed to avoid defects from developing in a natural drying process.
Hybrid process also exist. Honey Process is a washing technique commonly used in El Salvador and other Latin American countries. Hybrid Processes vary the most out of processing methods. These methods tend to combine the washing and fermentation process with leaving fruit and skin on the bean while it is dried.
After fully dried and stripped of fruit, the coffee seeds are allowed to rest for 30-60 days to encourage aging and for “green” or vegetal flavors from being too prominent.
Coffee is then exported to countries that will then roast, serve, and sell.