December/January 2012/2013: Seasons Green Beans

A perennial question: What do you do when your favorite coffee is unavailable? Our customers learn to identify favorite farms and look for those offerings from one year to the next. With mills or farms that have a very solid coffee program – and by that I mean they have a good system of cultivation and rules about how the cherries are picked, handled, and then processed – we can see the coffee year after year. There are coffees that will not be available again: maybe it is a special lot, or it just doesn’t make the cut the next season. In any case, coffee is seasonal. So what do you do when your favorites are unavailable? You try something completely new and expand your flavor horizons. You might change brewing techniques or roasting styles on the new bean as this can be fun and educational. But if you want to find another coffee close to an old favorite, start by looking at the review of the out of stock coffee and pay attention to these fields:
1. Origin
2. Varietal
3. Processing
4. Region
5. Prime Attributes/Spider Graph
If you have problems articulating what you like about a coffee it can be useful to compare reviews. All the coffee reviews are archived so you can compare the out-of-stock coffee with coffees we currently have in stock. One thing that has a huge impact on flavor is processing method, specifically wet versus dry processing. There are two broad categories of coffee flavors. On the one hand are coffees that are clean and sweet and these are wet processed coffees. On the other hand are earthy, rustic coffees that are dry processed.

Both terms refer to how the coffee is processed from the whole coffee cherry. Wet-process coffee uses water at the wet mill to transport the seed, allowing for the removal of defects that float to the surface. In traditional wet-processing, the wet mill is where the coffee is pulped (the outer fruit skin removed), floated in water (to remove defective beans), fermented (to break down the fruit mucilage layer), washed (to remove the fruit) and dried on a patio, a screen (raised bed), or a mechanical dryer. At this point the green coffee seed is inside an outer parchment shell. The parchment coffee is rested for a period of time (called reposo) then milled at a dry mill, sorted and graded. Wet processing often produces a brighter, cleaner flavor profile, with lighter body than dry process coffees. Wet process coffees are referred to also as washed coffees, or fully washed. Note that the coffee seed is not fermented in this process, just the other fruit layer between the skin and the parchment shell. This is a natural action of peptic enzymes in the coffee. In different countries they might use a submerged wet fermentation, or a water-less dry fermentation, which is a faster method.

Dry processing is a very simple method, using less machinery and more hand labor, and has been a tradition in some growing origins for centuries. It risks tainting the coffee with defect flavors due to poor handling, drying, or ineffective hand-sorting. In dry processing the fruit is picked from the tree and dried directly in the sun or on raised screens, without peeling the skin, or any water-based sorting or fermenting. The dried coffee turns to a hard, dark brown pod, and the green seed is torn out from the skin and parchment layers in one step, or pounded out by hand. Because there is no chance to skim off floating defects, or remove under-ripes as with the wet process, most defects must be removed by hand. Dry process coffees generally have big body and low acidity, with more rustic flavors due to the long contact between the drying fruit and the seed. They also can have more defects, taints, and lack of uniformity both in the roast and in cupping. A dry process coffee is sometimes referred to as natural coffee, full natural, or traditional dry process, or abbreviated DP.

Knowing how coffee processing impacts flavor will help guide your selection. So whether you are looking to replace a favorite or try something new, focusing on the processing method can help you get an idea of what the cup may be.

Tom made a video about this very topic.

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