We sat down with Kim Elena Ionescu, the Specialty Coffee Association’s Chief Sustainability Officer, to talk about how coffee processing impacts the flavor of the coffee that we drink everyday. Here’s the story.

“This coffee tastes like blueberries!”

It’s been enough years since that first sip of natural-processed Ethiopian coffee that I don’t remember my exact words. What do remember is the way a single sip changed my concept of how coffee could taste.

If you’ve grown to love the lemony Earl Grey tea flavors of your favorite coffee from Ethiopia, suddenly finding unbelievably berry flavors in a different Ethiopian coffee may be a big surprise.

Why do these coffees taste so different?

Where DO those amazing coffee flavors come from?

Kim Elena Ionescu knows. She’s traveled the coffee growing world, first as a green coffee buyer, now as the Specialty Coffee Association’s Chief Sustainability Officer. She’s long worked to help improve the sustainability of the coffee industry and share her experiences at origin with coffee folks back home. I called her recently to talk about coffee flavor’s origin story and how coffee processing impacts flavor.

Location, location, location?

Many coffee drinkers are aware that coffee beans are the seeds of small fruits – coffee cherries. Where a coffee was grown determine many of the flavors that are eventually enjoyed in the cup. A big part of that origin story is the way the coffee is processed.

What do we mean “processed”?

As Kim summarizes it, “when we’re talking about coffee processing, there are differences and nuances, but it’s all about getting that seed out of its fruit and making it shelf stable; something you can put into a bag and ship.”

She enjoys discussing processing methods because “it is a great entry point for consumers into bigger-picture conversations. It offers an opportunity to taste something and then get into the regional differences, cultural differences, and historical differences of coffees.”

How does a coffee farm or co-op choose how to process their coffees?

Kim: “There’s a balance: What’s the most efficient way? The most consistent way? Which method requires the least labor? From an environmental aspect, washing coffee is a major use of water as a resource, and there’s potential contamination issues. But when you bring in the economic piece, it becomes more complex. Depending on where you are and the size of your operation, when you weigh those different priorities, you may land on a different method that works best for you.”

Coffee Process and Coffee Flavor

What are some of those methods? Let’s briefly look at two very different approaches: the washed process and the natural process. Dilworth Coffee fans can find interesting examples in our Ethiopia Washed Yirgacheffe Kochere and Ethiopia Limmu Natural coffees.

Not surprisingly, the washed process involves water. The fruit and bean are mechanically separated immediately after picking. Water is used to help remove remaining fruity pulp and then wash the beans before being dried.

The natural method uses the heat from the sun to dry whole coffee cherries, either on patios or raised beds. Once dry, the shriveled fruit husk is removed from the beans.

Back to our original question: Why the dramatic difference in the coffee’s flavor?

The flavors in washed coffees reflect what’s been given to the beans by the plant and fruit up to the point of harvest. As the name implies, they tend to taste “cleaner”.

Prolonged contact with the drying fruit imparts additional flavors to natural-process coffees. Additional flavor is a good thing, right? Not always.

Sun drying whole coffee cherries is riskier for the farmer. When done properly, incredible flavors are developed. When done poorly, mold, rot, or off flavors may devalue or destroy a season’s worth of a farmer’s work. As a result, prices for natural coffees are often lower.

Of these two, which does Kim prefer? “If we’re just talking about flavor, my personal preference tends to be for washed coffee. My favorite thing about great sundried (natural) coffees, though, is the consumer facing power that they have. It’s so fun to see people realize their ability to taste flavors in coffee through the flavors they find in sundried coffee. Being able to taste berry, when it’s not what you expect coffee to taste like, it’s like a gateway. It’s so powerful, and I love that.”

Coffee processing. It’s part of a coffee’s origin story, and helps us understand where some of those amazing flavors come from.

To experience some of these flavors for yourself, contact Dilworth Coffee at 866-849-1682 and ask about our current single origin selections.

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