What do you call a coffee that is neither fully washed nor dried in the cherry… and more importantly, what does it mean when we say Pulped Natural, Honey Process, or Semi-Washed?
In the world of coffee, there are basically two ways to process post-harvest. You can minimally process before milling and export (i.e., natural, cherry-dried, and/or dry-process), or you can depulp, ferment, and wash the seeds before they dry.
But that’s a false choice, because there are many “hybrid” methods of processing that are neither fully washed nor dried in the whole cherry. Let’s say, for example, that you’re not interested in the fruity flavor of a dry processed coffee, but you’re on a water budget. Or maybe you just can’t be bothered to undertake fermentation (such a messy step!). Or perhaps you want to stand out from the bimodal processing crowd… how do you differentiate your product? There are a couple of ways:
Concerns about the huge amounts of water used during washing and depulping coffees, environmentally-friendly alternatives have appeared on the market in recent years. One of the most popular and affordable of these “eco pulpers” is a Colombian brand called Penagos. The Spanish term for these devices is “desmucilaginador,” which (for reasons that should be self-evident if you try to say the word out loud) has not caught on in non-Spanish speaking countries.
These devices may be used to outfit operations as small as a single-hectare farm in Colombia to relatively large cooperative-owned Centralized Pulping Units (CPUs) in Tanzania or Costa Rica, for example. They can run on propane or electricity, and are capable of depulping fairly large volumes of coffee cherries using less than a tenth of the water as is consumed in standard washing practices.
A well-calibrated eco pulper can remove nearly all the fleshy fruit mucilage from the parchment-covered seed. While there are producers who simply treat eco pulping as a first step, followed by maceration (aka fermentation), washing, and channel grading, there are some who opt to skip the formal microbial digestion and washing stages entirely, sending their mostly mucilage-free parchment straight to the patio. I’d wager that it’s probable that small amounts of these biological fermentation processes occur during the drying process even for the most efficiently eco pulped coffees.
Semi-washed, Pulped Natural, and Honey Processes
The differences between an eco-pulped coffee and a coffee referred to as “semi-washed / semi levado,” “pulped natural / cereja descascado,” or “honey process / miel” are negligible in the sense that they are all hybrid processing types that remove varying degrees of the flesh of the coffee cherry. In most cases, semi-washed coffees use disc depulpers, while to some folks a honey coffee is simply a depulped coffee with a little extra mucilage left on the parchment.
In each of these hybrid methods with the exception of some eco pulped coffees, there is no fermentation/maceration or washing/channel grading. If microbial mucilage breakdown occurs for a pulped natural, a semi-washed, or a honey coffee, it’s in the early stages of the drying process and not in a formal, controlled location.
Semi-washed coffees will, by definition, employ some water during the depulping stage. That may not necessarily be the case with honey or pulped natural coffees, which could potentially be depulped dry. Or not. Sometimes they all mean exactly the same thing… so if you’re trying to figure out what you’ve got, ask pointed questions. How much fruit is left on the seed after pulping? How much water do you use? What depulping machinery do you employ? Will your coffee be my honey? See what I did there?
I’ve heard it claimed that semi-washed coffees first appeared in El Salvador or Costa Rica, but my understanding is that it was the Brazilian processing equipment manufacturer Pinhalense who stake the claim to creating the world’s first cereja descascado (literally “dehusked cherry”) in 1991 as a value-add alternative to the country’s traditionally dry-processed coffee. The pulped natural was a handy way to sell the local market a bunch of new equipment while offering an environmentally friendly answer to demands for Brazilian washed coffees. While we’re starting to see some pretty nice fully washed Brazilian coffees from small farms and farm groups, this practice is commonly seen as an unsustainable practice in an increasingly drought-affected region of the world.
The patio at the Pinhalense factory in Brazil that stakes the claim to creating the world’s first pulped natural coffee.
Some producers have gone so far as to color-code their honey coffees in attempt to indicate the amount of mucilage remaining on the seed (white or yellow indicating less fruit remaining, red or black indicating more). Many coffee professionals have opinions about the relatively minor differences between these processes, but in fact there are no standard definitions for these terms, and as such one producer’s honey may be another’s semi-washed. There is a slight consensus that pulped natural coffees tend to leave more flesh than semi-washed coffees… but this distinction is typically made by the buyers and roasters rather than the producers, making my faith in its veracity somewhat tenuous.
The elephant in the room, so to speak, are Indonesian coffees which undergo a distinctive crossover of processing steps. The many islands of the country tend towards the same practice since the rise in popularity of Sumatra’s “Mandheling” profile, which involves partly drying coffee – either in full cherry or depulped parchment (or, rarely, a mix of both) – and then delivering the semi-dried coffee to a mill where it is stripped of its husk or parchment and then allowed to finish drying as a raw seed. Known locally as giling basah, this is commonly referred to as “wet-hulled,” indicating that hulling to remove parchment, which typically takes place once the coffee is under 12% moisture, instead takes place when the coffee is around 20-25%. Confusingly, sometimes this can be translated as semi-washed. Also, the SCA’s Seed to Cup heritage class delineates coffee processes by drying type, and they employ the phrase “seed dried” to refer to these types of coffees.
Go forth, and enjoy your hybrid process coffee. And please call me if you come across the rare hat trick: a hybrid cultivar (Catimor, e.g.), using a hybrid processing method that is then further hybridized by wet hulling. I would like to share a cup.