One of the most exciting things about coffee, for us nerds at least, is how different each coffee can be. I’ve mentioned before that there are up to 1,500 flavor compounds in coffee, compared to wine’s measly 200 (coffee snobs can officially look down their noses at wine snobs, if that’s your thing). And like wine, coffees from different parts of the world taste incredibly different: you could take a coffee from Ethiopia and a coffee from Colombia, and even someone who had never tasted coffee before could tell you that they were different, even if they couldn’t say exactly how.
But why do those coffees taste so differently? Good question hypothetical reader! The answer is: it’s complicated. There are a lot of factors that influence the flavor of coffee, and we honestly don’t know what factors have the biggest effects. We know that beans grown in different parts of the world taste different, sometimes vastly so, but how much of that comes from how and where the coffee is grown? We know that the processing affects the flavor, and different areas of the world process coffee differently, so how much of that is a factor? And what about varietals? The oft neglected different strains of Arabica coffee certainly affect flavor, but we’re still learning how much of a difference (think different types of wine grapes, to continue the analogy).
This post is going to be the first a small series exploring how all the above affect flavor, leading up to final breakdown of coffee flavors by growing regions (which will include some gross generalizations). We’re going to start with a brief walk through on processing. This is something I’ve talked about before, but it’s worth a refresher, and there were some less common processes I left out.
There are three basic types of processing: washed (also known as wet), honey (also known as pulped natural), and natural (also known as dry). For washed coffee the fruit and skin is removed entirely before drying for a cleaner, brighter cup. For a natural process the whole coffee cherry is left intact to dry, which causes fermentation and results in a sweeter, fruitier cup. Honey process lies in between: just the skin is removed, leaving the pulp of the fruit. Honey process coffees have a better balance between sweetness and brightness.
Those are the basic options, but they’re not the only ones. There is also a process known as wet-hulling, or Giling Basah, in which the thin layer of parchment around the bean is removed before it’s completely dry. Because the beans don’t dry, and don’t have the protection of the parchment they ferment a little and their final flavor is syrupy, spicy and sometimes even a little mushroomy (Sumatras are traditionally wet-hulled as an example). You can read more about wet-hulling and why it developed here.
So as you can see, there whole process from coffee cherry to dried green bean alone can affect the flavor in big ways. Something that we’ll see when we take a look at different regions is that many forms of processing are typically used in specific areas, and have a large impact on the flavor of those growing regions and what they're known for. Take Sumatras for example—the spicy, almost musty characteristics that are trademark for Sumatra coffees owe a lot to the wet-hulled processing usually used for them. Stay tuned for the next excerpt where we'll be talking about varietals!