Everything You Need to Know about Washed Coffee

coffee cherries ready to process

How coffee is processed from green coffee beans to the coffee we drink every day is fascinating. Before coffee beans can be roasted, they must first be removed from the coffee cherry and processed.  Washed coffee is the most common method for processing coffee.

Generally speaking, washed coffee is a modern processing method for preparing coffee for roasting. Using machinery, coffee cherries are run through a wet mill that removes the bean from the cherry. The beans are then washed and dried in the sun or using an industrial dryer.

This is basically how washed coffee is processed, but there is a lot more to learn about this modern way of preparing coffee.  While it’s the most popular way to process coffee, it’s also the most complicated. Continue reading, and I will explain the steps that go into producing washed coffee in more detail.

5 Steps to Washed Coffee

1. The cherries are harvested.

Coffee farmers carefully select the best coffee cherries to use for the coffee.  As the cherries ripen, they turn a bright red color. This is when they are ready to be harvested. They are collected from the coffee plant by hand so that the cherries are not damaged.

2. The coffee cherries are put in a large vat to be washed.

Once the farmers harvest the cherries, they are poured into a vat to be washed.  This vat uses machinery to shake and wash the cherries. As the tank shakes, the washed cherries are filtered through a screen, leaving the smaller, lower-quality cherries in the vat.  The remaining cleaned cherries are then put through a different machine that removes the beans from the cherries.

3. The Cherries are run through a depulper.

As the name suggests, a depulper is a machine that depulps or removes the pulp from the cherry.  Once the cherries have been depulped, they are hand sorted. The fruity pulp comes off of ripe cherries easily. Any cherries that have pulp remaining are smaller or not ripe enough to be processed. These will be sorted and removed.

4. The washed coffee cherries are placed in another tank to ferment.

After the cherries are washed, they still have a covering of mucilage. To remove the remaining flesh from the cherries, the depulped cherries are poured into a large tank of water. They are left in the tank for about 12-36 to ferment.  As they ferment, the cherries are stirred, and any mucilage that floats to the top is removed.  After they have fermented, the beans are run through a drainage pipe.  The beans are removed and the remaining wastewater is drained from the tank.

5. The washed coffee beans are dried

Once the beans are cleaned, they can be dried. The beans are placed on a large cement slab where they are dried in the sun for about a week. The beans will be raked several times a day to remove moisture and allow them to dry evenly.

Why is Coffee Washed?

To make coffee, the beans must be removed from the coffee cherry and dried. Coffee farmers sort the cherries and then process the coffee by removing the beans from the cherries.  This can be done by washing the cherries and removing the beans so they can be dried. Or alternatively, they can dry the cherry intact and remove the bean once it’s dried.

As a general rule, washed coffee is the fastest way to prepare coffee for shipping. This process of drying the beans is much more efficient.  Coffee beans can be dried in a third of the time it takes to naturally dry coffee.  It also creates a more consistent, high-quality quality.

We have not always had this wet-processing method of producing coffee.  Before coffee manufacturing existed, coffee beans were dried using the natural, dry-processing method.  Farmers simply laid the cherries out in the sun to dry, turning them throughout the day to keep them from rotting.  With advancements in technology, we can now mass-produce coffee.

In addition to being more efficient, there are other reasons why washed coffee is used for most coffees.  Washing the coffee beans first removes any impurities, like bacteria or mold from the coffee, and eliminates issues with spoilage.

Sun-drying poses numerous issues for farmers. It is best suited for areas with dry climates.  If it rains, the whole batch of coffee can be ruined.  The weather and drying conditions can impact the quality and flavor of the coffee.  Washed coffee results in cleaner flavor and quality in the coffee.

What Makes Washed Coffee Different from Unwashed Coffee?

Washing coffee is generally done for economic reasons. It allows coffee producers to mass-produce coffee. Unlike unwashed coffee, washing the cherries removes contaminants, reduces spoiling, and the resulting coffee can be sold in large quantities. 

In general, washed coffee is believed to be higher-quality coffee. Due to the expenses involved in producing this coffee, farmers select only the best beans for this method of processing. The selection process, and washing the beans creates a consistent, clean coffee that most people prefer.

This method is preferred by commercial coffee producers because it can be done at scale.  However, it requires more equipment, which makes this coffee more expensive to produce than unwashed coffee.  Additionally, the washing process affects the quality and taste of the final product that is produced.

How Does Washing Coffee Affect the Flavor of Coffee?

While most people prefer the flavor of washed coffee, not everyone agrees.  Washing coffee does change the flavor of the coffee. When beans are washed, it strips away many of the natural flavors of the cherries.

 As a general rule, most people describe the flavor of washed coffee as clean.  This type of coffee is used almost exclusively with high-quality beans.  It results in pure-flavored coffee, without the extra sugars and fruit flavors that happen during fermentation. 

The fermenting process is quite different from unwashed coffees. When cherries are fermented as whole cherries, they absorb all of the flavors of the cherry into the bean. Washed cherries are cleaned of all the pulp and mucilage prior to drying, which leaves them with the flavor that you’d expect from coffee.  As most Americans drink washed coffee, they may not enjoy the earthy or fruity taste of unwashed coffee.

The cherries used for washed coffee are usually different from the cherries used for unwashed coffee. Washed coffee typically uses superior beans that deliver a consistent, clean product. Still, unwashed coffees have their advantages.

While most prefer the clean coffee flavor of washed coffee. Dry-processed coffees tend to have a sweeter, fruitier flavor. Because the process requires ideal weather conditions, the flavor of dry-processed coffees can be inconsistent. However, the fermenting process of dry-processed coffees allows the beans to take in more of the full flavor of the cherry. Thus, creating a unique, rich taste that you can’t get from washed coffee.

What are the disadvantages of washing coffee?

The main reason people prefer washed coffee is that they are typically made from only high-quality beans. They also remove any impurities, as well as the fruity sugars from the coffee bean. This process does have some drawbacks though.

As a whole, the main concern with washed coffee is the environmental impact it has on the countries that produce them. While many coffee manufacturers are incorporating more environmentally-friendly methods for producing this coffee, poorer countries do not always have the resources to do this.

The biggest problem with manufacturing this type of coffee is that it uses a lot of water, and produces waste that can contaminate the natural water resources in the country where it’s produced. Because of this, many companies are working on better techniques for handling the wastewater, as well as means to use less water in production. 

How to roast washed coffee beans

One of the best things about washed coffees is that you can roast them using any of the three roasting methods. Because this type of coffee uses high-quality beans, it works well with any method of roasting.  The best way to decide how to roast washed coffee beans is based on your personal preferences and the taste profile of the coffee.

In general, if you are brewing washed coffee at home in a coffee maker, a medium roast is recommended.  If you want to taste more of the flavor of the bean, a lighter roast will help bring out the flavor.  Unlike other coffees, this type of coffee truly works well for any coffee roast.

Washed coffees are perfect for people who love the traditional taste of coffee. Although which roast you prefer really depends on how you like your coffee, they can be brewed using almost any method. Light roasts tend to be more acidic, while dark roasts tend to have richer, full-bodied flavor.  If you love a clean-tasting coffee this is the one for you.

Tim S.

Tim loves roasting, brewing, and experimenting with coffee. After years of perfecting this craft, working as a barista, and owning a small coffee service in college, he has decided to share his knowledge with the world.

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