I am somewhat of a coffee snob; not a connoisseur – that takes too much intensity, but I appreciate good coffee. Time was I wouldn’t spend $25 on a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain. Okay, I still won’t, but that’s because I have and I was disappointed. But I also know a lot more about how much goes into growing trees and how little one tree actually produces – if you drink mass-produced Columbians, you get what you pay for. Still, with a host of local roasters, I can try 12 ounce bags (prepackaged lots seem to come that way now) from different regions. Yes, I only have available what they can source and provide, but It’s a sampling. No surprise, it’s the Ethiopian beans that come out of top. This is not a treatise on the varietals, rather a comparison of beans sourced from the same region, large though it is, but prepared differently.I picked up a bag of Hambela beans along with a Uganda pack from a local roaster in Garland, Texas, Rosalind Roasters. At home, I realized that I’d also had some leftover beans from the same region, spelled differently but no mistaking the origin – both Guji, Oromia, Ethiopia – from Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters, But the aromas were widely different. The Oak Cliff beans were natural processed and despite the Rosalind website claim of ‘natural”, the bag says “washed” and the difference is clear.
The coffee cherries that are harvested have layers surrounding the actual bean: silver skin, parchment, pectin, pulp, and outer skin.How the green beans are extracted fall into essentially two (with a hybrid of the two as another, “honey processed” that is less common but highly touted) processes.
Dry processing is the oldest method; the cherries are laid out whole to dry in the sun, raked to prevent molding, and can take four weeks or more to dry to the right degree. The beans are hulled and the outer layers removed.
Wet processing is relatively recent, and takes something obvious, but scarce in Ethiopia: water. Dry processing doesn’t work in humid climates, so… The outer layer of the cherries is peeled and the rest left to ferment, either with water or not. Wet processing takes more work…the timing is important… and the product is quite different.
The beans to my eye don’t look much different.To a professional, no doubt, they will.
But the aromas are apparent. The washed beans are earthier, whereas the natural process reveals fruity aromas that confuse: Is that blueberry I smell? Strawberry? Tropical? Tastes, while clearly linked to the olfactory, are less subtle to at least this untrained palate, but they are still fruity versus earthy. There a lots of resources to explain the differences, and sifting the Google can be informative!
Consistency is hard to maintain in dry or wet processing, though more difficult it seems in the dry world, but then even roasters at the top of their game run afoul of inconsistencies regardless of how a bean is processed. Roasting temperatures, times, post-roasting treatments are crucial and even superficially minor changes can yield different results.
There is no “best” way to process, just as there are no “Best Mangement Practices” (I like to call those “Right Management Practices” – what works for me my not work as well for you and vice versa.) “Best” is what tastes good to you. Or me. I have less than no desire to roast my own, though I’m given to understand that the, um, best beans are recently roasted and freshly ground, and yes, the roast date on one of those bags is rather long in the tooth, but they still beat Folgers hands down.
Oh, and those Ugandan beans were definitely earthier.