Go au naturel with some of our high-quality naturals
The natural (or 'dry') method is the most ancient way of processing coffee. Coffee cherries are spread out in a thin layer to dry, traditionally in the heat of the sun, turning from red and plump to black and shrivelled. Whereas with the washed process coffee beans are separated from the fruit soon after harvesting and dried separately, natural process beans dry draped in a sticky, cherry casing, which stains the 'green' bean golden-orange. The resulting cup is distinctive: typically lower in acidity than washed beans, with a fruity sweetness and a heavier body. Natural process devotee Tim Hill of Counter Culture Coffee likens it to red wine, similarly the product of the whole fruit.
At first glance the natural process might seem straightforward, and it certainly has a lower start-up cost than other methods, requiring less equipment and less access to water. Producing a great natural, however, is in fact incredibly labour intensive. Careful initial selection of cherries is key, as there are not as many opportunities to identify defective beans along the way as with washed processing. After picking, the cherries must be turned or raked regularly - as often as every hour to start with - to avoid mould. The speed at which the beans dry affects their flavour and storage life: if they are dried in the sun, this speed is hard to control. After the optimum moisture level has been achieved, natural coffees rest for at least two months after harvest before milling. The risks involved in this unpredictable process make green bean buyers wary. Bad natural coffee is described with such unflattering terms as 'barnyard', 'wild' or even 'manure'. The majority of natural-processed coffee worldwide is produced as cheaply as possible for domestic markets.
Within the speciality coffee sphere, naturals are as divisive as they are distinctive. For years they were viewed with a degree of suspicion, as it was thought the process masked the integral qualities of bean; the cleaner cup quality of washed beans was celebrated instead. While wet processing has acquired lots of shiny new technology over the past 60/70 years, dry processing remained relatively lo-fi.
So what's new?
The last decade has seen the emergence of 'the new naturals', the result of great innovation and investment on the part of coffee producers - and Artisan has snapped up three spectacular and distinctively different examples for you to try just now. At the Finca San Agustin in Guatemala, for example, Artisan's Coffee Hunter John Thompson has helped apply recent research from the University of Lavras in Brazil on the effects of different drying temperatures and the poetically-named 'dew point' on the quality of the coffee. John worked with two-time Cup of Excellence winning farmer Ricardo Zelaya to experiment with a different drying curve at the Finca San Agustin in Guatemala. Slower cherry drying in a temperature-controlled greenhouse preserved the sweetness in the cup. At the Cerro de Jesus farm in Nicaragua, Julio Peralta and his family take Brix readings of the cherries before picking, to ensure that only the ripest make it into the natural process lots. The farmers of the Aramo Zone to the south-west of Yirga Cheffe town in Ethiopia use raised beds to ensure the ideal air flow around the drying cherries.
Speaking personally, it was a riotously fruity Ethiopian natural tasted years ago that first opened my eyes to the fact that coffee could be more than simply hot and brown. If you haven't tried natural process coffee yet - or if you're convinced you don't like them - I strongly encourage you to try one of these. There are links and more information on each of our three naturals below and if you enter the code NEWNATURALS from now until the 16th October we'll give you 15% off any of the three.