Though we usually refer to coffee as a bean, it’s actually the seed of a fruit that grows on a coffee tree. When that fruit--which we call “cherries”--are at peak ripeness, here’s what happens:
1. Harvest. Ideally done by hand to ensure the selection of best-quality fruit, coffee harvesting is a bit like berry-picking: you can’t strip all the fruit from an entire plant at once and expect a good result. Farmers return to their coffee trees several times throughout the harvest season, selecting only the ripest cherries each time.
2. Depulp. The same day the cherries are picked, their outer skin is removed to expose the pulp, a sticky layer between the skin and the seed. This process can happen at either the farm level or at a central processing facility run by a cooperative.
3. Ferment. The still-sticky beans are moved to large tanks with water, and after 12-36 hours of fermentation, the pulp is gently washed away.
4. Dry. Now the beans must be dried to a moisture level that makes them more stable for storage and transport. Drying can take place on cement patios, raised wooden platforms, or in mechanical driers, depending on the resources and facilities available to a farmer. After the bean is completely dry, they’re sent to a mill where they’re sorted by size, and any remaining skin is mechanically removed.
The vast majority of specialty coffee is processed this way, commonly referred to as “washed” processing, though a few variations exist as well:
Instead of being depulped right away, “dry” or “natural” process coffee goes through the fermentation and drying stages while still in its whole fruit, only being removed from the fruit at the end. The result is often a sweeter, fruitier coffee, due to the seed being in contact with the fruit for so much longer.
“Honey” processing is a hybrid of sorts, in which some of the fruit is removed right away, but some is left on the seed through the fermentation stage. While there is no actual honey used, the resulting cup often exhibits a syrupy-sweet, honey-like flavor.