July 29, 2012
A response to Chris Schooley’s “Confused? Naturally.”

Chris Schooley starts an interesting dialogue about coffee processing here.  His article is multifaceted, but I’ll address a few of its core concepts.

First, though, we have a little thinking to do.  What is the purpose of the naming conventions we use for coffee processing?  In specialty food- all specialty food- process is important.  Ripasso wines or washed-rind cheeses; pain a l’ancienne or dutch cocoa, process is at the heart of crafted, special foods.  But, are these technical terms- jargon for use within the industry, or are they marketing terms, used to inform consumers about the food’s history and flavor?  Ideally they would be both, of course; but rarely does a term satisfy the detail-hungry technical audience and the romantic, easily remembered needs of the marketer. 

And so we’re in a pickle with coffee processing terms.  Processing is important, and we want to have precise, meaningful, easily related terminology for the various processes; but do we go for maximum precision, satisfying the industry but potentially alienating the neophyte and consumer, or do we embrace more romantic terminology, for accessibility’s sake?  I can see both sides of the argument.

The term “Natural” seems to trace back to an intentional effort by the Brazilian coffee industry to counteract the success of the “Washed Mild” coffees of Central America and Colombia.  As washed coffees became more popular and fetched a premium in the early 20th century, the Brazilians- wanting to avoid the default term “Unwashed”- invented the term “Natural” as the more palatable alternative.  (I don’t remember where I read this, some help with a citation would be wonderful!)  It’s a loaded term, obviously: implying that other processes are unnatural or at least not natural.  It also makes no literal sense- strip-picking and sun-drying before fruit removal is no more “natural” than selectively picking, removing fruit, fermenting, and washing before sun-drying.  But, we have the term and we must deal with it.  The term was then retroactively applied in Ethiopia, marking the distinction between their washed and unwashed coffees.  The “natural” process, naturally, was practiced differently in Ethiopia, and (at least eventually) became a synonym for “dried-in-the-fruit”, not the entire Brazilian process “natural” was invented for. 

Does this make sense?  Does an Ethiopian natural have much in common with a Brazilian natural?  They certainly don’t taste alike; the strip-picking and extreme ripeness of the Brazilian harvesting style, along with the heat of a Brazilian patio and a host of other factors create a coffee that tastes clasically peanutty and sweet rather than the jammy, fruity sweetness of the Ethiopian natural.  Students of coffee are confused, since they taste no similarity between Brazilian naturals and Ethiopian naturals.  

I’ve personally settled this conflict by referring to “Brazilian Natural” as its own distinct process, as opposed to just “Natural” for the ripe-handpicked style we associate with Ethiopia and other places which seek to emulate the berry-toned flavor.  This appropriates an original Brazilian term outside of Brazil, but I don’t see much of an alternative, unless we want to adopt the Ethiopian phrase- “Kesher Buna”, or invent a new English phrase: “Dried in Fruit” or something similar.

As for “Pulped Natural”, that seems to be the best term out there, although it is an awkward term for a bunch of reasons.  ”Honey Process” is one alternative, but creates the confusion that actual honey might be used, like Honey Roast Peanuts or something.

And before I go on, let me say this: the term “Semi-Washed” should be banned entirely, as it makes absolutely no sense and is used to describe at least 4 different things in coffee, all inaccurately.  Semi-washed, like “semi-pregnant”, is an impossibility; you’re either washed or you’re not.  It could mean “incompletely washed”, but it never does- i’ve never heard anyone use it for this.  It’s a terrible term, even more terrible than the misuse of “varietal”. So “semi-washed” is on the banned list.

Demucilaged coffees, to me, qualify fairly for the “washed” nomenclature, although I realize this is controversial.  ”Mechanically washed” and “Fermented and washed” are good for clarity’s sake, but seem like better industry terms than consumer-facing ones. If I were a farmer using a demucilager, I would call my coffee “washed”, no matter where I farmed.  

Within the industry, I believe we’ll get more and more precise, and the processing descriptions will lengthen, probably to an absurd degree: (pick 85% Brix 20 plus 15% Brix 16, open-fermented for 36 hours with two rinses, washed with no mucilage adhesion, soaked underwater for 24 hours, dried on screens for 24 hours then moved to red-clay brick tiled patio for 5 days would be the accurate way to describe a coffee we now call “washed, sun-dried”)  What shall we do when we talk to consumers, particularly those interested in process?  How do we demystify all of this?  I don’t think that standardization is the answer, since diversity is part of the beauty of specialty coffee.  In any case, just some thoughts on this crazy language we coffee buyers have.

  1. janeanger reblogged this from petergiuliano and added:
    Read this if you want to know more about coffee from an absolute expert. Done and done.
  2. petergiuliano posted this
Blog comments powered by Disqus