At the most basic, oversimplified level, coffee is a dried out cherry pit. We roast it, then you grind and brew it. The details of every step of its journey, from the farm, through our roastery, to whichever devices and techniques you’re using to fill your mug, have an effect on how that coffee will taste. Huck takes care to roast these cherry pits to their fullest potential, but before they make their way to our roastery, processing - essentially how the layers of the coffee cherry are removed and how the seed is dried, and the order of the steps - is one of the biggest variables in how that roasted coffee's gonna taste.
There are many ways to process coffee, and every farm and washing station/wet mill/factory (where coffee cherries from multiple farms get processed, name depends on the country) does things a little bit different, but the three basic processes you’ll see at Huckleberry are washed, honey, and natural.
Here’s a quick primer on those basic categories.
Natural: the fruity process
In some ways, natural process is the most basic and least resource-intensive way to process coffee, but also one of the hardest to get right. In this case, coffee cherries are picked from the tree and dried in their fruit. Once the cherries are fully dry and ready for export, the dry mill removes all the dry fruity material to leave just the seed. It's hard to get right, because without careful drying, it's pretty easy for the coffee cherries to develop mold or get too hot, both of which can create some bad-funky flavors.
The best naturals though are fruitbombs. Over the course of the drying process, the coffee seed takes on fruity flavors, that when roasted, often taste like berries in the cup.
Honey: the in-between process
In this case, once the coffee cherry is picked, the thick skin of the fruit is removed by a depulping machine. The coffee cherry has a sticky inner layer called mucilage or honey, and in this case, the producer dries the de-pulped coffee with some or all of that inner fruit still on the seed.
In some cases, producers use colors to differentiate the amount of mucilage left on the seed while drying. Black honeys leave more honey on the seed, white honeys leave the least. Once the coffee is dry, there’s one final protective layer on the seed, called parchment, that is removed along with the dried honey before export. Good honey-processed coffees have big body, slightly mellower acidity, and some fruity characteristics, but in a less intense package than a full natural.
Washed: the “normal” process
Most specialty coffee, including at Huck, is fully washed, meaning that all of the fruit is removed/washed off before drying. Washed coffees can have all sorts of flavors, from chocolatey and nutty to citric and floral, but good ones should be clean and crisp. High altitude washed coffees tend to have higher acidity and distinct flavors, and in more basic cases, fruity notes won’t distract too much from the overall “tastes like coffee” vibe. That being said, at Huck we seek out washed coffees that are indeed clean and crisp, but also distinct.
Just like a honey, the first step in the washed process is depulping, but after the cherry skin is removed, the producer will wash off the mucilage. Typically, the producer allows the coffee to “ferment” - essentially resting, with or without water, and allowing the sticky mucilage to break down through microbial and other processes. After the honey is a bit less sticky, the producer washes the seed with water, and dries it in its protective parchment layer, which is removed once the coffee is dry and ready to send on the long journey to our roastery.
No two 100% alike...
Producers have increasingly experimented within these generalized process methods, tweaking fermentation times, adding an extra step here or there, changing the fermentation environment, intentionally slowing down drying...the possibilities are endless, and if a producer is doing something notably different, we’ll make sure you know. More than ever before, no two coffees are processed exactly the same, and just because two coffees have the same general processing note on our labels, it doesn’t mean they’ll have exactly the same flavors. But there will be some similarities, and if you love one natural (or don’t), that basic process note might help steer you to more coffees you’ll love, too.
Fermentation? Or fermentation+?
Once coffee is picked, fermentation and other reactions occur as long as the coffee is in contact with its outer fruit and mucilage (and probably past then, too). At this point we at least know that fermentation is not the only reaction taking place, so even if the industry uses the term "fermentation" as a catch-all, it's more complicated than that.
If the coffee is natural-processed and dried in its cherry, fermentation and other flavor-changing reactions occur throughout the drying period. In a honey-process coffee, with mucilage on the outside of the bean, a different set of reactions occur throughout the drying process.
In a washed coffee, some reactions occur between the time the coffee is picked and it is depulped, and by intentionally (or not intentionally) leaving the coffee in cherry for a longer period of time, a producer can impact flavor. Then, once the coffee is depulped of its skin and before the mucilage is washed off, more flavor-impacting reactions occur until the coffee is washed.
In all cases, manipulating the environment in which these reactions occur, including changing the time, temperature, and oxygen exposure, can impact how the coffee tastes. We're not at a point where we can definitively say that X chemical reaction happens when the producer does Y, and that creates Z flavor, but smart folks are trying to figure some of that out. Regardless, producers have used trial and error to figure out how manipulating the fermentation+ environment can impact their coffee flavor, regardless of whether there's a full understanding of the chemistry and biology behind those flavor changes.