Washed Coffee Vs. Natural: What's The Difference?

Whether at a coffee shop or just perusing the bagged bean aisle at the grocery store, there is an arsenal of coffee trends and terms to be armed with if you want to know what's ending up in your cup. Drip versus pour over, cold or nitro brew, sustainable, free trade, low-acid, and the latest of-the-moment milk alternative — the options are endless and sometimes perplexing.

There are many factors that contribute to your cup of joe's taste, including the country of origin of the bean, the climate, how it's roasted, and how it's processed. Processing is one of the final steps that determine the flavor of your grounds, and there are two main methods.

A coffee bean is technically the seed of a fruit that resembles a cherry and is often called a coffee cherry. To get to the beans, the skin and pulp must be removed. The two methods of doing so are washed and unwashed (also referred to as natural). These processes of removing the seed from the fruit vary greatly and offer up very different experiences on the palate (via National Coffee Association USA).

The washed method

The washed method is the more common way of processing coffee, per the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. It is a several-step process from the fruit on the tree branch to the bag on the shelf. Once the fruit is picked and sorted, the goal is to quickly get the fruit to the de-pulping machine to remove the beans from the flesh encasement, leaving as little time for fermentation as possible. Once the skin and most of the fleshy substance, called mucilage, are removed, the beans are transferred to a water tank. The leftover mucilage attached to the bean then ferments and washes away.

This is a highly controlled part of the process as it is responsible for the bean's flavor. The beans are then dried, undergo any further refinement, and are packaged. Because the process generally uses commercial equipment, washing coffee beans is more expensive but results in a more uniform flavor (via K Agriculture).

The unwashed or natural method

Natural coffee means no water or machines are used. The fruit goes straight from branch to being spread out to dry naturally in the sun, which can take up to six weeks. The pulp and skin are still intact and encasing the seed for the duration of the process. The fruit is completely dried before the beans are removed. Per Sweet Maria's Coffee Library, rotting and mold can be an issue during the long drying process, especially in more humid climates, so the fruit is carefully watched and rotated.

While washed coffee is more popular, unwashed coffee uses the more traditional, older method popularized in drier climates where water for washing is not as plentiful. It is still the preferred method in places like Costa Rica, Ethiopia, and Brazil. Since no machines are used, it is a much more labor-intensive process than washed coffee.

The main difference between washed and unwashed coffee is the order of steps in the process. For washed coffee, the skin and pulp are detached from the seed before drying. For unwashed or natural coffee, the fruit is dried before the skin and pulp are removed (via Sprudge).

Notable flavor differences

One method of processing is not better than the other, but the resulting flavor of what ends up in your cup varies greatly between the two.

Because the natural, or unwashed, bean spends more time wrapped up in the fruit, it has a — you guessed it — fruitier taste. Often referred to as richer and sweeter, the flavor can also be unpredictable. As the fruit sits out to dry in the sun, fermentation occurs and affects the flavor — a process left up to nature that yields varying levels of fruity to sour notes. The fruit is usually rotated regularly in an attempt to counteract the uncertainty. Many people find the flavor of natural coffee too intense, per Sprudge.

Beans that have been washed are often referred to as light and nutty — what most of us think of as a typical cup of coffee. There is more control over the process, which yields a more consistent flavor. Because the fruit is removed right away and the fermentation window is smaller, the flavor of the bean itself is what really shines (via Perfect Daily Grind).