I've recently returned from a visit to El Salvador (where temperatures reached a glorious 90F by the coast!), and it has me thinking about the effect of processing on coffee. It is certainly nothing new to say that how coffee is processed (that is, removed from the fruit and dried) has a vast impact on the quality of flavors and characteristics that one can get out of it. However I certainly have had a revolution in my thinking about where a coffees gets its particular flavor and characteristics in the past year.
The first factor that I learned about as a budding coffee professional (a category that I still consider myself in), was the micro-climate that a coffee is grown in. This includes the altitude, soil composition, humidity, and sun exposure. The next factor I became aware of was the varietal of coffee plant that was being used - not just Robusta versus Arabica (which even my grandmother seems to be aware of), but Arabica Typica vs. Arabica Bourbon. The role varietal played was made explicitly clear when I first tasted the Geisha variety in Panama in early 2007 - which immediately stood out on the cupping table among typical Panamanian varieties.
2008 brought another "aha" moment: tasting an "experimental" micro-lot coffee from El Salvador. It's substantial body and dominate fruit flavors would have normally caused me to think it was straight from Ethiopia! Why did it so resemble Ethiopian coffees that I had tasted before? It all came down to the processing. Like many Ethiopian coffees, this had been left to dry in the fruit. It is actually the oldest processing method for coffee, and still used in Africa partially due to the lack of water there. It is also a tricky way to process coffee (at least to process the coffee well) because of the increased moisture surrounding the beans during drying, which can cause fermentation and requires longer time on the patio.
When I began working with Topéca, I almost immediately asked if they had been doing any naturally processed coffees. Fortunately Emilio (who runs Topéca's El Salvadoran operations) had already begun to explore this option. However, due to last years large crop and lack of patio space, only a small amount had been brought in. I cupped some of what was left and, while pleased by the contrast it had to our other coffees, felt it still lacked something.
Well this crop has exceeded expectations! While on the farm in January we cupped the new Natural, and it was fantastic. Emilio truly outdid himself this year and managed to produce a naturally processed coffee that had distinct fruit flavors without tasting too "dirty" (another possible byproduct of the method). Rather, it is remarkably clean and smooth - a great hybrid of the classic Bourbon varietal it is comprised of and the unique processing method. Additionally, what we were tasting was fresh off of the patios - without having been fully sorted or rested! We expect all the coffees to only get better from here on out.
To see photos of the micro-mill doing our more typical, semi-wash process, click here.