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What Is Natural Coffee? Let’s Find Out From ...

What Is Natural Coffee? Let’s Find Out From Counter Culture Coffee Expert Tim Hill

Natural coffee with defects can reflect under UV light.

Natural coffee with defects can reflect under UV light.

Let’s start with a basic fact: coffee begins life as a fruit, and the sequence of events this fruit goes through before reaching its final roasted product is impactful. Coffee processing doesn’t often make it into over-the-counter discussions about coffee sourcing, but it’s a very important part of the flavor profile of your cup. Like anything—wine, music, or falling in love—once you know how it’s done, you appreciate the finished product more.

Coffee processing is a catch-all term that used to describe the various different processes by which the fruit—the sweet, fleshier outer part of the coffee cherry that most coffee drinkers sadly never get to taste—from the seed inside the fruit, which is shipped around the world and roasted (much to our collective delight here at Sprudge). One such style of processing is called “natural processing”, in which a coffee cherry is passively dried to separate seed from the pulp. Over the years, this natural processing method, which has been used for thousands of years and has a spiritual home in Ethiopia, has been seen as a lesser method of coffee production to a roast-ready bean when compared to washed processes, a much more modern method of using water to “wash” the fruit off the seed. Washing, the thinking goes, yields a cleaner and more balanced cup, with fewer defects.

Attention to detail: gravity sorting dried beans to separate variable density (separating over- or under- ripe seeds). Naturals tend to be more uneven due to extended drying times and cherry moisture.

Attention to detail: gravity sorting dried beans to separate variable density (separating over- or under- ripe seeds). Naturals tend to be more uneven due to extended drying times and cherry moisture.

But there are distinct benefits and lots of exciting aspects to the natural drying process that make it interesting and desirable. The method is increasingly en vogue in coffee growing regions outside of Ethiopia, where progressive coffee producers are thinking outside of the box and, in some ways, getting back to a more ancient method of coffee processing. And they’ve been greatly encouraged in their efforts by various progressive green coffee buyers, including both importers and direct emissaries from some of your favorite coffee companies.

One such emissary is Timothy Hill, a green buyer and die-hard natural process aficionado who buys coffee on behalf of our longtime friends & partners at Counter Culture Coffee. Tim Hill delivered a lecture on the past, present, and future of natural process coffee at the New York Coffee Festival this past weekend, in a talk titled “Unnatural”. During this speech, Hill spoke of the current state of the natural processing practices, and gave hopeful encouragement for the method’s future, thanks to efforts from coffee producers to improve quality and consistency.

We sat down with Hill before his presentation to talk about the current state of natural process coffees around the world, from how they’re achieved to how they’re considered. These days, natural coffees have never tasted better, due in no small part to the work of Tim Hill and others in his field, so drink up.

tim hill counter culture coffee new york coffee festival 2015 natural process coffee talk interview sprudge

So, first off, could you describe natural processing in an approachable way?

I always—and maybe it’s an unfair comparison to wine or other beverages—but in my head, I really do look at natural processing as akin to red wine, where you’re taking in more of the skin and whole product itself into the beverage. With white wine, you’re leaving the skin and the tannins out, and I think that’s a good way to think about natural coffees. With the natural processing, you’re letting the fruit and the nutrients from the skin and the sugars go into the seed through the drying process. With the washed process, you’re washing it clean so you don’t get those flavors in there.

So the seed’s actually imbued with the qualities of the fruit?

Yea, absolutely.

Are there other benefits besides flavor profile differences?

I think we’re just at the forefront of really thinking about what naturals are and how we can make naturals better. The way we think about natural processing now is very rudimentary; natural processing really hasn’t changed. Washed processing has changed a lot—there’s new equipment, new machines, new technologies that have really changed over the last 60–70 years. Natural processing is still very low technology; a much more kind of a rustic process. What I’ll talk about today includes thinking about natural coffees and how to make those way better than they currently are.

As sort of a natural, low-impact process, is it more approachable for growers? I assume there’s give-and-take…

The cost setup for natural coffees is extremely low. We [Counter Culture] have a project in Ethiopia, we’re working with about 18 growers that have sizable farms (compared to the average), and we’re starting to separate their coffees and work with them on really high-end products. We started working with them under natural context because the setup cost is extremely low—you don’t have to have a pulper, concrete, the machinery, electricity to run it—if you’re running a pretty large-sized farm. The labor and how to do it right is really tough. So it definitely is easy to take on; it’s really hard to do well. And so I think that’s where coffee buyers are—and rightfully so—trepidatious about recommending a producer do natural coffees.

Forgive my lack of knowledge, but my understanding is that fermentation is a little bit more of an issue with natural processing. Is that true?

They’re fermented. You’d be lying to yourself if you don’t think that there’s some fermentation happening and being incorporated into the coffee itself. The question is, how much of that is a problem? What are the things we associate with bad fermented natural coffees, and what do we associate with good fermented coffees? Back to red wine: they pull in more tannins from the skin—that’s a given, that just happens—that’s the nature of the product. How much of that’s bad, how much of that’s good? Where is that balance between what we like and don’t like?

Is natural processing it being adapted in any sort of recognizable trend?

I think in the specialty market it’s an easy way for producers and countries that haven’t produced really high-end specialty naturals to put themselves on the map, especially for someone that’s willing to experiment. On paper, it’s technically prohibited in some countries, for the reason that, in general, natural coffees have been considered lower grade. So government agencies have set up policies to ensure that their farmers get the maximum for their money and said natural coffees are prohibited. Rwanda and Burundi are like that. We do natural Rwandan and Burundian coffees and we export those coffees differently; we’ve basically gotten verbal agreement from the exporting board of the countries to do these coffees. But there are a lot of reasons not to do it, and even governing agents within coffee-producing countries are nervous about doing it.

Is natural processing seeing a little more of a resurgence now?

I think so.

Are specialty customers who are discerning about exploring coffee bringing it more to the forefront or is this not necessarily retail-driven?

I think it is retail-driven and I think natural coffees tend to be very polarizing coffees. But, to a certain extent, polarizing can be really great. The first coffee that got me really interested in specialty coffee was a natural coffee. For a lot of coffee people, it’s the first time you taste something and those flavors really stand out as drastically different than what you’re normally tasting in a coffee. So it tends to be this “ah-ha” moment; a snapshot of, “There’s a lot of information behind this that I don’t quite understand; what is creating this?” So, in that context, I think that coffee buyers for the last 10–15 years have been asking farmers to test it out and experiment, see what they can do to make it good. To a certain degree, a lot of those coffees, in my opinion, have been pretty poor, and I see a lot of really poorly processed natural coffees out in the marketplace. It’s that give and take of who’s asking for it, who can do it well…

Natural process done well - sorted coffees that are "thin drying".

Natural process done well – sorted coffees that are “thin drying”.

So are best practices sort of getting out there and getting around… or is that your mission?

The talk I’ll give today is a lot about what we have found works really well; the science behind what has worked. We have a methodology for looking at natural coffees in a very different way, but the reality is that if you look at natural coffees, I agree with much of the specialty community that a lot of them are really poor; a lot of them are poorly processed. Where I disagree is that I feel like there’s this blanket statement of, “Oh, that flavor in coffee is just not a good flavor.” For me, I get really excited about things that can be better. I look at natural coffees, and at the physical prep of natural coffees as a baseline for how well they’re produced. In general, they’re much poorer than washed coffees. And for a long time, I thought, “Maybe natural coffees just can’t meet the same standard that washed coffees have.” And in the last two years, we’ve actually seen natural coffees come in better physically prepared than washed coffees from the same producer, which is a milestone for Counter Culture that’s never really happened before. We had natural coffees that we were scoring and appreciating at a higher level than the washed coffees from the same producer.

That’s exciting.

Yea, very exciting for us.

So, the process: does it lend itself to certain environments?

I would say yes and no. I think that there are certain places it’s a lot easier to do, but you can use Ethiopia as a really good example of extreme climate difference between the places that are producing natural coffees. In the south, you have a pretty wet environment during harvest; it’s not always dry. In Burundi, where we do a lot of natural coffees, it rains a lot. You just have to take extra precautions to protect those coffees and make sure they’re going to be produced really well. There’s probably a few places in the world that it would be really, really hard to produce a natural coffee well, but I think that for the most part, you can produce natural coffees that are good anywhere.

Does the natural processing in various geographies affect the end product?

Oh yeah.

The flavors are going to turn out differently?

Yea, absolutely. One thing that I’ll talk about a little later today is we generally only buy natural coffees from Africa. And it’s not because their climate is so drastically different than other places in the world; a little bit of it comes from the perceived acidity from the coffee. One thing that we realized when we’re looking for a really good, naturally processed coffee is we want the acid to balance with the fruit and the sweetness. Natural coffees inherently have more sugar content than washed coffees; they’re pulling that in from the fruit and the skin. To a certain extent, a table grape analogy is probably even better than wine in this context. As a fruit ripens, it gets more and more sugar content. The acids diminish, the sugars increase; we’re recommending coffees that are grown at really high elevations that have a higher actual acidity and perceived acidity to them to cut through the sweetness of that coffee to create a better-balanced product. And because they have less sugar, they’re less prone to ferment.

So there’s a lot going for those coffees in that region.

Absolutely.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the environmental-friendliness of natural processing. As people become more conscientious about water usage, are we going to see an increase in natural process coffees?

Well…that’s a good question. I don’t know. If you look at Brazil, probably most of their coffees are natural. I think it would be really scary if the world all of the sudden decided, “We want nothing but washed Brazilian coffees.” I know that washed coffees—or what they call “pulped natural” in Brazil—are getting more popular, so they’re using more water to create their coffees. In my mind, where a lot of our thought process is going is to actually create a washed process that requires no water. I don’t think the “washing” process actually requires water, but that’s a good question.

For people who are really worried about environmental friendliness, is there a reason to seek out natural coffees? Or are we talking about the difference being negligible?

I do think that if you are really environmental and really pushing for that, you might seek out natural coffees. Ethiopia is a place that I see very poor water filtration and management of the waste water coming from the washing stations. I would probably just push coffee roasters to actually implement really good practices at those places for the washed coffees as well, but right now I would call [naturals] environmentally conscientious because of their water usage in these places.

tim hill counter culture coffee new york coffee festival 2015 natural process coffee talk interview sprudge

Does scarcity play into this at all? Are customers buying in? 

Oh yes. For me, natural coffees are a larger project I’m currently working on for Counter Culture, in the context of getting them to a much better grade. I think the coffees we carry right now are really good, I think a few of them are processed exceptionally. But [naturals] still have a really long way to go to rival their washed counterparts in terms of processing. Probably 90% of our coffees are washed coffees, but I can see it increasing as supply of really great natural coffees becomes available. Our customer demand is higher than our ability to output great natural coffees.

Do you see an overall trend in improving the quality of natural coffees? Is it a slow growth? Is it no growth? Are people trying it and are they still getting the hang of it and we’re not seeing an overall improvement?

I think we haven’t really quite focused on the right things to produce truly exceptional natural coffees in a lot of countries. I think Counter Culture’s still figuring that out as well; we don’t have all of the answers. I think we’ve been able to create coffees that I feel are way better physically prepared, come in at a much more consistent moisture level, come in with basically the same consistency that you would see in a washed coffee from cup to cup, the same amount of quakers you see in a washed coffee—so that’s the goal. To me, natural coffees should deservingly receive their little step-brother status to washed coffees until we can really get them to where [washed] are at. We’re working with producers to figure out how easy that process is. “Is it worth it?” is a really good question. We ask, “Do you want to continue doing these?” It’s so much more work than washed coffee and it takes up much more space. But at the end of the day, they’re like, “Yes, we want to create these coffees. I’m actually creating more and more of these coffees because I really like these coffees; the demand from our customers is really there.”

We’re talking about something so scarce, and there can be an argument over its quality, and the tastes can really be hit or miss—and yet, why is there fresh hype around natural coffees? 

I don’t think coffee tasters are trained really well on natural coffees. I think it’s challenging because all of the forms people are taught; like, if it’s fermented, you say it’s not specialty. And in the case of natural coffees, they’re all fermented—I don’t care what you say, they all have elements of fermentation. And acetic acid is higher in these coffees. To a certain extent as an industry, we haven’t really figured out the way that we want to talk and think about these coffees. For the most part, they’re not processed as well so they should score lower. We haven’t quite gotten the right metric down yet.

But whenever we have a public tasting, they’re always the coffee that are most talked about; they’re always the one that inspires conversation with new tasters and new people. I’d love to see more people talking about what it takes to create a really great natural coffee and appreciate the flavor profile for what it is.

D. Robert Wolcheck is a Sprudge contributor based in New York City. Read more D. Robert Wolcheck on Sprudge


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