At first glance it would be easy to read the term “natural coffee” as some kind of wellness guru scam - mystical coffee beans grown at the base of the Himalayan mountains, watered by a mineral spring, fertilised with organic banana skins and picked under the full moon for ultimate health and immaculate vibes.
Thankfully, the truth is much less pretentious. “Natural” coffee refers to a waterless way of getting coffee beans out of the fruit they grow in for market, no woo-woo involved.
Yes! These beans may not be magic, but they taste like no other. Natural processed coffees are all body and sweetness, full of flavours like fresh fruit, berries, and syrup.
They sit heavy on the palate, tending to cut through milk through sheer richness of flavour, rather than the clean acidity that you see in a washed coffee.
In our November 2022 Bean of the Month - Burundi Nyagashiha - natural processing manifests through sweet vanilla and chocolate aromatics, and molasses, mango and black currant flavours.
Natural processing also requires less water than washed coffee, resulting in less of a drain on natural resources.
The aim of natural processing is to dry the coffee cherry onto the seeds - what we call coffee beans - infusing them with the sweetness of the fruit. There are variations in technique from country to country, and even from region to region.
Every producer has their own tricks for getting the best out of their crop.
In basic terms, the natural process goes something like this:
Picking: each coffee tree is harvested on multiple days in order to get every cherry at perfect ripeness.
There are many reasons a producer will make the decision to process a crop one way or another. Natural processing is traditional in many African coffee producing countries like Burundi and Ethiopia, so there is an element of culture involved.
Sun-drying is also common practice in parts of Brazil, where access to water resources is lower than other regions. Producing great naturals is risky business - one missed mouldy cherry can taint a whole section of the harvest - so it does tend to take place in these areas with a strongly established base of tradition, knowledge and expertise.
The drying process is both labour intensive and time consuming - the beans require constant attention and turning whereas a washed coffee can be ready for the final drying stage after a few days, and uses water tanks, rather than a team of workers.
There is also the fact that some coffee drinkers do not like natural coffees! For every person swooning over a blueberry aroma, there will be another screwing up their nose.
Like food and fashion, the coffee industry moves in cycles, trends are endlessly recycled as they fall in and out of favour, but at any given time naturally processed coffee will make up at most 20% of the beans being sold by roasters around the world.
Washed coffee, with its clean, crisp flavours and predictable results, makes up the lion's share.
In the end, there isn’t anything more or less “natural” about natural coffees, but we think they’re special in their own way.
Great naturals require skill and commitment to achieve, and in the case of our November Bean of the Month Burundi Nyagashiha it’s the work of a whole community.
The Akawa Project is a collective made up of over a thousand coffee farmers working together to communally craft specialty coffee. What they are missing in terms of funding and equipment is made up for in their numbers and dedication to their crop.
Burundi is one of the poorest nations on earth and these producers are using coffee as a vehicle to a more equitable and sustainable future for their community as a whole.
The Nyagashiha is a striking coffee, with excellent depth and strength, a fitting reflection of the big-hearted people who produced it.