What makes coffee flavor? There is no single or simple answer to that question unless we count the answer, “It’s complicated.” There are countless variables that impact the flavor a coffee bean expresses, even beyond the plant’s roots themselves, and all the way does into the soil where those roots are planted. The coffee plant’s botanical genetics are also at play in the creation of flavor, as is the ripeness when the fruit is picked, the roasting style and quality, and, of course, the final brewing—all of this and more contribute to the mishmash of elements that impact a coffee’s flavors.
At Cafe Imports, we happen to think that post-harvest processing is one of the biggest determining factors of a coffee’s profile and characteristics. Of course, as with everything else in coffee, there are no real defined parameters or through-and-through explanations of processing, and not only the methodologies but also the terms and results will vary from place to place—even from farm to farm.
Coffee is processed differently throughout the world; sometimes this is due to tradition, other times it is the result of experimentation and intentional decision and design. Producers around the world are exploring and tweaking their processing methods every day: The results can be astounding or appalling, such is the nature of experimentation. We support our producer partners’ experiments by often committing to purchase these one-off lots regardless of their finished quality. In our eyes, this is the only truly sustainable way to nurture a partnership and encourage trust and collaboration.
There are several major categories of coffee processing that are generally recognized in the coffee industry. Sometimes these are called different things depending on what country you are in or what language you are speaking, but the basic elements and steps are generally similar or at least recognizable.
Furthermore, we tend to mix the terms “fermentation” and “processing,” just like we mix the terms “altitude” and “elevation.” They are related, but they are not equivalent: There is fermentation that happens during processing, but not all processing is fermentation. Below, we briefly describe and explain not only the bullet points of the processing methods themselves but also touch briefly on the role that fermentation plays in each.