What makes coffee taste how it does? The answer is almost always, “It’s complicated.”
There are countless variables that impact the characteristics a coffee bean expresses: The coffee plant’s botanical genetics are at play, as well as the terroir where it’s planted, the ripeness of the picked coffee cherry, the roasting style and quality, and, of course, the final brewing.
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, not only the methodologies but also the terms and results will vary from place to place—even from farm to farm between neighbors.
Coffee is processed differently throughout the world, sometimes due to tradition, or as the result of experimentation and intentional design. Producers globally explore and tweak their processing methods every day: The results can be astounding or appalling, such is the nature of experimentation.
There are several major categories of coffee processing that are generally recognized in the coffee industry. These are called by different terms 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.
Additionally, we tend to interchangeably use the terms “fermentation” and “processing,” just like we swap the terms “altitude” and “elevation.” They are related, but they are not equivalent: There is fermentation happening 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.