Washed vs Unwashed Coffee (What are they? Which is better?)

You know the morning flow: you get out of bed, walk to the kitchen with one eye closed, pour whatever coffee you have into the machine, and patiently wait for your daily dose of ‘wake up’ juice.

No one would actually think about what happened to the coffee before it ended up in the cup. Often than not, most of us who read about the terms ‘washed’ or ‘unwashed’ probably saw it on the package.

Whether you too, read it somewhere, or heard about it and wanted to find out more about each of this the processing methods of coffee beans. Keep reading to find out more about the differences between both, how does each one affect the flavor of your coffee, and which is ultimately better.

Understanding Coffee

Before we dive into the comparison between washed and unwashed coffee, you should first understand some of the basics about the composition of coffee beans and the way they’re prepared. This will help you better understand the processing methods we’ll be discussing later on.

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So let’s begin with the coffee bean itself. Coffee isn’t actually a bean, it’s a fruit. More specifically, coffee is a cherry that’s made up of layers enclosing two seeds.

After harvesting the cherries from the plant, the first step in processing coffee is to separate the seeds from the rest of the fruit. These seeds are what will eventually become the commonly known coffee beans.

Removing the seeds from the outer layers can be done through several methods, including washed and unwashed methods.

What is Washed Coffee?

Also called wet coffee, washed coffee is a process that involves the use of water to remove various coffee fruit layers before proceeding to the drying phase. To put it simply, water washes off the mucilage layer (responsible for the majority of the coffee sweetness) after the fruit has been fermented.

Here’s a step by step explanation of the washed process:

  • First, the coffee fruit is picked/collected and sorted to exclude any damaged or unripe fruits.
  • The coffee fruit is then pulped. This means the skin of the cherry is removed using a special machine called a pulper. Here, all the layers are discarded except for the mucilage layer.
  • Next, coffee is fermented inside huge tanks of water where enzymes work to break down the mucilage.
  • Once fermentation is complete, the fruits are washed to remove the mucilage, leaving the seeds behind for drying.

This particular method yields coffee of superior quality compared to other processing methods. However, it takes a high level of skill and a lot of water to perfectly prepare wet coffee.

What does Washed Coffee Taste Like?

So how does this method affect the taste of the coffee? Well, when people try to describe washed coffee, they often use the term “clean”. This actually makes sense because removing the mucilage eliminates most of the sweetness in coffee, directing your focus towards the flavor of the bean itself.

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As a result, washed coffee does have a clean taste that’s coupled with a fruity twist as well as a hint of fresh acidity. This unique taste profile makes washed coffee a popular hit among coffee enthusiasts.

Additionally, washed coffee allows the intrinsic flavors of the beans to power through, so you’ll experience a taste based on the origin of the coffee beans without being tinted by the typical processing methods.

What is Unwashed Coffee?

Also known as the “dry process” or “natural coffee processing”, unwashed coffee is one of the oldest methods used to separate the coffee seeds from its fruit. Consequently, you shouldn’t think of this process as wrong or low-quality since it’s been in action for hundreds of years.

So how is unwashed coffee prepared? First, the coffee cherries are washed, laid out, and left in the sun to dry. This will often last for several weeks during which the fruits are regularly turned to avoid spoilage.

Knowing how unwashed coffee is made, it’s understandable why this method is typically found in countries with hotter climates (for example, Brazil and Ethiopia) since rainfall is minimal and sunshine is prolonged.

Once the coffee is all dried up to reach about 11% in moisture, the green seeds are expelled from the fermented fruit. This step is the trickiest part of the entire process.

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However, the unwashed process doesn’t require as high a level of skill as washed coffee does, which makes it much easier and less expensive to complete. This is why unwashed coffee is widely adopted by coffee manufacturers across the globe.

What does Unwashed Coffee Taste Like?

The unwashed method yields coffee with a more weighty body compared to the washed method. Unwashed coffee also retains its sweetness, characterised by a smooth and more complex taste.

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Thanks to the sweeter flavor, you can often detect notes of blueberry, strawberry, or a kind of tropical fruit pulling through your coffee.

Which Method is Better?

Now that you know the differences between washed and unwashed coffee, you’re probably wondering which one is better. To tell you the truth, no one can definitively answer this because it just comes down to how you like your coffee.

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Both processes ultimately achieve the same purpose; they remove coffee seeds from the fruit without losing their natural aromas.

That being said, washed coffee does offer more consistent flavors with a larger taste profile. This explains why washed coffee is used in high-end coffee blends.

By no means does this make unwashed coffee bad, it just doesn’t have the same flavor consistency, so it fails to meet the strict standards of Specialty coffee.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article was able to help you understand the key differences between washed vs unwashed coffee. As for choosing one of the two methods, it really comes down to what type of coffee drinker you are.

One thing is certain though, both washed and unwashed coffee preparations can create a unique coffee experience with delightful flavors that’ll keep you coming back for more!