What is washed coffee?

Ordinary users, who buy coffee – of better or worse quality – in the supermarket and leave us to our own devices, do not distinguish between the different types of coffee according to the process the beans undergo before drying. We think that all beans are treated equally. But… nothing could be further from the truth.

There are very interesting differences in the different harvests depending on whether we are talking about washed, semi-washed or natural coffee. If all these concepts sound unfamiliar to you, don’t worry because, in this article, we want to explain it all to you. It is necessary to have an overview of how coffee is processed before drying in order to understand what is meant by washed coffee in our industry.

What is washed coffee?

First of all, let’s start at the beginning. When the coffee beans are harvested from the plant, they undergo a drying process that lasts several days before they are ready for roasting. Well, prior to drying, the coffee beans can be hulled or husked in different ways. This is called coffee processing. Each of these three ways constitutes a different process, and up to three are used in the industry:

  • The natural coffee process: this is the one in which the whole coffee cherry is dried, without peeling or removing anything at all. Just as it is harvested from the plant. It is also known as unwashed coffee.
  • The washed coffee process: this is the one that concerns us in this article, where the cherry is opened and peeled almost completely, leaving the two coffee beans inside only covered by the last layer called parchment.
  • The honey (or semi-washed) coffee process is an intermediate treatment between washing and natural. The cherry is peeled, but not all the layers are removed from the beans. An intermediate film, called mucilage, which has a gelatinous texture, is retained.

The process we are dealing with in this article, the washed method coffee, is the most common of all. We could say that it is the “normal” coffee.

What does the washed coffee method consist of?

In order to obtain washed coffee, certain steps must be followed. The outer layers of the bean cannot be removed.

The first step is to open the cherry and separate the two coffee beans inside.

Each of these beans has a second layer called mucilage, which we have already said is somewhat sticky, like jelly.

To remove this mucilage, the beans must be “washed” with plenty of water and then left to ferment so that the mucilage can be easily removed. Otherwise, it would be impossible to remove it, and we would be left with a half-washed or semi-washed coffee.

natural washed coffee
Washed coffee in the foreground, against honey on the right and natural coffee in the background.

Characteristics of washed coffee

As we have seen, coffee processing (which is the correct name for this step that takes place between harvesting and roasting the beans) is basically used to remove all or part of what covers the seed or bean. And it is of paramount importance in the final flavour and aromas of the bean because the final product will not have the same flavours if it has several layers on top during roasting, or on the contrary, if it has none at all.

Generally speaking, a washed coffee bean will have more acidity and less body than a natural one. This is neither bad nor good; it is simply a different cup profile.

The technical, or organic, the reason is very simple. All those layers that are removed in washed coffee (mucilage, etc.) ferment during the drying process, releasing sugars and other elements that end up being reflected in the bean. This does not happen with washed coffee.

What is the difference between washed, semi-washed and natural coffee?

This is a question that we have already answered indirectly in the previous sections. Still, we will clarify it more briefly here: the difference between a washed coffee and natural coffee is that washed coffee has all the layers removed before it is dried. The difference between washed and semi-washed coffee, on the other hand, is more subtle: semi-washed or honey coffee retains some of the mucilage.

It should also be borne in mind that depending on the number of layers in the bean; it will have to be dried for more or less time. A natural bean cannot be dried in the same way as a washed or honey bean.

Why is washed coffee also called wet coffee?

The name wet coffee comes from the water used during the processing of the coffee to “wash” the bean, which is nothing more than removing the layer of mucilage that covers it. This is the detail that differentiates it from honey or semi-washing since, without the action of water, it would be impossible to remove the mucilage manually.

This is why we speak of wet processing or wet coffee when referring to washed coffee beans. In this video, we can see it better: