A predicament we find ourselves in when choosing coffees to sample roast, a seemingly simple decision but in reality a complex one.
This is somewhat of a multi-layer question and to really be able to understand if a natural, or dry process coffee is better than a washed, or wet process coffee we need to understand both processes a bit better. The key difference between a natural and a washed coffee, is in how and when the fruit is removed from the bean.
In a washed coffee the ripe fruit is taken to a depulper machine which squeezes the coffee seed out of the fruit pulp almost immediately after harvest. Once the fruit is removed, there is still a gooey layer surrounding the coffee bean called the mucilage, so after depulping, the beans are placed overnight in a wet fermentation tank to remove it. The next day, the coffee seeds are washed a few more times.
Natural unwashed coffees are not depulped, instead the ripe fruit is spread out on a covered pavement floor or on elevated beds to sit in the sun. The fruit must be attentively watched to avoid any mold, fermentation or rotting. They are continuously sorted and rotated during their 3 to 4 weeks of sun drying.
It is during this time that the common fruit notes are imparted on the coffee such as blueberry, raspberry and tropical fruit.
Finally, the coffee beans are ran through a hulling machine which uses friction to remove the dried fruit revealing the green coffee bean inside.
Compared to other processes, the washed process is said to produce a higher level of acidity, increased complexity and an overall “clean” cup whilst natural coffees are believed to have a generally fruitier profile regardless of the coffee variety or terroir simply because of the longer fruit contact to the seed. However, too long of contact can also impart unpopular tastes such as barnyard, ferment or manure.
In recent years, washed coffees are reaching new flavor heights with new techniques such as honey processing, anaerobic fermentation, and carbonic maceration, which marry the control of washing coffees while purposely allowing the mucilage to impart some flavor unto the coffee bean.
When the quality and traceability are there, coffee taste is a personal choice and in the end, it is not whether a natural is better than a washed coffee. There will always be stand outs of each type and with the technology and growing interest in de-commoditizing coffee we will continue to have a better and better product. Personally, we've had some natural Ethiopian blueberry bombs that seemed like a religious experience as well as washed coffees packed with flavor like the Tanzania Peaberry that we are dropping next. So just continue tasting your way until you find what you love, and enjoy!