Seattle’s Victrola Coffee worked with Hacienda Sonora in Costa Rica on a 3-process coffee, and this is what they found
BY KENDON SHAW
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
Read these tasting notes for a Costa Rica: Almonds and chocolate. Cherries and milk chocolate. Cherry cordial. Do you see the progression? Most of us would probably do well in the œJava Junkie category on Jeopardy, but do we really understand the impact of coffee processing on the final cup? I’m not talking about a natural Ethiopia vs. a washed Kenya. Let’s remove some variables and then we’ll talk about those tasting notes.
Most of the time when we taste coffees that were processed differently, there are other variables involved. The region, the farm, or the varietal is usually also different between cups on the table, so we’re left guessing or inferring the impact of only the processing. It’s rare that we get the opportunity to taste coffees where the processing method is the only variable.
Our roasting team at Victrola Coffee in Seattle worked with Alberto Guardia from Hacienda Sonora in Costa Rica to produce three differently processed coffees from one single lot on his farm. He was gracious enough to take the extra time and effort to produce this coffee for us. And we couldn’t be more proud of the results. We’re thinking of taking him with us when we make a run for Jeopardy fame.
Quick primer on processing
Because coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee cherry, the way that the fruit and seed are treated at origin can have a drastic effect on the final taste in the cup. It’s sort of the reverse of almost every other fruit: the cherry is grown for the seed only, and the fruit is discarded.
Washed Process: The coffee cherry is de-pulped in a wet mill, briefly fermented, then the fruit is washed away and the seeds are left out to dry on patios or beds. Most coffee is processed this way and it produces a very clean cup.
Honey Process: The coffee cherry is de-pulped as in the washed method, but instead of being fermented to remove the excess fruit, it is immediately laid out on a patio to dry with some pulp, or mucilage, still on the seed. This processing method produces some balanced sweet and fruit flavors because the seed spent time with the fruit.
Natural Process: The coffee cherry fruit is not removed at all and is laid out to dry with the whole fruit intact. This infuses the seed with all of the sugars and fruit flavors in the cherry, and produces a very fruit-forward cup.
The Hacienda Sonora Experiment
In almost every case, it makes little economic sense for the farmer to split his or her crop and take the extra time to process it in three different, time consuming ways. So needless to say, when the opportunity arose with Alberto, our team did a little dance. On the cupping table, we found these coffees to be distinct in their own ways, but still hovering around the same base flavors. We think of it as a fruit in various stages of ripeness.
Here are some of the notes from Victrola’s roasting team about the different processing methods:
In the Washed Process coffee, we picked up a pleasant nutty characteristic which was reminiscent of toasted hazelnut or almond. There was a pleasant undertone of milk chocolate; a spicy quality that evoked peppercorn and dried ginger; and an interesting vegetal/leguminous quality that evoked fresh snap peas. The acidity was pleasant, but toyed with an astringency that you might find in an underripe cherry.
In the Honey Process coffee, we noted that the undercurrent of chocolate and peppercorn that we picked up in the Washed was still present, but was a bit more subdued. The mouthfeel was heavier than the Washed, and the body was full, and smooth. There were additional fruit notes–cherry, raspberry, and a faintly savory note that reminded us of cantaloupe.
In the Natural Process coffee, fruit flavors dominated in the cup. The previous chocolate and peppercorn were still present, but reminded us of chocolate-covered strawberry, and cherry cordial. The cantaloupe note that we noticed the Honey Process was present as well, but the melon was full ripe, juicy and sweet.
Nerd out with us
We are very proud of this project and to bring this coffee to our fellow coffee enthusiasts. It’s fun to nerd out on these things and hope you enjoy it as well. If you’re interested, find out more about this project at victrolacoffee.com/costarica.
In the meantime, back to practicing phrasing our answers in the form of a question. Excuse me, *What is* the big deal with coffee processing?
Having built a closer than usual relationshi with a family growing operatiion in el Salvador, I had opportunity to acquire two different coffees at the same time. It started as one day’s pick of the same clonally propagated pacamara hillside. Getting the coffee downhill to the mill, it started out through the wetmill, which was overwhelmed, they needed to get the fruit out of the bins, so in the end 3/4 went to the wetmill, the other 1/4 off to the drying patios, full natural. So here we have same pick of the same clonal population on the same day, separated rendomly into two different processing methods. I was able to get the one bag left of the Natural only because it had been miss-shipped and returned to the warehouse, where an inside contact made it possible to put MY name on it. The next year, this same hillside was separated again, so the same pick went both ways. So not only did I get the two different processes as the ONLY definitive difference, I also got to see the year on year difference, same hillside, same two processes. Now THERE is something you’ll almost never find in the normal world, and it represents one of the best things about building a relationship with a quality producer. One of those lots was submitted to the Cup of Excelence competition, full bags randomly selected from the standard production run (not opened and hand sorted or any other “special” treatment) and placed in the low teens that year. I also was able to get one bag of a nanolot, six bags total, of that same clonally planted hillside but a small pocket where the soil was different due to a geological upset…. remarkably different flavour in that one, so here terroir came into play.
Fun stuff, and all good. This experiment by Victrola is a useful exercise, and a great way to educate not only ourselves but the buying public as well. The more we can take our craft in a direction other than “brown beans in bags”, we all win. Well done.