Skip to main content

Zen And The Art Of Natural-Process Coffee

natural process coffees

Coffee cherries sorted for natural drying at Finca San Rafael. Photo by CRS/Paul Hicks.

Last year, I waded into the debate on natural-process coffee with a post that concluded, “I think that natural coffees should have a future, and that the coffee industry, from roasters to farmers, should invest in methods and systems to make natural coffees more consistent.”

Since that post, we have attempted to walk that talk. CRS’ Blue Harvest team — focused on water management in the coffeelands — started a collaborative project with Exportadora Atlantic in Nicaragua (ECOM’s Nicaragua branch), along with other innovators in natural coffees in Central America. This work is co-funded with a grant from the Multilateral Investment Fund (FOMIN) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), as part of its SAFE Platform.

Two weeks ago, CRS staff and partners involved in Blue Harvest visited two sites in Nicaragua to learn from people on the ground, including ECOM’s Condega mill and Finca San Rafael in Sabanas. Here is an update on what we’re learning:

Exportadora Atlantic (ECOM), Nicaragua 

At its Condega plant, Exportadora Atlantic is developing and testing methods for processing natural coffees, as the exporter rapidly expands its volumes of specialty natural coffees to meet an growing demand.

Our guide was Tomás Espinosa, ECOM’s Quality Control Boss, who explained the Zen of natural coffee processing. “We are looking to balance the high acidity inherent in coffees grown in this area…. We want to capture as much flavor as we can in the natural process, but we have to balance that with the risk of over-fermentation… it’s not easy,” he explained. “Like any specialty coffee, quality starts at the farm, especially at the harvest. The timing of the harvest is even more critical than washed coffees.”

natural process coffees

Drying natural coffee at Exportadora Atlantic (ECOM) Condega Mill in Nicaragua. Photo by CRS/Paul Hicks.

Espinoza got into fine points on drying curves and methods for quick and slow drying that ECOM is pioneering to achieve great natural coffees that most people cannot distinguish from specialty washed coffees. As Espinosa went through steps involved from production to picking to drying, he explained that, “With natural coffees, you’re changing the entire system.”

Finca San Rafael

In the well-known non-fiction book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig gives what should be the motto for anyone involved in specialty coffee:

My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all.

This quote came to mind as we toured Finca San Rafael in the town of Sabanas, Nicaragua. This is a 10-hectare, family-owned farm that is setting the bar for what small producers can do in the specialty value chain. They are making investments to increase the quality of their coffee at every step of the process, starting from soil fertility to precision drying of their beans. They monitor and log every step of their operation to discover how they can add more quality and more value to their coffee.

“The registry is life for us,” said Fredman Vasquez, who applies a Silicon Valley spirit of innovation and learning to their operations. I asked Vasquez if all this extra work and effort is worth it? He laughed, and ran through the numbers on how every step has increased quality and value. They are measuring increased productivity on each tree, the effects meticulous coffee picking and sorting of cherries, the conversion (yield) of cherry to bean, and how cup quality points convert to price premiums.

natural process coffees

Fredman Vasquez from Finca San Rafael with drying honey-process coffee. Photo by CRS/Paul Hicks.

Each individual improvement requires an incremental increase in the cost of production, but the combination of these improvements yields exponential results in terms of farm net income. At the same time, the farm is far more resilient to droughts and disease.

A few years ago, Finca San Rafael was selling green coffee directly to local buyers, barely covering their costs of production, if even that. Now, they selling extraordinarily high-quality natural coffee directly to roasters and buyers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, at prices that surprised many of us. Their coffee is regularly cupped in the high 80s, even in the mid-90s.

Initial Reflections

As we continue to learn and share about this action research on natural coffees, here are a few initial reflections:

  1. Water: ECOM’s mill and Finca San Rafael are both located in the arid hills of western Nicaragua, at the fringes of the Dry Corridor of Central America, an area with no rain for six months of the year that is vulnerable to climate change.  It’s clear why a water-free natural processing is of interest to coffee producers here.
  2. Quality: Processing natural and honey coffee is hard work. I’ve been drinking natural coffee in my home for a year, and I’ve tasted some incredible brews. My standard is Las Mercedes, sold by Viva Espresso in San Salvador, a natural coffee so good it’s sold side-by-side with the best washed bourbons and pacamaras produced in El Salvador. However, I’ve also tasted a lot of natural coffee that tastes like burnt dung, or worse. Clearly, there is a lot that can go wrong in producing natural coffees, so the risks can be high. It takes an investment in labor and knowledge to get it right.
  3. Market: The market for natural coffees is growing. Given how critical water scarcity is in many coffee growing regions, there are good ethical and environmental reasons for specialty coffee roasters to seek natural coffees.

Comment

1 Comment

Tionico

Never mind the cachet of “eco friendly”, “sustainable”, etc, I PREFER natural process coffees over typical washed every time. In all the years I’ve been enjoying them (at least ten, though quality and variety of choice has lately improved dramatically) I ave yet to find one that was not at least enjoyable, and most are outstanding to “if I could get enough of it I’d drink it every day” offerings. In fact I happen to be drinking an Ethipian Natural from Yrgacheffe right now as I browse. I widh I’d gotten ten bags instead of only the two I managed to grab. I’ve had opportunity to buy the same varietal from the same farm in both wet and natural process, and every time have preferred the natural, even once when the washed was submitted to the Cup of Excellence and took something like twelfth place. the Natural, was from the same day’s pick, came off the hill in the same truck…. wet side of mill was at capacity to the balance of that day’s pick got turned out on the patios to dry. Yes, the COE was wonderful, even legendary. But I prefer the natural.

I am SO glad the producers are waking up to the glories of a well produced Natural or Honey. If I ever get round to opening a retail shop, I think I will concentrate on great Naturals and Honey process coffees….. maybe one or two washed for the “uneducated” whose status I believe I would quickly convert…….
The two biggest factors in producing Naturals seem to be the much longer time on the drying patios, and resultant increase in the labour to turn tem for that much longer, whihc factors together of necessity increase the production cost. However, in my opinion the premium is more than offset by the added delght in a well managed natural or honey

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *