Coffee Botany

Baring Fruit: The Undressing of a Coffee Cherry

by Head of Coffee, Eduarda Cristovam.

How much do you know about the coffee you drink?

There are those who enjoy coffee and sigh at that first sip, without fretting or stressing about the detail or how it all comes to end so beautifully in the cup. You have better things to do with your time. You simply enjoy.

Some of you, however, may have fleetingly contemplated the wizardry that makes your coffee so sneakily flavorsome. This is for you...

The coffee you know and love comes as roasted beans or ground coffee before being brewed; child’s play so far. If we regress to the start, we find coffee growing on trees as cherries. Not big juicy cherry clusters dangling from longish stems. Coffee cherries are more seed than flesh and grow close to the branches forming neat groups almost surrounding the branch from tip to base; like leg warmers for tree branches. When laden with cherries, trees look Christmas-ready with red, yellow, pinkish or green peppering the branches. Although beautiful to look at, we are after the seeds inside these cherries. Before talking about harvesting, animals must be mentioned. Some animals eat coffee cherries. Elephants for example, the Jacu bird in Brazil, but the most famous is the Civet cat (not an actual cat) in Indonesia. These animals don’t have a predilection for coffee cherries only; they will eat various berries and disperse seeds efficiently. The coffee cherries are not fully digested, with the seeds staying intact; and what goes in must come out. Someone once plucked these waste animal processed seeds, washed, dried, roasted them and brewed coffee. Whether the initial reason was accidental (unlikely), necessity (possible) or curiosity (probable), the result was unusual. The brewed coffee tastes unique and can vary from earth and spice to sweet and crisp, depending on the fermentation, and the enzymes involved. Staring at my cat I know she would rather disembowel a bag of treats than eat coffee cherries given the choice. The rotund wood pigeons visiting my garden aren’t good candidates as cherry processing machines either. They might find coffee cherries alluring only with a fat, juicy worm wrapped around it. In short, this option is somewhat strange, has output limitations and there’s the obvious reason. It is difficult to accept that the volume of these coffees available for sale is secured under free range conditions. Animal captivity for coffee processing is unacceptable and therefore the line must be drawn here.

When harvesting, cherries can be selectively removed by hand or all together mechanically. Manual harvesting sounds romantic. Walking in a field carrying baskets singing and joyfully picking only the ripe cherries. The first 15 minutes are heaven, but backbreaking, dirty, and repetitive work soon hits. If a machine is at hand to do the work in a fraction of the time, would I say no? It depends.

At high altitude in terraced farms or under canopies, nothing gets through so hand harvesting is the only choice. In flatlands with well-spaced trees, machines can rule, and they are like mobile car washing for trees, with rotating brush like metal strips shaking and sucking cherries from trees. Cherry sorting between ripe and unripe happens later; machine harvesting, unlike humans, is not selective.

Regardless of how harvesting is done, coffee cherries need to be processed so they don’t spoil. The route selected depends mainly on the weather, location and access to labour. Humans ultimately utilise the methods to hand, with the environment and climate often dictating the outcome. In hot dry locations without excessive humidity, cherries are spread out on concrete patios, dirt fields or raised beds and simply allowed to dry after harvesting. This is the Natural method. Raking and turning the cherries is important to avoid mould growth and promote even drying, but nothing much more is needed apart from sun. The cherries will shrivel naturally, and the skin and fleshy material will darken. De-pulping will separate the seed from the dried fruit material releasing the coffee beans.

My garden is on its way to becoming a frog sanctuary and it rains often so my environment could not be less ideal for this method. It feels laissez-faire though, unfussy and is based on faith that the sun will deliver. These coffees will often develop unique flavours closely related to the fruit materials enveloping the beans during drying. With natural processed coffees, you can taste the ghost of the fruit and the sun; the echo of the processing environment. This is used often in Ethiopia and Brazil, the flavours are fruit-driven with citrus, berry, sweetness and a heavy body. These coffees may be perceived as not greatly refined but they offer sassy quirkiness.

Where rain or humidity are prevalent, drying the whole cherry evenly, seed and all with the Natural method is risky. Instead washing skin and fruit materials away before drying the seed is a strategy that makes drying easier. This is the Washed method. Coffee producers first de-pulp the cherries and release the seeds, allowing them to ferment in water tanks to break down the mucilage (the sticky material leftover around the beans). The length of fermentation can vary and to stop it, beans are washed repeatedly until all residue is removed. The last step is drying. This method is complex and depends on good access to water. Why use it? It’s controllable, the result is a consistent product and there’s less risk if the weather was to turn. Coffees are juicy, and acidity drives the flavour. The outside of the seed is washed away, the beans stand alone and cannot hide behind the processing; we can taste the variety, and (please forgive me) the terroir. Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica among others favour this method, and whilst this is a broad generalization, apple and wine-like fruit acidity is expected, with a light and crisp body. Picture being on a beach drinking lemonade.

The Honey method is clever and greedy; a way of handling coffee cherries somewhere between a natural and a washed process. It’s wanting the cake and eating it too. Farmers want both the acidity of a Washed coffee and the sweetness and body of a Natural. De-pulping takes place after harvesting removing skin and some flesh from the seeds, leaving the sticky sweet mucilage; hence the name, but no actual honey. The beans enveloped in this sticky layer are dried slowly. The amount of flesh and mucilage determines acidity, sweetness, body and the beans’ appearance after drying; they can look white, yellow, red or black. More coffee cherry material left on the outside, the darker the colour. This requires control, knowledge and is used by farmers who experiment to achieve unique flavours driving quality and price. Deviations exist as environmental adaptations and a way of humans pushing ingenuity to the limit. Is that all? Well, there are other methods, variations of the three main ones and I have simplified. I could say semi-washed, pulped natural, wet hulling but you have suffered enough. Processing coffee is labour intensive, after drying beans go through further handling, sorting and grading by weight, colour, shape. This can be done manually or mechanically. Again, an idyllic image can be conjured where every step is artisanal and lovingly handled to the sound of “The Lark Ascending”. The reality that delivers the coffee volume to satisfy the worldwide need for a latte is dusty and noisy where vibrating beds, drying drums, sorting screens scream to the beat of the “Warrior’s Dance” by the Prodigy.

Does the method matter? Yes. When growing fruit in our gardens, creativity is part of the parcel. A bounty tomato crop will force us to come up with preservation alternatives. From sun dried, fermentation or jam (my favourite), the options are varied and taste different.

Next time you frown in disapproval at a coffee, it may be that your displeasure is not down to the origin (assuming all else is perfect), but instead a reaction to the processing. Before dismissing Honduras (a lovely country used purely as an example) and vowing never to touch another coffee from there again, look for the process. Maybe you dislike the fruit acidity of the Washed method and a Honey may offer more sweetness.

The method ultimately used is linked to tradition, location, climate and often accidents. Monsooning is unique to India and the recreation of an accident to satisfy those who grew to love coffee aged during the long journey in the bowels of wooden ships sailing to Europe. It exposes already dried coffee beans to the Monsoon winds carrying moisture. It happens slowly in ventilated warehouses with coffee spread out in thick layers and raked often. The beans swell up to almost twice their original size because they absorb moisture gradually and the colour turns pale. This coffee is peculiar, the acidity dies and instead it offers earthy, musty, pungent flavours and a heavy body. When did musty stop being a fault and was rebranded as aged? Drinking a Monsoon coffee is like tasting the roulette of chaos; only for the brave. With a few modifications, this could work in my wet and windy garden, but I doubt I could grow coffee trees in ankle-deep water. Instead, I will drink coffees from resilient producers who come up with sustainable processing alternatives achieving a point of difference and transforming coffee flavours beyond the ordinary so I too can sigh at that first sip.

Share this article

About Dr Eduarda Cristovam

Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie


Eduarda is our resident sensory expert, with 21 years of experience in Sensory Analysis; 19 of which are specific to the coffee industry. As a result, Eduarda has a unique and inspiring way of describing coffee attributes and her interactive tasting sessions come highly recommended.

In addition to holding a PhD (Quality drivers in Port Wine and Espresso Coffee), Eduarda has lectured in Sensory Studies at Adelaide University, Australia, and is an Honorary Guest Lecturer at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.

As Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie, Eduarda oversees the development and introduction of all our new coffee and non-coffee products.