IT WAS THE SMELL that got me. Normally, a cup of coffee smells roasty, or meaty, or in some sad cases burnt, but this was different. This one smelled like blueberries. Not vaguely of blueberries, or suggestive of blueberries, but like a cup full of mashed blueberries turned somehow into hot brown liquid. Convinced my cup had been adulterated or mistaken for something intended for a child, I took an exploratory sip — it tasted like coffee, rich and smooth and vaguely fruity in a sophisticated way that reminded me more of wine than, say, soda.
This, I was informed by the very knowledgeable and accordingly aloof barista, was a “natural process coffee.”
To produce the majority of coffee you’re likely to drink in the United States, a coffee cherry is picked, then blasted with water to remove the skin and fruit pulp, and then the seed — the green “bean” — is dried before shipment to a roastery that will roast, crush and press it into the beverage that many of us practically live on today. This is called “wet processing” and it’s possible that every coffee bean you’ve ever had has gone through this process.
Sometimes, though, the fruit is left on. Coffee producers will simply spread the cleaned coffee cherries out in the sun on their plantation patios, whole and in their juicy entirety, and allow them to dry with the fruit pulp and skin still attached. (Sometimes, in bigger operations, a drying machine helps this along.) All this heat has a predictable effect on the fruit — it breaks down, it goes soft, and even begins to ferment before shriveling up. Then the resulting mass is washed and dried and sold green like any other coffee. And in the burlap sacks, it looks just like any ordinary washed coffee, too.
But it smells very, very different. You can inhale the scent of the dry green beans themselves, which smell like strawberry jam, or apricots or bananas. These coffees are wild and untamed, like sourdough bread starters, each batch as individual and unpredictable as a vat of porch-fermented applejack. Roasting only seems to enhance the aromas, and while in many cases the “tasting notes” printed on bags of third-wave coffee are illusory at best, when you see “raspberry jam, fig, and vanilla” on a bag of natural process coffee, you’ll often be hit directly with those scents the minute you open the seal.
Now, natural process coffees do not actually taste fruity. If you hold your nose, your tongue will not necessarily register the coffee’s “stawberriness” the way it would if you ate a real strawberry, or even a piece of strawberry candy. But smell is such a big part of taste, particularly with coffee, that your brain might insist your drink is artificially flavored. (Artificially flavored coffee is a totally different product. The roasted beans are coated in synthetic flavor syrup, and it is not something I would recommend to anyone I liked.) Still, I squinted pretty hard at that first cup of berry-scented brew, suspicious that some kind of syrup witchery was involved. But I subsequently worked as the wholesale manager at that very roastery for a number of years and saw the beans arrive green, get roasted, and then get bagged (often by me) and I assure you, they were pristine from truck to cup.
Natural process coffees are also sometimes labeled “sun-dried,” “unwashed” (which, accurate though it might be, is not great marketing language) or “dry process.” This is actually the oldest method of coffee production, used long before water processors. It is still widely in use in Ethiopia, and is on the rise in Central America and Brazil. Many of your fussier third-wave coffee roasteries will sell a “natural” among their suite of offerings, often from Ecuador or Paraguay. There is also a middle way, called “semi-dry” or “honey” processing, in which the skin of the fruit is removed but the gooey mucilage left on, producing similarly fruity, complex flavors. I usually find them to be a bit less pronounced than naturals (but no less delicious).
Natural and honey processing are fiddly — you need a climate that’s suitable for growing coffee at all, but not so humid that your coffee fruit will rot or grow fungus; the cherries must be raked consistently as they dry; and any degree of over-drying or under-drying ruins the batch. So, fair warning, it sometimes costs a tad more for the really good ones. But almost a decade later, I still remember that blueberry-scented cup, far more than any madeleine I might have ordered to dip into it. And luckily for you, this is Seattle, the city that invented being fussy about coffee. So just check with any of your local third-wave coffee roasters to see what they’ve got on their shelves this week, and if you find a particularly good one, that’s what the comment section is for. Let a girl know.