Like any aspect of human culture, specialty coffee is susceptible to the fickle shifting of trends and expectations. But unlike local tastes or esoteric colloquialisms, coffee has a massive, global scope. Where practices, methodology, and motivations are manipulated not just by the 20 something baristas at your local cafe, but by producers, importers, roasters, and retail consumers as well. And remember, we’re talking globally. Coffee is grown in over 70 countries, each with their own unique landscape, culture, and economic and political systems before being exported and sold all over the world. So if specialty coffee is changing hands and impacting the lives of thousand and thousands of people all over the world, why does a lead barista in a specialty cafe get the right to shrug off of a washed 84 point Guatemalan coffee because it wasn’t fermented with banana peels?
It seems that in recent years there has been a cultural shift, at least in the States, where specialty roasters and subsequently baristas are in pursuit of the most fashionable, avant-garde and outlandish coffees processed in a way that sounds like it was patented by Willy Wonka. In the now 4th wave or whatever era of coffee we’re in, baristas are feigning over anaerobic coffees, or banana fermented coffees, or coffees fermented with spices. And while there is some merit to this, I’ve tasted plenty of wild and exciting coffees processed in these contemporary styles, when is fair to admit that it has gone too far? To admit that it is possible we’ve crested the precipice of the specialty coffee bell curve and determined it is necessary to head back to tradition? And I don’t mean traditional like commodity grade coffee, dark roasts, or lever actuated espresso machines. But sweet, aromatic, and balanced washed coffees. Wouldn’t that be easier on the entire supply chain as a whole? Producers would be less inundated with experimental techniques and be able to dedicate their time towards improving yield and sustainability, roasters would have less risk purchasing coffees that are often prohibitively expensive, then struggle with roasting them due to inconsistencies, and then try to sell them to cafes who will them be faced with the obstacle of convincing their clientele that 8 dollars is a fair price for a 10 oz cup of banana anaerobic fermented Pacamara.
Again, these contemporary coffees can be cool and rightly have a place somewhere in the coffee world. But I think washed coffees are truly the unsung heroes of specialty coffee, and they are often the backbone of most coffee related businesses. So instead of criticizing experimental coffees further, I want to sing the praises of washed coffee.
I assume if you’ve read this far, you know what coffee processing is. But for the oddly inquisitive reader who does not, here is a quick explanation: Coffee processing is the way in which the seeds, or coffee beans, are removed from the coffee cherry before being dried, bagged, and sold to roasters to be roasted. For washed coffees, the coffee cherry is put through a de-pulping machine which strips the skins and much of the mucilage from the cherry. The beans are then fermented in water, then washed again of any remaining mucilage. In contrast to natural, honey, anaerobic, or coffees fermented alongside fruit, washed coffees do not typically have the wild, jammy, funky flavors that the coffee elite seem to be gravitating toward. They are instead, clean (they’ve been washed, duh) with distinct and nuanced flavors, sweet, and maybe most importantly, consistent.
The consistency is one of the biggest selling points for washed coffees. Because they are stripped of any fruit matter prior to drying, they do not run the risk of rot, mold, or insect damage that natural processed coffees do. And because the beans are stripped down to their purest form, they are far more likely to roast them same every time and as a result, brew the same.
Washed coffees are also consistently available, to produce washed coffees, producers, either single owner farms or cooperative washing stations, are making use of tried and true technology with proven systems. These coffees are available in much larger quantities, making it possible for roasters to have flagship blends available for cafes to use for espresso or batch brew. And any cafe owner, manager, or just experienced barista can tell you, coffee patrons are creatures of habit. So if you have a good, balanced, and regularly available espresso blend, there is no reason to change it.
And these new, experimental coffees are limited to single farm producers as well. Cooperative, regional washing mills typically produce washed coffees, and sometimes natural or honey processed coffees. But by not giving regional, washed coffees their fair share, you’re indirectly not giving the thousands of small landing owning producers that all sell their coffee to co-ops a fair share.
Due to the high yield of washed coffees, they are often more reasonably priced. It is super important for producers get paid fairly and equitably, but for specialty coffee to be sustainable, roasters, cafes, and cafe patrons need to be able to make money off their share of the supply chain as well. And, forgive me, but $8 filter coffee and $12 lattes isn’t the answer. At least not yet. If cafes are buying quality, washed coffees, that they can move in higher volumes, they can make more money, the baristas can make more money, the roasters can make more money, and in turn, the producers can make more money. Until as many customers are buying anaerobic fermented pour overs as they are oat milk vanilla lattes, the industry needs to give washed coffees (and blends) the attention they deserve.