The naturals debate

February 10th, 2010

You could say this debate is old news, but somehow it still seems to be rumbling on.

In the english speaking online coffee community it often seems a bit like Intelligentsia Vs. Naturals-Lovers, and Geoff Watts great post on the Intelli website kicked off the debate again recently. 1  To quote the relevant part:

Things I hope become historical footnotes:

The near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees. Increased risk for the farmer + significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup + likelihood of current trend reversing at some point = probably not the kind of coffee we want to promote.

Now – we probably shouldn’t read too much into this, but each point probably does merit discussion.

- Increased risk for the farmer.

Not one to be underestimated.  For a long time I fell into the trap of believing that the choice of processing for most coffee was to do with the desired flavour at the end of it.  It isn’t – it is to do with preparing your harvest for sale.  Wet process is the most desirable process, not because of the acidity or cup profile, because it is the least likely to result in defective coffee.

Natural processing was either a last resort in areas where water supply was insufficient, or for coffee whose quality didn’t really matter – unripes for example.

Geoff is someone who has more experience dealing with farmers face to face than I will ever have making him very hard to argue with here, and I think encouraging them to jeopardise their livelihood based on a curiousity is perhaps a touch cavalier of the western coffee consumer/roaster/barista/etc.  I have to agree with him here – we have to be careful what we ask for, and how willing are we (as an industry) to pick up the pieces if it goes wrong?  Probably not very….

- significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup

There can be no doubt that the natural process comes with a particular flavour, in a way that pulped naturals or washed coffees don’t. (But wet hulled coffees probably do).  I don’t believe that it completely masks the character of the coffee – the naturals I’ve tasted over the last 12 months have definitely shown suitable individual characteristics.  However, I think it is a rare part of the coffee chain post harvest where we can add flavour.  I still believe that creation of quality ends the moment you pick a coffee, and that every single step afterwards is about preservation and transparency.  Except for the natural process.

- likelihood of current trend reversing at some point

An interesting point, and one I should avoid being to certain about.  I’ve been drinking coffee since 2004.  The scope of my understanding of trends within coffee consumption (beyond what I’ve read) is very limited.  I can see it being possible, speciality coffee is more susceptible to faddism than the wider industry.  I agree that it could be a concern, though the other half of me feels it is an academic idea rather than a likelihood.

So I agree with Geoff. But I still enjoy natural process coffees.  Not all of them, by a long shot, but when they are done with great care and attention then I think they have value.

This is what it boils down to for me – I think they have value.  I think they have a place.  Most of the issues Geoff raises could be applied to the Geisha variety.  It was suddenly everywhere, farmers tearing out trees to plant it in the hope of the huge returns that the Petersons had seen, even though the original trials of Geisha showed that it generally performed badly.  (Increased risk to the farmer).  It’s cup profile also somewhat smothered the terroir with the character of the variety. (significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup).  I think the tide has pretty much turned on Geisha too – it still remains popular and interesting but I don’t think it is prized the way it was.  (likelihood of current trend reversing at some point).

This isn’t just some cheap semantic trick (I hope).  Geishas have a place, and a value within speciality coffee.  No one is suggesting we stop drinking them, or growing them.  Nor is anyone suggesting that all coffee grown should be Geisha.  Both naturals and Geisha coffees are extremely useful in demonstrating the broad and fascinating range of flavour within coffee – and I could imagine equally appalled and enthralled consumers of each.

There is, I believe, room to explore within the natural process.  The Aricha and Beloya lots of 2008 were, I thought, a necessary and interesting exploration.  Their novelty briefly captivated a large part of our industry – and part of me is curious how the momentum behind them would have influenced the next years lots had it not been for the changes around the ECX.

We probably shouldn’t be demanding that every producer starts doing naturals – but I think anyone who tried Aida Batlle’s naturals this year would agree that writing them off could be a terrible shame.  I’ll end with the one unexamined sentence, from a single point of a much wider (and excellent) piece.

- Things I hope become historical footnotes: The near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees.

If we choose to polarise ourselves over this we probably won’t get anywhere fast.  Be it the fanatical obsession or hatred – if our opinion becomes a point of pride then the conversation never moves forward.  So once again, with that caveat in place, I completely agree with Geoff.

  1. I kind of hope that a few people at Intelli secretly have a stash at home, of illicit dry process coffee – hidden from the world in shame.  ↩︎

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