Date: November 2010

Column/Title: Brandy and Surprises: The New Naturals

Author: Kenneth Davids

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For those unfamiliar with the emerging language of fine coffee the title of this article may be a puzzler. What’s a “natural” and what makes some of these “naturals” “new”?

Natural is a positive name marketing-savvy Brazilians came up with some years ago to describe coffees that until that time were called “unwashed” or “dry-processed.” These are coffees consisting of beans that were dried inside the fruit, rather than after the fruit was removed, as is the case with “washed” (or wet-processed) coffees. Wet-processing, or removing the fruit immediately after harvesting but before drying, is the favored approach throughout most of the fine coffee world because removing the fruit residue reduces the possibility that sugars will ferment and attract mold during the drying process.

However, dry-processing is cheap and requires no fancy machinery, which means that most of the world’s inexpensive coffees (including almost all Robustas) tend to be dry-processed, and dry-processed carelessly, thus giving the entire dry-processing procedure a bad name.

Nevertheless, coffee produced in certain dry-weather places in the world where the fruit-encased beans can be easily sun-dried without getting rewetted and attracting molds continue to produce interesting and occasionally very fine versions of the dried-in-the-fruit style. These places include Yemen, the dry, mountainous region at the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula; Harrar, the northeastern part of Ethiopia surrounding the ancient capital of that name, and the savannah-like plateaus of Brazil. Yemen and Harrar in particular produce coffees in which the drying fruit can (if all goes well) impart to the coffee a clean brandy-like fruit character, lightly fermented but free of molds. The sweet, lush aroma of blueberry in particular has become associated with these creatively fermented coffees.

About five or six years ago, some producers and their roaster/importer colleagues decided to start drying coffee inside the ripe fruit in other, more humid parts of the world, places where the norm for fine coffee is the more conventional wet or washed process. These “new naturals” as we are calling them here, have become the darlings of many taste-leading small roasting companies and are the focus of informal but intense experimentation by some producers aimed at figuring out how to dry the fruit-encased coffee so that the fruit character is imparted to the beans with none of the nasty side effects (mold, excessive ferment) created by less-than-perfect drying and less-than-perfectly ripe, healthy coffee fruit.

Judging by the results of our cupping of twenty-five such “new naturals” from twenty-one roasting companies, the quest for control of the drying process of ripe coffee fruit is succeeding. In fact, succeeding disconcertingly well, so much so that I had problems confidently identifying some of these coffees as naturals, new or otherwise.

At least two of the generalizations that some of us (me included) have been making about these dried-in-the-fruit coffees were undermined, if not overthrown, by the results of this month’s cupping.

Generalization 1: You always get fermenty fruit with naturals produced in regions with sporadic rain during harvest, where most of these coffees were produced.

Response: Apparently not true. As I’ve already indicated, I found myself surprised by how closely some of these samples resembled more conventional wet-processed coffees. Nevertheless, even the cleanest tended to exhibit some little edge that you wouldn’t normally get in a classic washed coffee. This year’s PT’s Panama Elida Estate Natural (93) is a case in point: as delicate, balanced and crisply acidy as a washed coffee, yet the aromatic nuance, stretching from flowers to pineapple-like fruit, fragrant wood and moist pipe tobacco, struck me as subtly exotic in range and complexity, probably so in large part owing to the impact of drying in the fruit.

On the other hand, we did have a couple of big, lavishly fruit-and-brandy-toned samples. However, my previous assumption that you cannot get this lush fruit character without at least a little salty astringency in the finish was not supported by this cupping. The 95-rated Ka’u Natural from Rusty’s Hawaiian and the 93-rated Coffea Roasterie Ethiopia Michicha Guji Sidama were distinctively brandy-like and wine-like respectively, yet I couldn’t find a trace of astringency or salt in the finish of either.

It is true, however, that the problem with most of the good-but-not-exceptional samples we cupped this month (those that came in at about 86 through 88) was indeed a shadow fault of a kind, a sort of mild, flavor-dampening heaviness that I assume derived from problems with finishing off the drying cleanly.

Generalization 2: You get less acidity and almost no citrus or floral brightness with naturals.

Response: Several of these dried-in-the-fruit samples displayed striking lemon and citrus notes (the 93-rated Kona Natural Maragogipe from Paradise Coffee; the 92-rated West Bean Organic Ethiopian Sidamo; the 92-rated Simon Hsieh Hawaii Ka’u), plus a ripe orangy character turned up in many samples. In addition we had a couple of almost grandly acidy coffees, albeit with the acidity wrapped in fruit and sweetness (again, the 95-rated Ka’u Natural from Rusty’s Hawaiian and the 93-rated Coffea Roasterie Ethiopia Michicha Guji Sidama).

Where did these “new” naturals come from? Eleven were from southern and southwestern Ethiopia, relatively humid regions where for the last several decades dry-processing was an afterthought applied only to coffees considered not good enough for wet-processing. The movement in southern Ethiopia to experiment with creating dry-processed coffees from sound, ripe fruit of the kind previously reserved for wet processing was initiated by Starbucks and the Sidamo Farmers Cooperative Union in 2003/2004 with a coffee sold as Starbucks Sherkina Sun-Dried Sidamo. More producers are now experimenting with sun-dried naturals, and quite successfully. The eleven Ethiopia “new” naturals submitted for this month’s article attracted an impressive average rating of 90.8.

Only three samples were submitted from Hawaii (two from Ka’u and one from Kona), but they also scored extremely well, averaging 93. However, all three were very small, experimental productions from two relentless coffee innovators, Lorie Obra, responsible for the two Rusty’s Hawaiian samples reviewed here, and Miguel Meza who working in Kona on behalf of Paradise Coffee, managed the double surprise of applying the rare dry processing method to a very rare coffee, the giant-beaned Maragogipe variety of Arabica.

Elsewhere, results were mixed. Four very solid, consistent, though rather restrained samples turned up from Costa Rica, together averaging 89. The highest rated of the four is reviewed here, the Roasterie (Kansas City) La Pira Costa Rica Geisha Natural (90). Two samples turned up from Panama, including the exceptional 93-rated PT’s Panama Elida Estate Natural. El Salvador produced two, one the fine Barrington El Salvador Santa Rita Bourbon Natural Sun-Dried (91).

The single sample that turned up from Nicaragua was produced by Las Chicas del Café (Don Rey’s Natural Prep Bourbon Full City Roast, 89), a lively enterprise that roasts in Canada coffee imported from the family-owned farm in Nicaragua. This interesting green coffee was produced from trees of the heirloom Bourbon variety, and some of the Bourbon/dried-in-the-fruit character appealingly survives the rather dark roast.

There was a surprise from Simon Hsieh in Taiwan, who sent a dry-processed coffee grown (rather than simply roasted) in Taiwan, the 89-rated and quite promising Zhou Zhu Yuan Farm “Silence Gold Reserve” (not reviewed here). Simon also sent another fine natural coffee produced by Lorie Obra in Ka’u, which we did review at 92.

The small production from central Bali in Indonesia is typically prepared by the wet-hulled method, a variation on wet-processing traditionally employed in Indonesia. However, there, as elsewhere, producers are experimenting with the dry method; two roasters sent versions (neither reviewed here) of this pleasant but muted natural, rated 88 and 87 respectively.

It would appear that we are on track to enjoy more naturals from more of the world’s coffee growing regions, and that the drying techniques necessary to producing these coffees will be mastered (as much as anything gets mastered in the technically challenging world of coffee production). From a producer point of view, the problem is not only learning how to control the pace of drying the ripe, sweet, vulnerable fruit, but also getting paid enough for the final product to justify the additional care and attention involved. Aficionado consumers willing to pay more (usually just a little bit more, occasionally a lot more) for some of the fascinating coffee styles reviewed here are a key component in determining whether or not producers continue to surprise us with new natural revelations.

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