I’ve been seeing a lot of natural coffees on menus here in Taiwan over the last few days. I’ve only had four, but they seem to have embedded themselves in my understanding of Taiwan coffee. Perhaps that’s because I was warned that the Taiwanese market favors naturals. Perhaps it’s because I only started to learn how to appreciate and recognize a natural while I was staying at Rusty’s Hawaiian. Or perhaps it’s just because I’ve been having some really good naturals in Taiwan recently. In any event, by now you’re probably wondering what the heck a natural coffee is.
Natural refers to a method of processing coffee. Coffee is the fruit of the coffee tree/shrub and it needs to be processed from cherry to green bean (the seed of the fruit is green) before it can be roasted into what most people know and love as coffee. Classically, coffee is processed in one of two ways: washed and natural. (There’s also a whole lot of in-between, as well as a different method used nearly exclusively in Indonesia, but let’s keep things simple for now.)
In the washed process, the cherries are removed by a pulper, and the sweet, slimy stuff coating the bean inside the cherry (called the mucillage) is washed off through a fermentation process. The resulting coffee is dried in the sun and the parchment is removed to get green coffee, which is roasted. The top row of this nifty little box from the UCC farm tour in Kona illustrates the washed process by showing what red cherries, parchment, green beans, and roasted beans look like.
By contrast, in the natural process, the bean dries inside the cherry, which allows the sugars in the mucillage and skin of the cherry ferment naturally and are imparted to the seed inside. The natural process therefore results in a sweeter cup of coffee, but one that is also more volatile and difficult to control. This is because there is more variability in the fermentation process. As a result, washed coffees are often described as tasting “cleaner” than naturals, which can sometimes have a funky or “fermenty” taste.
There is an excellent illustration of the natural process on the Hula Daddy tour, but my photo below unfortunately doesn’t do it justice. On the lower right-hand side are dried cherries. Like some other farms, Hula Daddy doesn’t let the skins go to waste, turning them into a fruit tea called cascara, and on these you can see some of the color of the dried cherries. What gets roasted, though, are the green beans, shown here on the upper left.
If you’re still confused, you can try to think of washed vs. natural as similar to white vs. red wine. Like red wine, natural coffees get some of their flavor from the skin of the cherry. This makes for a more vibrant and complex drink. Washed coffees, by contrast, present a cleaner cup with less volatility or natural variation. This is not a perfect analogy, but it’s helpful as a first illustration and I’m apparently not the only one who uses it.
Which brings me back to the coffee I’ve been drinking in Taipei. The better coffee shops here will tell you not just the origin of the coffee, but also how the coffees are processed, and I’ve been noticing a lot of naturals on the menus.
I’ve only had four naturals here, but two of those were among my more memorable cups. The first was an Ethiopian natural that Simon Hsieh, a coffee importer and roaster in Taiwan, prepared for me when he gave me a lesson in brewing techniques. (Taiwan baristas have excellent pourover technique, which I plan to post about once I edit some of my videos.) The coffee smelled like a natural even before tasting it, and in the cup it had the classic winy texture and sweet taste of a natural coffee, without any of the fermenty taste that I’ve been told some Taiwanese coffee drinkers love. Simon’s coffee was exceptionally restrained, but even the other naturals I’ve had here have been pretty clean, except for some of them on the last sip, where the sour acids seem to drop in the cup.
As it happens, the other memorable natural coffee I’ve had here was also the most expensive: Simon recommended that I check out Fika Fika Cafe, winner of the 2013 Nordic Roasters Championship, and while their espresso-based drinks are priced in line with what I’m used to seeing in New York, I wanted to check out their pourovers, which are unfortunately a bit pricey, as you can see below.
I was thankful that I had already had a cup of Taiwanese coffee at Fong Da, since if I hadn’t, I might have felt compelled to check out Fika Fika’s, which would have set me back about $16 instead of the $4 I had paid earlier in the day. I opted instead for the Burundi natural (second on the list), which was still a whopping $11.
The pricing of specialty coffee is an interesting and very complicated subject, and I had a lengthy discussion with Simon about the factors that go into it. I still don’t know whether the coffee I had was “worth” $11, and I certainly wouldn’t spend that on coffee every day, but the cup I did have was delicious and expertly prepared. The coffee had a sweet, caramelly taste without much acidity, and toward the end of the cup (which is saddeningly small for the price, see photo below), a pleasant nutty aftertaste developed. The very last sip had that sour fermenty taste that many people love in their natural coffees. I didn’t particularly like it, but I did enjoy the fainter version of that taste that lingered on my tongue even after I left the coffee shop.