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An experiment with pulped natural coffee.
20 May 2011

pulped naturals

Note:  This was originally written in 2011, prices have changed.

$60 for a pound of Kona coffee!  At least that's the word on the street.  I'm not sure I believe it.  Kona Earth coffee is only $25 per pound and we have some darned good coffee that is always getting great reviews and winning awards.  So who is paying $60 per pound and what is so special about this coffee?  Well, let me explain.

expensive coffee At $600 per pound, Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world.  That is a special case and it's not Kona coffee.  For 100% Kona, I have heard of $50 per pound at Starbucks and I've personally seen $70 per pound at places like the airport.  Those are both special cases too.  Starbucks is so big they can't normally keep 100% Kona in stock and when they manage to get some, they can charge whatever they want.  Airport shops are also experts at charging whatever they want.  So while both of these examples are expensive coffee, neither one is particularly special coffee.

The Kona coffee being sold for $60 per pound is different, literally.  It is called natural coffee.  As if coffee wasn't already natural.  Another name, slightly less appetizing, is unwashed coffee.  The most accurate name is probably dry processed coffee.  Some use the name honey coffee but I think that is too ambiguous and a bit deceptive.

The name isn't the only aspect of this coffee that is heavily debated.  Dry processed coffees are often accompanied with near fanatical obsession, on both sides of the fence.  Some people love this coffee while others are, well, less than enthusiastic.  Before getting into the details, let's start with the basics.

cleaning coffee Wet Process
Kona coffee, and most coffee around the world, is typically processed using the wet method.  It is wet because we use water to clean the coffee.  Immediately after picking, the coffee is pulped to remove the outer fruit layer then fermented in water to remove the slimy, mucilage layer.  This produces a very clean bean which is less susceptible to mold, mildew and other problems.  Meticulous cleaning is the best way to ensure consistent quality.

Meticulous cleaning requires some fancy equipment.  I have an expensive pulper for the first step.  I use both a mechanical demucilager and traditional fermenting for the second step.  I am also making my own high efficiency, computer controlled coffee dryer for the final step.  All those machines help create very clean coffee which is important when you live in a humid, tropical climate and don't like the taste of moldy coffee.

Kenya Dry process
Machines are great when you can afford them.  In some coffee growing regions, fancy processing machines and the water to run them are both expensive and scarce.  So how do these regions clean their coffee?  They don't.  They simply pick the coffee then throw it out on the dirt road to let it dry, cherry and all.  This is called the dry process since there is no water involved.

Like any fruit, the coffee cherry contains a lot of moisture when it is picked from the tree.  In the dry process, the coffee bean ferments inside the sugary fruit which gives it a very distinct flavor.  This is the flavor that is sought after by some and shunned by others.  It can be strong enough to hide the terroir and nuances of a coffee or it can add fascinating characteristics not present in washed coffee.  I suppose it depends mostly on your personal preferences.  Whatever the case, it is easy to smell and taste the difference.

Dry processing started out of necessity in poor countries with little water.  It started that way but has since grown into a popular processing technique.  In Kona, making naturals is difficult because of the humid weather.  Dry processed coffee is very susceptible to mold, mildew and other problems.  That is why we are so careful to wash our coffee thoroughly before drying it.  Kona's reputation as a smooth and mellow coffee is partially due to this meticulous cleaning.

Semi dry process
Personally, I am not a big fan of most dry processed coffee.  Maybe it's because I work so hard to avoid over-fermenting my coffee, I've learned to associate the taste as a defect.  However, I have found a middle ground that I like much better.  It's called pulped naturals.

Immediately after the coffee is picked, I pulp it as usual, removing the outer fruit skin.  Then I skip the fermentation step and simply lay the pulped beans out to dry.  They are still slippery and slimy at this point because most of the fruit's sugars still coat the beans.  It looks dirty and nasty while wet but it is sweet and dries to a yellowish orange color.  The coffee has a sweetness and color kind of like, well, honey.  So maybe the term honey processed isn't totally inaccurate and deceptive.

clean parchment honey parchment

The Challenge
Since it skips a step, making pulped naturals may seem easier than wet processed coffee.  Let me assure you, it is not.  It is a slimy, sticky mess with a good chance of the coffee going bad.  That's ok, I like a good challenge and when done right, pulped naturals can be really good.  I was eager to see how my coffee tasted as a pulped natural.

Dealing with the slimy mess was not fun.  It took days of constant raking and made a huge mess all over my drying deck.  For awhile it looked like I would end up with nothing but a stinky, moldy mess.  I had talked with other Kona coffee farmers that have tried drying naturals and failed.  I knew I needed good weather and I had purposely waited for just the right opportunity.

honey naturals My luck held and I was rewarded with two solid weeks of hot, dry weather.  Once I got the dried coffee into my climate controlled storage room, I knew I had avoided the mold problems that are so common.  The next challenge was getting the coffee hulled.

With so much sugar still intact, pulped naturals are very sticky.  That makes it difficult to remove the parchment layer.  If not dried thoroughly, naturals can gum up and ruin a huller.  The millers in the area are always wary of under-dried coffee, especially naturals.  I am fortunate that my favorite miller trusts my coffee.  He agreed to mill my pulped naturals and didn't seem surprised when it hulled perfectly.

The final challenge is certification.  Hawaii state inspectors grade Kona coffee to a specific standard.  Naturals do not normally meet this standard.  There is nothing that outright prevents naturals from being certified but it is important to warn the inspectors ahead of time.  Their extra scrutiny makes it more difficult to get naturals certified but with the mold problems being so common, I'm glad the inspectors are extra careful.

It was a lot of effort and a big mess but I think it was a success.  I now have a small batch of pulped naturals.  Looking at them, I can instantly see a dramatic difference, even from a distance.  I'm not sure if the average consumer could tell a difference but I definitely can.  The pulped naturals smell different too.  Rather pleasant, slightly sweeter, although still definitely coffee.

I sent a batch to a friend to be cupped.  This friend, Dr. Shawn Steiman of Coffea Consulting, is a highly qualified coffee consultant and licensed Q-grader.  For those that don't know what a Q-grader is, it is someone licensed to evaluate coffee professionally.  A Q-grader can tell you all sorts of subtleties about a coffee that the average person can barely perceive.  A good Q-grader can perform amazing feats such as detecting freshly brewed coffee by aroma alone.

Dr. Steiman is an excellent Q-grader and I asked him to use his coffee cupping super powers to evaluate my pulped naturals.  He roasted up a sample then immediately sold everything he owned and said he would pay anything I wanted for the entire batch.  This coffee was so good, it broke his mouth.

Ok, his review wasn't quite that dramatic.  He was pleased though.  Here is a direct quote:
Most exciting for me was the distinctive floral component.  It added the complexity to your coffee that I've long suspected was there.  This coffee is a softer, mellower version of what most geeks get all gooey over.

That review was based on two different sample roasts, both of them light roasts.  Light roasts are great for formal cuppings but not very popular for enjoying a cup of coffee.  So the light roasts may not perfectly represent the final roasted product.

My initial instinct was to take my pulped naturals to a Full City roast.  Full City is a popular roast so it seemed like the perfect choice.  However, after some debate with various experts, I decided that Full City would be a little too dark for this coffee.

nattys Roasting pulped naturals can be challenging.  With so many sugars present on the outside of the bean, it is easy to char the coffee.  A dark roast was definitely out and Full City was probably out too.  On the other hand, too light of a roast and nobody but a few extreme connoisseurs would be able to appreciate the coffee.

I decided to go with a temperature of 446°F.  All roasters are different so that's a meaningless number for any roaster other than the one I was using.  Furthermore, that is not the temperature I roasted to.  As the coffee was roasting, I monitored it carefully.  446 was the target temperature but at the last minute, I decided to stop at 442.  It was an impulsive decision but I am very happy with the result.

The coffee is just a tad darker than our typical medium roast.  I let it rest and outgas for 12 hours then I had my first cup this morning.  I was so eager, I  burned my tongue.  So as much as I'd love to give a rave review, I'm afraid I can't.  Judging my own coffee isn't exactly an unbiased review anyways.

Others have tried this coffee and they all say they love it.  It is definitely different.  It doesn't have the strong characteristics of a true natural which is perfect because I wanted something more accessible to the average consumer.  This pulped natural is a tamer, more subtle version.  It has some qualities of a natural while still allowing the uniqueness of my coffee to come through.  Of course I am a fan of that.

This has been a fantastic experience for me.  I have already had several roasters and wholesalers ask if they can buy my pulped naturals.  I have had to tell them no because I simply don't have enough.  If I had known the demand would be so strong, I would have made more.

I plan to try this all again, with a much larger batch, next year.  I will do a few things different, such as using screens for the initial drying so I don't make such a mess on my drying deck.  I will also do a larger batch so the machines sort the coffee better and our final hand sort will be easier than it was this year.  I'll do other things the same, like waiting for the perfect weather.  I should have my high-tech dryer working by then so that will definitely help too.

That is all next year though.  All I have this year is this one small batch.  I am quite happy with how it turned out.  The only thing left to do is determine a price.

I don't care how good it is, $60 is too expensive.  On the other hand, I have put an absurd amount of effort into this.  Combined with the law of supply and demand, the typical Kona Earth price of $25 per pound is too low.  Splitting the difference is $42.50.  I'm only going sell this pulped natural coffee in half pound bags (to help ensure freshness) so that's $21.25 per bag, only a few dollars more than our peaberry which is always very popular.

Doing the math, it's about $1 per cup, depending on how strong you like your coffee.  Some people will still say that $21.25 for eight ounces of coffee is too expensive.  Maybe so.  Personally, I think super bowl tickets, designer shoes and iPhone subscriptions are all far too expensive but there are plenty of people that find ample value in all those things.  Is this coffee worth twenty bucks?  I think so.  You will have to decide for yourself.

The pulped naturals were very popular among coffe connoisseurs.  Because of this popularity, we sold out quickly.  There have been many requests for more but we need to wait until the weather and timing is right.  That means there probably won't be any more pulped naturals any time soon.  When we do get more, we will send an email to all registered users that receive notifications.  Until then, you will just have to be patient.

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