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The anatomy of the coffee cherry & what it means for your cup

Posted by Carla Q on

Most of us have seen pictures of the bright red coffee cherries — the fruit of the coffee plant. While they look pretty sweet, inside each one is a reasonably thin skin and flesh layer encasing a pair of hard green coffee beans.

Many folk wonder: can you actually eat these rosy red cherries? Sure you can, however it requires a lot of munching to get small amounts of sweet flesh from those tooth-cracking beans — which is why we prefer to process and roast those green beans into that elixir of happiness we know as coffee!


The skin of the cherry is known as the exocarp. Beneath this is the mesocarp, more commonly known as the pulp. Then comes the mucilage — the inner pulp layer — followed by a layer of pectin. But why do we care about all of these very technical-sounding layers? Because between these layers are where the sugars lie, and these sugars play a major part in the fermentation process that happens during processing. These processing methods may involve drying the beans with flesh on, which imparts a fruity sweetness, or stripping the flesh to allow the characteristics of the bean to speak for itself. 

But what’s at the centre of it all? Beneath all the fruity layers are a pair of coffee beans, each wrapped in a silverskin and papery hull commonly known as the parchment. Generally the pulp and parchment are removed in the milling process, however some growing regions keep the parchment on the bean (but that’s a whole other story we will visiting in an upcoming post!)
 
Raised drying beds, Ethiopia. Image courtesy Cofi-com

 

How does all of this effect my final cup?

Removing the skin and mucilage from coffee beans is difficult, and there are a few processing methods used to do this. The first and oldest coffee processing methods is natural or ‘dry’ processing. It is still commonly used today in areas without reliable access to water and where the weather is consisently hot and dry (e.g. parts of Africa- the birthplace of coffee). This processing method has a significant impact on what ends up in your cup, and may vary from coffee type to coffee type.

Natural coffees leave the fruit on for the drying process, which imparts sweetness, fruit flavours and added body. The fruit is more easily removed as the flesh ferments beneath the skin, whilst the cherries lay out in the sun on drying patios or raised drying beds. However, there are a number of environmental factors, such as excess rain and humidity, that make natural processing a riskier business. If done correctly, the resultant cup is superb. 

Then, we have washed coffees. Washed coffees have the fruit flesh removed mechanically by depulping machines, which squeeze the cherries until the seeds pop out. These seeds are then sent to water-filled fermentation tanks. Microbes and yeast assist in the break down of the mucilage layer over a number of hours or days. The beans are scrubbed mechanically for final mucilage removal. The washed seeds are then dried in the sun on raised drying beds, concrete patios or via drying machines. In this process, the flavour focus is on the bean itself, resulting in higher aciditiy, clean and brighter cups.

Other processing methods exist, such as semi-washed or honey processed coffee, and we will be diving more into these subjects soon! Stay tuned!

Image credit: University of Rochester

 

Image credit: University of Rochester

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