Charleston-based roaster King Bean next week is releasing its first natural coffees, processed according to an ancient method that’s getting another looksee from the specialty coffee industry.
Both “Strawberry Fields” and “Deep Blue” were sundried in Ethiopia, where the constituent beans originated. King Bean owner and founder Kurt Weinberger calls them “wonderfully fruity,” with the flavor of Strawberry Fields recalling strawberries, milk chocolate and cream. Deep Blue comes closer to a blueberry cobbler.
“High-quality naturals are extraordinarily difficult to produce, which is why we chose only Ethiopians,” owner Katie Weinberger says. “This technique has been in practice in Ethiopia longer than anywhere else.”
Natural processing, also known as dry or unwashed processing, involves leaving coffee cherries out in the sun for weeks. According to Weinberger, the technique requires more space and labor than wet processing, in which the fruit’s pulp is mechanically removed, because the cherries must be carefully monitored for mildew buildup.
Still, even when coffee is turned and raked, experts say it’s almost impossible to avoid some fermentation. Many connoisseurs prefer the cleaner, more consistent taste of wet-processed coffee, but some backers of dry-processed coffee say the interplay of sugars, water and air should be regarded as a feature, not a bug.
“The reality is that if you look at natural coffees, I agree with much of the specialty community that a lot of them are really poor; a lot of them are poorly processed,” Counter Culture buyer Tim Hill said last year in a lengthy interview with Sprudge, a coffee blog. “Where I disagree is that I feel like there’s this blanket statement of, “Oh, that flavor in coffee is just not a good flavor.”
Hill likens natural coffee to red wine, which derives its color and character from grape skins. “With the natural processing, you’re letting the fruit and the nutrients from the skin and the sugars go into the seed through the drying process,” he says. “With the washed process, you’re washing it clean so you don’t get those flavors in there.” He compares playing with fermentation levels in natural coffee to adjusting tannins in red wine.
“To a certain extent as an industry, we haven’t really figured out the way that we want to talk and think about these coffees,” Hill says. “But whenever we have a public tasting, they’re always the coffee that are most talked about; they’re always the one that inspires conversation with new tasters and new people.”
Among those tasters is the crew at The Darling Oyster Bar, a forthcoming restaurant on upper King Street: Its coffee program will feature Deep Blue. In addition to offering Strawberry Fields and Deep Blue to wholesale clients, King Bean will also start retailing the coffees on Wednesday. Both are priced at $17.99 for a 12-ounce bag. For more information, visit kingbean.com.