On Naturals & a Sense of Place

From Aleco Chigounis, Co-Founder & CEO

Naturally processed coffees, or sundried process as they’re known in Ethiopia, are enigmatic fodder for conversation in the coffee industry. Every coffee professional has some sort of volatile history with them. We love them. We hate them. We love them anew. We defend them. We build philosophies about them. Why we offer them or, as in my case, why they don’t fit my buying mantra. Terms like ‘cleanliness,’ ‘process laden,’ ‘fabricated flavor,’ and ‘borderline fruit’ are those that allowed us to draw a line in the sand in the past.   

In my case a whole lot of the disregard of naturals stemmed around the idea of repeatability for the coffee producer. How volatile was the process, and even if it turned out well one season would they be able to pull it off next year? Or would they be looking at cupping rejections and a vacant market for their coffee? My personal philosophy shifted towards working towards encouraging producers to produce coffee quality that they could comfortably repeat year after year. Washed coffee became the avenue we chose to cruise.

Now all of this said, I am much more open minded to coffee processing these days. At least to naturally processed coffee in its simplest form. A coffee must demonstrate a strong sense of terroir. There are far too many naturals that have no discernible sense of place. The fruit, the sugars, become so overly saturated that the flavor rendered from the process is convoluted. They’re confused. A coffee could be from Colombia or El Savador or Rwanda. The process drives the overall cup character and that’s where you lose me. However, in the instance of processing in drier climates, that notion of high terroir lives in luxury. So on to our current state of affairs regarding the matter.  

Last month, as I cupped through our early season Ethiopia offerings in Nairobi, I had several washed and naturally processed coffees from Uraga, Guji on the table. Amongst them some Red Fox classics—Yabitu Koba, Demicha, etc—along with some new ones. I found myself intrigued, moving constantly from one side of the table to the other, tasting the washed against the naturals. The Goro Muda washed lot was full of that peak level green grape tartaric acidity that we covet in top Ethiopia lots. Honeysuckle, raw white honey and all of the floral character we want with it behind that fruit as well. As I moved on to naturals I found a strikingly parallel cup profile in the Goro Muda. So distinct. So clearly what we’ve been looking for all of these years. Not the ‘fruit bomb’ fabricated strawberry character we seek to avoid but, articulate green grape character, floral buffers surrounding it. A generally complex cup that had a perfectly lucid line drawn straight from the washed lot to the natural.  

So are these “clean” naturals? To be frank I don’t know that this is a term I care for anymore. I’m not certain that I even know what that means at this point. What I am certain of is that the process itself doesn’t drive these cup profiles and therefore subtract from the overall quality. These lots have quintessential Uraga character regardless of the choices made with the fruit at the washing station. Quite simply, these are the best natural processed coffees I’ve ever bought.  

To evolve as a coffee professional is a wild ride. I’m open to being proven wrong and I have been here yet again with these Uraga naturals. It turns out that the sense of place was here all along. I just needed to find it for myself.  

— Aleco Chigounis, Red Fox Co-Founder & CEO

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