The magnitude and diversity of the microbial population associated with dry (natural) processing of coffee (Coffea arabica) has been assessed during a 2-year period on 15 different farms in the Sul de Minas region of Brazil. Peptone water-washed samples were taken of maturing cherries on trees (cherries, raisins and dried cherries) and from ground fermentations. The microbial load varied from 3 x 10(4) to 2.2 x 10(9) cfu/cherry with a median value of 1.6 x 10(7) cfu/cherry. The microbial load increased after heavy rainfall on cherries that were drying on the ground. At all stages, bacteria were usually the most abundant group, followed by filamentous fungi and finally yeasts. Counts of bacteria, yeasts and fungi varied considerably between farms and at different stages of maturation and processing and no consistent pattern could be seen. Yeasts showed an increase during the fermentation process. Median counts were not significantly different for fungi, yeasts and bacteria between the 2 years although Gram-negative bacteria dominated in the wet year and Gram-positive bacteria dominated in the dry year. Of a total of 754 isolates, 626 were identified to at least genus level comprising 44 genera and 64 different species. The 164 isolates of Gram-negative bacteria included 17 genera and 26 species, the most common of which were members of the genera Aeromonas, Pseudomonas, Enterobacter and Serratia. Of 191 isolates of Gram-positive bacteria, 23 were spore-forming and included six Bacillus species, and 118 were non-spore-formers of which over half were Cellulomonas with lesser numbers of Arthrobacter, Microbacterium, Brochothrix, Dermabacter and Lactobacillus. Of the 107 yeast isolates, 90 were identified into 12 genera and 24 different species and almost all were fermentative. The most common genera, in decreasing frequency, were Pichia, Candida, Arxula and Saccharomycopsis. There were many rarely described yeasts including Pichia lynferdii and Arxula adeninivorans. Almost all 292 fungal isolates were identified to genus level and 52 were identified to species level. Cladosporium, Fusarium and Penicillium each comprised about one third of the isolates and were found on all farms. Only 3% of the isolates were Aspergillus. Beauvaria, Monilia, Rhizoctonia and Arthrobotrys species were also occasionally found. The microbial flora is much more varied and complex than found in wet fermentations. The genera and species identified include members known to have all types of pectinase and cellulase activities.