Understanding the Process Part 3: Honey Process

Our series on the processing of coffee continues with an examination of the honey-making process.

BY TANA NANETTI

SENIOR ONLINE CONTRIBUTOR


Images taken by Kenneth R. Olson

In addition to the two main techniques of processing coffee: both natural and washed, there is an additional processing method that is common throughout Costa Rica and other Central American countries, that incorporates some of the most beneficial (and the worst) aspects of both methods the honey process.

One thing to remember is that the honey process has nothing to be related to the actual honey.

Honey-processed coffee is made by drying the mucilage that is found on the beans in order to produce distinctive flavors.

How It Works

Like washed coffees within 24 hours of harvest using the honey process the coffee cherries go through a depulper, which separates the beans of coffee from their outer skin. The beans that result are not completely clean, but they are protected by a sticky sweet layer of mucilage. The amount of mucilage that is left on the beans is specifically controlled through the operation of the depulper.

This layer of mucilage which is found in washed coffee, is typically removed completely during fermentation, but remains in contact with beans throughout the whole process of fermentation. The fermentation process typically takes between one and three days. Then during the drying process, the honey process follows the natural way and the mucilage dry on the outside of the bean. The remaining mucilage layer provides the coffee a sweet, almost honey-like taste and is the reason for the name of the process.

After the beans have been fully and completely dried the dry mill completes the process by removing any remaining mucilage and fruit in the coffee.

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Red honey-processed coffee on the left and yellow honey coffee on the right.

Multiple Honey Processes for Honey

However, the honey process isn’t just one process however, it’s a collection of different processing techniques that begin the same way however, they differ on the process. That’s where things become a bit complicated because of the confusion that arises when it comes to naming.

White red, yellow and black are different types of honey processing however the method by which the names are used isn’t the same across all regions that grow honey. Some regions still determine the honey’s name based on the amount of mucilage left on the beans after they have been depulped where the more mucilage indicates that the honey has a darker color and name. However, the majority of countries use another method, wherein the name for the honey production process is determined through the caramelization process of the sugars in the mucilage.

While the coffee is fermenting the sugars begin to are able to caramelize. The longer it takes for caramelization the more dark the color of the mucilage but the lesser amount of sugar remaining. Therefore, the least fermented coffee (and consequently the one that is most caramelized) is described as white honey and the most caramelized is black honey.

Confusing, isn’t it?

The different types of mucilage that are left on the seeds during drying provide quite different flavors for honey-processed coffees with flavors that range from the nearly washed odor of white honey , to the intensely fruity taste of sweet black honey.

Honey-processed bags of coffee show the various colors that are possible, depending on the quantity of mucilage that remains on the beans when it is dried.

The Results

Generally the honey-processed coffees give an exceptional result in the cup that retains the brightness and crispness of a washed coffee but also possesses the more complex flavors of natural coffee.

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They usually have a heavier body and sweetness of the natural coffees along with an excellent clarity and moderately high acidity that is that is typical of washed beans. For the flavors, it’s not uncommon to taste notes of tropical fruit, with an intense and fermented finish.

Honey-processed, roasted coffee with all the mucilage taken out.

The pros and cons of this process are between the advantages and disadvantages of both processes. The honey process is less environmental-friendly than washed coffee due to the fact that as with the natural process, honey doesn’t require more water. However, the process requires a lengthy drying time and an experienced workforce to ensure that the process is successful which can increase risk and costs for the company that produces it.

In addition like natural coffees, because of the lengthy drying time, honey-processed coffees are more prone to producing mold or other defects which could increase the chance of wasting coffee and lessening the revenue of the producer.

The distinctive flavors and cup profile created by the honey process however, can bring farmers high prices when done properly.

A BIT ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tanya Nanetti (she/her) is a barista at specialty coffee as well as a traveler as well as a dreamer. When she’s not in front of the machine (or exploring a hidden area of the globe) she’s creating content for Coffee Insurrection which is a website dedicated to specialty coffees that she’s created with her boyfriend.

This article was first published at Barista Magazine, an online magazine dedicated to baristas and coffee professionals.

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