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Coffee Bean Processing: The Honey Methods
Written by: Garrett Oden
Ever had coffee that was processed using honey? Of course you haven’t. It’s not a thing.
Honey processed coffees humorously are often thought to be processed using actual honey. This was my first impression when I was getting into coffee. The bag of coffee mentioned the beans being sticky like honey when they were processed. I, not really knowing any better, figured it meant actual honey.
If you’ve ever had this thought yourself, welcome to the club. Nearly everyone familiar with specialty coffee had it at one point or another.
If I’m bursting a bubble with this news, don’t let it disappoint you. You have more to gain by knowing what the honey process actually is than by thinking it involves real honey.
Processing methods have a major impact on flavor, body, aroma, and acidity. Being familiar with the three types (washed, natural, honey) can give you the ability to anticipate what your coffee’s flavor will be like - even before you try the beans.
And this means, subsequently, that you’ll have a much easier time buying coffees that perfectly suit your taste preferences.
Want these flavor anticipation powers? Read on, my friend.
Basics Steps Of The Honey Process
The honey process is actually a collection of processing methods. They all begin the same, but there’s a moment when several sub-methods branch off to produce different results. We’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s start at the very beginning: the cherry.
Like with every processing method, ripe cherries are harvested from coffee plants, either by hand or machine. They’re then sorted by density and color to separate the perfectly ripe cherries from the under and over ripe.
And here’s where the honey process begins.
It’s All About The Mucilage
Most of the time, farmers use a mechanical pulper to separate the cherry skin and outer layers from the beans. This leaves varying amounts of mucilage (the sticky fruity stuff) attached to the beans, depending on how the machine works.
This layer of mucilage is key to the honey process. In the other methods, it would be washed or hulled away, but not this one.
The coffee beans, still sticky (like honey) with mucilage, are stored to ferment for 1-3 days.
Here’s where things can get complicated.
The Confusing Naming Process
While we’re talking about the general honey process, there are subcategories that deserve mentioning: yellow, red, and black honey.
A few regions determine the name by how much mucilage is left on the beans after pulping. The more mucilage left, the darker the color, and the darker the name.
However, most regions base the name on the caramelization of mucilage sugars. As the sugars caramelize while fermenting, the color of the mucilage gets darker. The least caramelized is yellow, the most is black.
Raking, Drying, And Hulling
Now that the beans have fermented, they need to be thoroughly dried.
This always includes being raked under intense supervision for a few days (depending heavily on climate). Sticky mucilage, if not carefully monitored, can make a great food source for insects, molds, and other not-so-fun things.
Over time, this honey-like substance dries as well and gets less sticky.
Since it takes more time to create black honey coffees (more caramelization usually means more fermentation time) than the other types, they’re typically a little more expensive. They’re also less common, since more time also means more room for error and more risk.
Once the beans reach the safe moisture level for transportation (10%), they can be hulled by more large machines. These machines whack off the remaining layers of mucilage and parchment from the beans, which can now be shipped around the world safely.
A Bridge Between Methods
In many ways, this process bridges the gap between the washed and natural processes.
Similarly to the washed process, honey beans are separated from the majority of the cherry before being fermented and dried.
Similarly to the natural process, honey beans still get to spend some time with the sweet, sticky mucilage before being hulled.
The honey process even bridges the gap in some ways when it comes to flavor - but more on that in a moment.
Who Uses The Honey Processes?
The honey process was pioneered in Brazil but has since spread around the world.
It doesn’t require a ton of water like the washed process, but it doesn’t require nearly as much time to dry as the natural process. This gives producers a middle ground that is easy on water and time resources.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this process isn’t expensive. Raking those sticky beans every 2-3 hours is costly. Workers are constantly raking up and down the patios - and paying workers fair wages isn’t cheap.
What Do Honey Processed Coffees Taste Like?
Honey processed coffees tend to have a striking sweetness. This is largely due to the amount of time the beans get to spend with the mucilage. Those caramelized sugars seep in during fermentation and drying.
Honey processed coffees have good clarity and a medium-high acidity (like washed coffees). They also have a heavier body and sweetness (like natural coffees).
These coffees really are a pleasant middle ground when it comes to flavor, with an extra hint of sweetness. Complex, sweet, heavy-bodied, and with a mellow acidity, honeys are delicious.
You’re now a relative expert on the honey process. I say relative because, while you’re not an actual expert, you will seem like one to 99% of coffee lovers out there. Well done!
Next, you should complete your knowledge of the processing trio by reading up on the natural process and the washed process. With all three under your belt, you’ll never have to guess about a coffee’s flavor again.
Next time you enjoy a mug of honey processed coffee, see if you can taste what I’ve described here. It’s pretty exciting to be able to taste the processing method (rather than just know information about it).
A really great way to learn to taste the differences between the processes is to try them back-to-back. And I know the easiest way to do that.
Our JavaPresse Coffee Subscription ships freshly roasted, incredibly flavorful beans to you on a regular basis so you don’t ever have to wake up without rich coffee you’ll love. If the idea of trying coffees from around the world puts a tingle on your palate, check it out!
Images courtesy of Counter Culture Coffee