Honey Process Coffee and the 50 Shades of Honey

honey process coffee

"Did you Say Honey Process Coffee?"

No, you aren't dreaming. There is actually something called honey processed coffee, and we at Black Ink are here to tell you all about the true art of honey processing. Honey and coffee in the same sentence is bound to perk some ears, and some taste buds. While it may seem obvious by the name, honey processing is not exactly what you may think at first.

Originating in Central America, from countries like Brazil and El Salvador, and Costa Rica the honey process refers to a unique method of coffee processing that works as a hybrid between the washed and dry process to produce a different, unique flavor and aroma from the very same coffee beans.

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Coffee Processing Methods

natural process coffee

Now, unless you are a coffee expert, the terms washed, and dry process, may not be totally common to you. So, for starters, here is a quick little rundown to get the basics of covered for how we go from ripe and green coffee beans to a fresh brew.

The processing method for coffee beans can be as complex as making wine, where every little difference in each coffee processing stage makes a huge impact upon the final product's flavor profile, notes, texture, and overall quality. 

A lot of this boils down to the drying process, or the time from the cherries being picked off of trees to being left in the sun for drying time.

For coffee producers, every single coffee bean must be processed carefully, separating the bean from the coffee cherry while ensuring its overall value, before it is left to dry in the sun. No matter which process being used, each one includes the cherry being milled or hulled from its outer layers containing the seed inside. 

First and foremost, we need to mention, coffee beans are actually a fruit. Coffee itself actually comes from cherries. Not cherries like the ones you put into pies, or jam, but another type of cherries literally called 'Coffee Cherries'.

Now, in order for those cherries to make their way from farm to your favourite mug, there are different types of processes involved. When processing coffee beans, a main difference between different methods pertain towards to the amount of layers removed from the coffee cherries before they are dried. 

So without further adieu, here we will flesh out each different method: Dry, Washed Process, and of course, Honey Process 

What is Dry Processed Coffee?

dry process coffee

For a long time, dry processed coffee, also known as natural process had been the most popular method, given that this method is more time and cost effective, and as the name suggests, uses less water, and so, requires little maintenance.

Looking at the history of coffee, the natural process goes back as far back as possible, as natural coffees are the most efficient way of getting from a coffee fruit, to a delicious cup. The natural process is most common in in areas with less water such as Brazil or Ethiopia. Immediately after coffee cherries are picked, the natural method involves leaving them to dry in the sun, turning them regularly to avoid potential fermentation. 

The classic natural method is known for flavors that are sweet and fruity, no matter where the coffee beans are sourced from. Natural coffees are characterized by notes ranging from fruity flavors like blueberry, strawberry, and even tropical.

The sugar enhanced, fruit flavors of a pulped natural coffee are known for a likeness to red wine, and can even have a distinctive alcoholic flavor when left for extra fermentation. While these fruity flavors can be enticing, for many, dry processed coffees can sometimes seem a little overwhelming, as the fermented sensation can become extremely intense. 

What is Washed Process Coffee?

washed coffee

Washed coffees, made through the wet process is another staple process in the coffee world, which involves removing all the flesh from the fruit itself, before the drying begins, leading to very different flavors than ones that are made in the pulped natural process.

Producers using this method must pay much more careful attention to the removal of layers from the fruit before it undergoes fermentation. Otherwise, the fruit can actually spoil leading towards bitter flavors from the beans.

Once layers are removed from the seed, and the fruit flesh is taken off, they are placed in a fresh water tank to begin fermentation, which also removes any layers still remaining. So, once the skin is removed, and the beans are fermenting, it is important to time the process very carefully according to climate before setting the beans to dry in the sun.

Washed coffee is known for the higher level of acidity in its variety of flavors leading to a flavor profile closer to white wine than its pulped natural counterpart, making for a higher level of complexity in every cup of coffee. One drawback of the washed process is that it uses more water, which can be difficult in dryer climates, as well as more expensive. 

What is Honey Process Coffee?

honey process coffee

A honey processed coffee is a method through the of deriving unique flavors from coffee beans and the mucilage they contain, which has largely become popularized as the 'honey process'.

The honey process is most commonly found in areas of Central America such as Costa Rica. If the coffee process were a spectrum, with washed coffees and pulped natural coffees at opposite ends, honey coffee would exist somewhere in the middle.

While washed, or wet coffee entail the full removal of skin from the coffee cherry before the drying process, and dry or natural process coffees are left entirely with their natural skin in tact when drying, honey coffees involve a partial removal of the bean's outer layer before left to dry maintaining degrees of the mucilage from the bean.

Honey process coffee involves removing a bean's outer layer before letting it dry.

The additional skin and mucilage over the bean allows for additional fermentation, leading to an even more sweet taste than wet coffee. On the other hand, this added layer of skin inherent in honey processing allows for the same sweetness of natural process coffee, without the risk of over fermentation.

So, this third process, combining elements of both the natural processing method, and washed coffee processing method is termed the pulped natural, or honey process.

After removing most of the cherry, the remaining sticky mucilage on the fruit is generally a bright, yellow color, reminiscent of honey. The word mucilage in Spanish actually translates to honey in English, which is why its often called, 'honey processed coffee'.

Now, the honey process itself can include different varieties as well, including red, white, and black honey processed coffees, all depending on the layer of skin left on the bean.

Next, we are going to talk about each one, and how the processing methods differ between each, and the way this impacts the different flavors. 

Different Shades of Honey

pulp natural process

The difference in how much mucilage and pulp is removed in the honey process determines the color after the drying process. The more of the sticky mucilage removed during the process of getting rid of the pulp, the more bright the final color will eventually be, as a result of drying faster. On the other hand, as we will see, black honey coffees, tends to have less mucilage remover, leading to a longer drying time and final color closer to red or black. 

Black Honey & Red Honey

Black honey processed coffee can be the most intensive for coffee producers, because it requires a careful handling of the mucilage, and larger drying times overall once it is pulped. This can result in a higher risk of over fermentation, and spoiling the beans. But, the upside of the extra effort for black honey coffee is the extra sweet flavor, coupled with the balance of the acidity levels. 

On the other hand, Red honeys tend to be very similar in flavor and acidity to black honey coffees, with the only main difference being in the final color. Because black and red honey processed coffees tend to require more work and maintenance to prevent over fermentation, they tend to be more expensive than yellow honey and white honey counterparts. 

Both red and black coffees are known for their amazing complexity of tastes, and their fruity flavors. Their creamy and sometimes syrupy texture make them ideal candidates for espresso based beverages. 

Yellow Honey & White Honey 

With more of the sticky, sweet mucilage removed, between 50- 100 percent, yellow honey and white honey coffees generally take less time to dry, and result in brighter colors. This makes for a much easier transition from a coffee bean, to a delicious cup of coffee, with less risk of over fermentation.

So, yellow or white honey processed coffees tend to get some of the best qualities of the fruit flavor from the remaining mucilage like black honey processed coffees, while taking less time and so, being cheaper to produce. 

Our Verdict on Honey Process Coffee

honey process

No matter the coffee beans, the different method used ,Whether its for washed coffees, honey processed coffee, or natural processed can create a very different end result from the same individual cherry. 

Similar to washed coffee, Costa Rican Honey process coffee requires some of the sticky mucilage to remain on the fruit when it is pulped, in order to get the uniquely balanced flavor profile in each coffee cup. While this method can be more time consuming, and costly, the end result proves itself to be worth the extra push. 

Understanding all the work that goes into the honeying process, we hope that the end result tastes just that much sweeter for you.

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Parker Russell is a coffee professional and the founder of Black Ink Coffee. As an expert in the field of coffee roasting, cupping (professional Q-Grader) and brewing, Parker has established Black Ink as brand that fuels the grind of dreamers.