The delicious and complex coffee bean begins its life as the seed within a cherry-like fruit. As the coffee trees grow, their cherries ripen. The seeds within slowly becoming sweeter, developing more and more flavor. At this point, the coffee seeds are quite a way off being a brown, roasted coffee bean.
Before the bean can be roasted, the seeds need to be processed. The process method we’re talking about today is the honey process. Sound sweet, sticky, and delicious? It is.
What is the honey process, and why is honey processed coffee popular?
Spoiler alert: Honey coffees originate from Costa Rica and have nothing to do with actual honey.
What are Honey Processed Coffees?
When we talk about processing, we’re referring to what happens to the coffee cherries after they have been harvested and before they are ready to be roasted.
Under the skin of a coffee cherry, just below the flesh of the fruit, lies a sticky, sweet substance that looks a lot like honey. This substance is called mucilage. It is from this substance that the honey processed coffees get their name.
While this sticky substance doesn’t taste or smell like honey, it does look a lot like it and is just as sweet.
During honey processing, the skin and fruit of the coffee cherries are removed, leaving a portion of the sticky sweet brown sugar like ‘honey’ coating the seeds.
From there, the seeds are moved to either raised beds or patios where they will dry. The producer will use anywhere from full sun to mostly shade in order to dry out the beans, depending on the producer’s goal.
As the beans sit, slowly drying, something very important happens.
The sugars from the sweet honey-like coating creep into the seeds, causing fermentation. This fermentation can be slight, or it can be extreme, and it is what gives honey processed beans their unique flavor profiles.
While these coffees can be found all around the world, we can thank the innovative producers from Costa Rica for the honey processing method.
Created as a method that uses less water while also creating unique cup profiles. Costa Rica has used honey processed coffee to effectively differentiate itself and its specialty coffee from other growing regions.
The Four Levels of Honey Processing For Specialty Coffee
Honey processing can be broken down into four profiles, or ‘levels’— white, yellow, red, and black.
Each honey processing profile mostly refers to both the amount of mucilage left on the seed and/or the amount of sun the coffee beans receive.
Each producer might make their honey process coffees differently. Honey process coffee originating from a Costa Rican producer is likely to be different from one in Brazil.
It’s more common for producers to decide their honey profile based on the amount of honey-like coating left attached to the beans. But some do things a little differently, controlling the level by using different amounts of shade during the drying process.
Using this drying technique, a yellow honey processed coffee bean might be left out to dry in full sun immediately after the fruit has been removed. Black honey beans might be left in piles to ferment before being spread out to dry in the shade slowly.
This way of controlling the honey level using the sun and shade for the drying process is close to the pulped natural process method. Cherries processed using the pulped natural method have only their skins removed, the flesh left intact before they are left to dry in the full sun.
White Honey Coffee Beans
White honey coffees are usually mechanically de-pulped and washed of much of their honey coating. Around 90% of the sticky goo is removed for the white honey process, leaving only a thin layer of the sticky, sweet stuff.
Yellow Honey Coffee Beans
Coffee beans processed using the yellow honey method will have around 50% of their mucilage washed away before being dried.
Red Honey Coffee Beans
Now we’re getting into the heavy processes! Red honey processed beans will keep most of their honey-like coating on, removing no more than around 30-40%. At this stage, the seeds are visually darker than washed coffees, tinted with an almost reddish, amber color.
Black Honey Coffee Processing
These kinds of honey process coffees are on their way to being a natural and honey hybrid. While they still have the skin and flesh of the coffee fruit removed, all of the sticky goo is deliberately left intact, coating the seeds.
Once it is dry, it is visually dark, ranging anywhere from a dark amber color to look like it’s coated in molasses.
Even as a raw bean, it has a very sweet, nutty aroma. A certain amount of fermentation will have occurred in black honey processed coffee, meaning that these coffees taste more like a hybrid between a natural and a honey bean.
Is All Coffee Processed?
All coffees undergo some sort of process method at some point. If they didn’t, we’d be roasting and brewing dried out cherries! Would that be tasty..? Maybe…But probably not.
The way coffee is processed has a massive effect on the flavor profile of the coffee bean. These differences can be so significant that many coffee roasters offer two different versions of the same coffee— one washed and one honey or natural, to showcase each process method.
A coffee producer might choose their process method based on a bunch of different things, with the surrounding environment usually coming in as the number one deciding factor. Things like the climate of an area or the amount of water available will dictate which method is used. For example, Brazil’s climate is dry and non-humid, perfect for honey process coffee and naturals.
What are the other coffee processing methods?
So what are some of the process methods used for the coffees that we drink daily?
While there are many different experimental methods used by cutting-edge coffee producers over the world, there are three main methods that are the most common in coffee processing. And if you’ve ever bought a bag of coffee from an even halfway decent roaster, you will have noted one of these terms written on the bag.
The three methods are washed, natural, and, of course, the sweetheart of this here article— honey.
Washed process coffee is almost exactly what it sounds like it is. The coffee seeds are washed with water, free of anything that might taint or change the flavor of the coffee in the cup. The aim here is to have very little to no fermentation. No extra sugars are being imparted on the seeds, allowing for the cleanest cup of coffee possible.
How are washed coffees processed?
When it comes to coffee processing, at the first point of call, coffee cherries are plucked from the trees, after which they are sorted by size and weight. Then they are transferred into a machine called a ‘depulper’. This machine separates the entire cherry from the coffee seed. The cherries are either discarded or used for other purposes, and the seeds continue the process on the way to becoming a washed process coffee.
After pulping, the mucilage coated seeds are transferred to a giant vat of water. Here, they will soak in the water for up to 72 hours, allowing bacteria to dissolve and separate the mucilage from the seeds, stripping them clean.
The squeaky clean coffee seeds are then transferred to either raised drying beds or concrete patios, where they will be left to dry in the sun. The drying period will be around 2-3 weeks, leaving the seeds with approximately 10% moisture content.
Super common in places like Ethiopia and Brazil, the natural process is essentially the opposite of washed. Rather than stripping the seeds clean with water, the natural process leaves the entire cherry whole and intact. The coffee cherry is left around the bean for the entire drying time.
This means that when you are drinking a natural cup of coffee, you are tasting a culmination of flavors from all of the fruit— not just the seed part.
To pull off a good natural process coffee, the region needs to have the right climate. Low humidity and dry conditions are essential. The amount of water used for washed coffees pretty much takes them off the table for many growing regions, making naturals a good option. Natural coffee uses less water than washed. It is the most eco-friendly processing option available.
Natural coffees seem to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. Some people think that the boozy and fermented flavors common in naturals are too much. Others think these flavors are exciting and delicious. When a natural coffee is done right, most can agree, it tastes as clean as a washed, with so much sweetness, and body for days.
Other Cool and Exciting Processing Methods
Cutting edge coffee producers around the world are always experimenting with different, non-traditional processes. As times go by, these methods may be seen as less experimental than they are now (honey processing was considered pretty wild up until fairly recently).
These methods include anaerobic fermentation and carbonic maceration.
The Anaerobic processing method sees the mucilage coated coffee seeds placed in an oxygen-free tank. This oxygen-free environment will encourage particular acids to develop in the seeds, creating a super unique coffee.
Carbonic maceration is a process borrowed from winemaking in which the coffee seeds and flesh, coffee fruit and all, are placed in a tank. The tank is filled with C02, and the oxygen purged. Then, long story short, fermentation happens. While I won’t go deep into the process right here and now, what this gives us in the cup is a coffee that has a sparkling acidity like nothing else.
If you have a chance to try either of these processing methods, absolutely do it. You won’t regret it.
What does honey processed coffee taste like?
There are two big things that honey processing does to the way a coffee tastes. It adds a fruity, caramel, or burnt sugar-like sweetness to a coffee, and it adds a whole lot of body.
Flavour-wise, honey process coffee is often fruity and jammy. We might taste some stewed stone fruit flavors, and often there will be a nutty kind of vibe to them. How present these flavors are will depend on whether the coffee is white, yellow, red, or black.
Usually, white and yellow honeys are just a little sweeter with more body than your usual washed coffee. But black honeys— super jammy, very sweet, slightly fermented notes with intense fruity flavors. Loads of caramel too.
How Does Processing Affect Flavor?
Some processing methods are there to add and enhance the flavor of the coffee. This is the case with honey and naturally processed coffees.
Some or all of the fruit is used to impart something onto the seed. That something might be a little sweetness. It might be heavy fermentation that leads to notes of pineapple, mango, and jackfruit. Or it might be to simply give the coffee more body.
Washed processing, on the other hand— the goal here is the exact opposite. To remove absolutely everything from the seed. Anything that might alter the taste of the seed— it’s gotta go. To make the coffee seed the star of the show, up there, front and center.
This means that washed coffees need the seeds to contain loads of flavor. The seeds need to have grown slowly enough to develop complex sugars, and they need to have been harvested when perfectly ripe. If a batch of coffee cherries weren’t ripe upon harvesting, you’d taste it in a washed coffee.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is black honey processed coffee?
Black honey process coffees have had almost none of their sticky, honey-like mucilage removed before drying. This sweet mucilage coating the beans causes them to ferment, adding a fruity, jammy, and often caramel-like or brown sugar flavor to coffee.
What is white honey process?
White honey processing is on the opposite end of the spectrum as natural. Unlike red honeys that have much of their mucilage intact during the drying time, white and yellow honey coffees have around 90% of the sticky, sweet stuff removed.
With just a thin coating of mucilage, the coffee has a little more sweetness and body, but with less fruity and fermented flavor than a black honey.