Honey processing is a method of processing coffee cherries that falls between natural processing and washed processing. The term "honey" refers to the sticky mucilage that surrounds the coffee bean, which is left on the bean to varying degrees during the processing. The amount of mucilage left on the bean determines the type or stage of honey processing.
This can happen many ways, but one of the most impressive honey processing facilities that I have seen uses a large corkscrew where the cherry is crushed and removed and the coffee with mucilage continues through a channel where water is introduced. It then travels up a vertical corkscrew conveyor where different levels of “washing” can take place. The lowest port of exit leaves a large amount of mucilage and the highest exit removes the majority of mucilage before it is directed to the drying beds.
What are the stages of honey processing?
There are four main stages of honey processing: white, yellow, red, and black. White and yellow honey processing involves removing the majority of the coffee mucilage during the mechanical washing phase. White and yellow honey are differentiated slightly by the amount of mucilage that is left on the coffee cherry with yellow honey often containing more of the sticky mucilage. The coffee produced using this method tends to have a fruity and floral flavor, with a bit more depth and sweetness than its white honey counterpart, but both give way to better sugar development while maintaining good acidity and a more complex flavor profile than standard washed coffees.
Red honey and black honey processing leaves roughly 80-90% of the mucilage, resulting in a darker red or black color when drying. The coffee produced using this method tends to have a more balanced flavor with notes of both fruit and sugar sweetness. Black honey processing involves leaving almost all of the mucilage, and is a close kin to a natural processed coffee. The coffee produced using this method tends to have a complex and deep flavor with notes of fruit, sugar, and chocolate. They are largely differentiated by the drying time between the two or how long the mucilage is left on the parchment before milling, which creates different levels of fermentation and sugar chain development.
Where is honey processing most practiced?
Honey processing is most commonly used in Central and South America, specifically in countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The method is well suited for these regions because the high humidity and warm temperatures make it difficult to dry coffee using traditional methods such as sun-drying. The mucilage on the bean helps to protect the bean during the drying process, making honey processing a practical solution.
However, pulped-natural and semi-washed processing methods are close cousins to honey processing and have been in practice for a long time all over the world.
How does honey processing impact my cup of coffee?
Honey processing has a significant effect on the flavor of coffee. The sticky mucilage on the bean contains sugars, which can ferment and caramelize during the drying process. This results in a sweeter and more complex flavor profile. The amount of mucilage left on the bean also affects the acidity of the coffee. Yellow honey processing results in a higher acidity, while black honey processing results in a lower acidity. The flavors produced by honey processing can vary widely based on factors such as the type of coffee, the region, and the processing techniques used.
If you are someone who enjoys the complexities and cleanliness of a washed process coffee, but wish there was a bit more body and balance of sweetness - or, you have a preference for the full bodied sugary bomb that comes with natural processing methods but just wish they were a bit cleaner on the finish, then honey processing might be your jam.
For review, honey processing is a unique method of processing coffee that falls between natural processing and washed processing. The method involves leaving varying amounts of sticky mucilage on the bean, which results in different stages of honey processing, such as white, yellow, red, and black. We most commonly see honey processing used in Central and South America and it has a significant effect on the flavor of coffee, resulting in a sweeter and more complex flavor profile.