Honey processed coffee is a hybrid production style becoming more popular in several countries that produce coffee. It is more expensive to produce than regular washed coffee and results in coffees that are more of a premium product. Many of the new coffee-producing countries have opted to produce the cheaper Robusta strain using the cheaper washed coffee process, so those countries that have elected to go for Honey coffees are differentiating themselves from the crowd. In this article, I will be looking at great detail into this production process,
The Lifecycle of the Beans
Seedlings are grown in shaded nurseries. They are provided with lots of water, and then when they are strong enough, they are planted in their permanent location. This planting is often done in the rainy season, so the roots of the seedlings are kept moist while they take root and settle in.
It is normally between three and four years before the plants will bear fruit. The fruit is called a “Cherry,” The coffee bean is actually the seed contained within the fruit. The cherries will first appear green, but as they slowly ripen, they will turn deep red. The harvesting will be done by one of two methods:
Strip Picked – All the cherries on a branch will be stripped off in one go. This could be by hand or increasingly by machine.
Selectively Picked – This will be done by hand, and only the ripe cherries are picked.
There are three ways of processing the cherries. Each will produce coffee with different attributes.
The Dry Method – The traditional method where the cherries are just laid out on drying patios and regularly turned throughout the day. At night they are covered, and if rain approaches, they are also covered. The idea is to bring moisture levels down to 11%
The Wet Method – The cherries are washed so that only the bean remains, and these are laid out to dry. Once again, the moisture content needs to be reduced to 11%
The Honey method is a hybrid of the two previous methods where some of the fruit is removed before drying. These are also brought down to 11% humidity. We will cover this later.
Before export, most of the beans will be milled, and the outer layer is removed from the bean, and the beans are graded by size, weight and checked for imperfections. Defective beans are removed. Once the coffee is milled, it is referred to as Green Coffee.
Now I will look at how this applies to the Honey Processed Beans.
What is Honey Processed Coffee?
There was a time when people used to layout the coffee in the sun to dry, including the fruit (natural/dry processing), but these days the process has changed, and the fruit is now removed by water (washed processing), and then the coffee is dried. This drying takes place initially on large patios often made of asphalt, on which the beans are laid out. They are then moved every 30 to 40 minutes. For washed coffee, this process normally takes six or seven days. The coffee starts at around 60% humidity, and the goal is to get this figure down to 11/12%.
Once the patio drying process is completed, the coffee is usually moved to mechanical dryers, which will reduce the humidity further. By now, it is usually around 15%, so that the mechanical dryers will remove the last 4% humidity.
The Honey Process Coffee is a hybrid of natural/dry processing and washed processing. The coffee honey process involves pulping the fruit, removing the cherry peel, and then laying out the resulting mucilage on the patio to dry. The process is much harder than washed processing. It requires turning over the mucilage every hour for between ten and fifteen days. This process is used only with the ripest Coffee Cherries – The red Ones.
The resulting coffee will have a natural sweetness and body and attributes of a high-end washed process coffee.
They have the skin of the cherry removed and consequently lose the woody flavors that dry-produced coffees may give off. They retain some of the fruity flavors retained in the mucilage but not so strong as in dry-produced coffee.
Yellow, White, Black and Red Styles
In Central America and the Philippines, this honey coffee has been refined further, and four styles developed. The coffee processing is modified to create four styles: Yellow, White, Black, and Red.
The mucilage is removed from the bean using a mucilage remover, a mechanical machine that uses friction to remove a set amount of it. The style is dependent on how much of the mucilage is removed.
The style is dependent on how much of the mucilage is removed before the drying process.
Black Honey Process As little of the mucilage is removed as possible, just the skins usually.
Red Honey: Normally, they remove half the mucilage.
Yellow Honey: They would normally remove between half and three-quarters of the mucilage.
White Honey: Between 80% and 100% of the mucilage is removed.
The mix of mucilage and beans are dried on the patio and are turned regularly. This is of crucial importance as failure to do so could result in either fermentation or rot. The drying method will bring the processed honey down to a 10% to 12% humidity level. Once this is achieved, the beans will have a crusty coating on them, a bit like nuts that have been candied. This is the origin of the name Honey Process.
Mucilage and the Taste
The various types will all have different flavor profiles, and a lot of this is connected with the mucilage present during the drying process. The bean lay in mucilage as it dried, and it absorbed some of the flavors of this fruit pulp. The different styles have varying levels of mucilage that were retained during the drying process. This will give a different intensity depending on this level.
Different experts will describe the coffee with a variety of terms. Talking about Honey Processed Coffees, I have heard this coffee described as “It was if the barista had slipped an extra spoonful of brown sugar in the cup.” Other terms are “approachable sweetness,” “Jammy”: texture closer to honey,” and other references to its sweetness. Suppose we remember that the four styles are, increasing amounts of mucilage, white, yellow, red, and black. We can see that honey red processed coffee beans will be stronger, more fuller flavored than honey yellow.
The reader must understand that several other factors are going to affect the flavor of a coffee.
The Variety of the Plant
There are over one hundred varieties of the coffee plant, but most commercial plantations use either Arabica or Robusta varieties. TThe Arabica has 1.5% caffeine and Robusta 2.7%. Robusta is far less popular in terms of taste; remarks like the taste of burnt tires are not uncommon. However, Robusta has more of a kick with higher caffeine content. Arabica also scores on the taste tests as it has a much higher sugar content.
Terroir is just another way of saying where the Coffee was grown. Coffee from various parts of the world has its own distinctive tastes. Terroir has various sub-elements. These are
- The height above sea level
- The local Climate
- Types of Soil
- bacteria, Fungi, and Protozoa that inhabit the soil
There are currently 70 countries that produce coffee commercially. Three of the top five countries are in the south and central America, with two of the five big producers being in Asia.
Very few people know that the second-largest producer of coffee worldwide is Vietnam, which grows nearly exclusively Robusta varieties, making them the Number One Robusta producer; understanding the vast range of factors that affect the flavors of coffee has become much more complex. Many of these countries are starting to adopt honey processed coffee production, including the Philippines, which was once the fourth largest coffee producer globally but fell down the rankings due to disease in the crop. They are now recovering.
So you may drink two cups of coffee that use the same variety of plants and the same processing methods but that taste different.
Coffee cherries ripen at varying rates, and the stage of maturity of the cherry when it is picked will also affect the taste. These days it is common to pick the cherries using the strip method, which means the whole crop is picked simultaneously. Somebody is going to have to make that decision as to when that will be. A subjective decision.