What is Honey Coffee?
The three main methods to process coffee around the world are: natural, washed and honey.
Natural processed coffees are dried with the cherry before threshing. Natural coffees are fruity in flavor and like the honey process, naturals are difficult to produce.
Washed (or wet) coffees are pulped and then fermented to remove the mucilage before drying and threshing This is the most common and easiest method for processing coffee.
Then there is the honey process. Which is in the middle between the wet and natural processes. The cherry is pulped and then dried with the mucilage layer that stays on the parchment.
The honey process originally became popular in Costa Rica, where it was adopted after seeing consistent improvements in the quality of the beans, since then its popularity has expanded in the world of specialty coffee.
The term “honey process” does not come from honey to sweeten but comes from how sticky the beans are from the mucilage.
When the coffee bean is separated from the cherry, it is left covered with a thick layer of mucilage, when dry, continues to absorb moisture from the air and becomes sticky.
The Honey Coffee Process: A Long and Delicate Job
It is not easy to produce honey coffees. It takes time and it is a delicate process for the coffee farmer. The first thing that goes into making a proper honey coffee is the harvesting. It is important that all the cherries are sufficiently ripened. Then the pulping starts. The mucilage layer is left behind, leaving a layer containing sucrose (sugar) and acids.
The most complex part in processing honeys is drying the beans. It can be challenging because it must be timed just right. If done too quickly, the desired profile will not be there and the fruity flavors won’t be absorbed by the kernel. If the producers dry the beans too slow they risk fermenting the bean and ending up with a bad batch of moldy coffee!
So, how do you get the perfect balance? Well, when the coffee is placed on the drying beds or concrete sheets, the beans should be moved or shaken several times every hour until they reach the desired percentage of humidity. This usually takes between 6 to 10 hours.
After that, the beans should be moved once a day for at least 6 to 8 days. It is extensive, isn’t it? Sun-dried honey coffee takes this time. Each night the beans pick up moisture from the air so more drying time is needed the following day.
Once the coffee has dried, it is ready to be threshed and roasted as with the other processes. Honey coffees often require a special thresher because threshers for washed coffees cannot remove all of the mucilage on the first run. And this causes wear and tear to the machine.
Yellow, Red and Black Honey: What’s the Difference?
If you want to buy a honey coffee, you will have three options: Yellow, red or black. You will also hear a description by percentage. What does this mean?
Well, coffee farms often separate their crops into different categories. Some will have less mucilage, and therefore dry faster. Others are going to have more mucilage and require longer drying times. A yellow honey (approximately 25% mucilage) normally has less cover or shade during drying in order to speed up drying time and will have a yellow color. A red honey (approximately 50% mucilage) takes longer and usually develops with more coverage or shade. A black honey (approximately 100% mucilage) is usually covered in order to prolong the drying phase.
Why is the Honey Process So Wonderful?
When a coffee process is so difficult to do correctly and takes so much time, you may be thinking: Is it really worth it? The answer: Yes, definitely yes!
Honey processed coffees generally have the right balance of sweetness and acidity accompanied by soft fruity notes that leave you with a complex flavor and an excellent cup of coffee. The flavors are usually less intense but brighter than that of a natural. The key to this flavor difference lies in the sugars and acidity of the mucilage.