We give the scoop on how to amplify your coffee drinking experience with juicy and bright honey processed coffees.
For those of you deep into your home brewing game, you've probably learned about coffee processing methods - especially washed and natural processed coffees. If you're ready to dig a little deeper for something truly unique, it's time to experience honey processed coffee—and no, this does not mean adding honey to your daily brew. We unravel the mysteries behind this quickly growing processing method, and how it can seriously change up your coffee routine.
What is coffee processing?
In order to understand how honey processed coffee works, it'd be best to learn what it means to process coffee. Like many beverages, coffee starts with a fresh agricultural product—a cherry. The coffee beans we roast and brew are actually the seeds of that cherry! When we process coffee, we remove the seed from that cherry, and there are several ways to do this that affect flavor. While all methods only vary slightly, they are all removing different parts of the cherry. The more pieces that are removed before the cherry dries, the more bright your cup of coffee will taste. You can read about them and how it changes your coffee here. After exploring a few of these methods at Bean & Bean, we've decided that honey processed coffees are our absolute favorite to buy, and for a good reason!
What is honey processed coffee?
When coffee is honey processed, coffee producers remove the seeds from the ripest coffee cherries of their skin and pulp. This cherry seed has a considerable amount of mucilage left on it. Mucilage is the sticky fruity substance caked on the seed. It is also essential to determining the sweetness of your final brew! Unlike other methods, in which the mucilage gets removed, honey processed involves leaving this mucilage on while the cherry seed ferments.
During the fermentation period, the seeds churn while this fruity substance caramelizes onto the bean and develops into sugars. At the same, coffee producers carefully rotate these beans while they dry. Once the beans are dry, they go to a mill to remove the remaining mucilage and parchment. Parchment is the flakes that form on the seed after the drying period (you may have seen these in your own coffee bags). They are now ready to be shipped off and roasted like any other bean!
So honey processed coffee doesn't have honey?
No honey goes into the coffee through this method. In this context, “honey” refers to the amount of mucilage (the fruity substance) that is left on the seed. That mucilage could be considered as sweet as honey though, which is how this name came to be. The mucilage looks like honey as it dries on the seed. Through this method, coffee producers can control the amount of sweetness they want based on how much mucilage they leave on the seed. And so, there are three styles of honey processed coffee based on how much mucilage is on the seed.
Types of honey processed coffee
- White honey: 80-100 percent of the mucilage removed
- Yellow honey: 50-75 percent of the mucilage removed
- Red honey: 0-50 percent of the mucilage removed
- Black honey: Little to no mucilage removed
Wouldn't you assume that black honey would be the best to drink then? It would clearly have the most sweetness left on the seed. Although this may be true, it is laborious, risky, and expensive for producers. Regardless, all honey processed coffees provide a uniquely sweet and desirable set of tastes.
So what makes honey processed coffee so special?
The honey processing method takes great skill to master. During the fermentation period, coffee producers have to constantly rotate the seeds, and a lot can go wrong. The timing is crucial. If you rotate too often, they will dry out too quickly, and sugars will not develop. If you do this too slowly, they will not dry properly and mold. When you are able to perfect the honey process however, the result is a flavorful and memorable cup of coffee.
Honey Processed is Good for the Environment
Unlike the washed process, the honey processing method is environmentally friendly. The washed process uses a lot of water, while honey coffees use hardly none. Washed coffees require water to rinse and remove the mucilage from the seed, but the honey process doesn’t. These coffees can go through a machine to remove dried mucilage instead.
What do honey coffees taste like?
Honey processed coffees are overall an especially sweet experience. They have smooth bodies and a medium amount of acidity. Think apple juice or mango juice when drinking a honey coffee. It's rich, deep, and balanced by floral acidic notes.
White and yellow honey coffees, which process the fastest, can taste like apricots. The body will be lighter and the taste will be much cleaner. Red honey coffees will be sweet and syrupy, with a creamy body too. Black honey coffees, those with the most mucilage left on, are the sweetest. They will be full bodied with deep fruit notes, along with chocolatey and nutty characteristics.
Honey Processed Coffees in Costa Rica
This method is widely popular in Costa Rica, and you can expect to see most honey coffees from this region (for now). It became a success here because of the consistent, fantastic quality that Costa Rican farmers achieved with honey processing. Many countries in Central America now practice this method, but Costa Rica has perfected it. It continues to experiment with this method in many ways today.
Black Honey and Red Honey Coffees From Las Lajas Costa Rica
While all honey processed coffees are special and delicious, we are obsessed with black honey coffees from Costa Rica. Las Lajas is a farm in the country that specializes in these coffees, and has been around for over 80 years! Their honey coffees sell out on a regular basis, and this farm was also one of the first in Costa Rica to be certified organic.
Farm owners Oscar and Francisca Chacón see honey processing a little differently. With the goal of making coffees as sweet as possible, they leave as much mucilage on their beans as they can. Through years of experimentation, Oscar and Francisca perfected their honey coffees by leaving all mucilage on, but rotating each style (red, yellow, black) in different frequencies. They rotate their Black Honey coffees only once every 24 hours, while rotating the Yellow Honey coffees once every hour. The Red Honey coffees fall somewhere in between the black and yellow -- they're flipped several times a day. These various methods ensure control over sugar and flavor development. You can try the Las Lajas Black and Red Honey Duo pack here.
Orange Honey Coffees From Santa Felisa Guatemala
Although honey processed coffee has been perfected in Costa Rica, other countries are experimenting with this method and thriving. In Guatemala, Santa Felisa is a female-owned coffee farm with prized offerings. In addition to growing award-winning Geshas, owner Anabella Meneses also processes some of these Geshas with the honey method. Anabella has also pioneered orange honey coffees. Through this experimental processing method, she uses anaerobic (oxygen free) fermentation on the full cherries before removing the pulp. The seeds then dry out with the mucilage intact, just like any honey processed coffee. The result is a funky grapefruit-flavored coffee, with an intensely creamy body.
The subtle yet intentional differences between honey processed coffees are worth the exploration. Whether you're trying a Bourbon coffee with this method or tasting the flavor notes between each color, you'll begin to understand why we are crazy about these complex and juicy coffees too.