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The Spectrum of Honey Processed Coffee

By Reiko Piekarski
Director of Coffee
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Glancing at a coffee label from the local roaster and the consumer will often find listed the name of the coffee producer, country of origin and processing method.
Previously we explained the differences between washed and natural processed coffee zeroing in on the distinctive characteristics highlighted with those methods. Washed coffee to this day is the most common practice however with research and experimentation the variations of processing has expanded. This piece will shed light on another method being used by producers in the coffee industry and how it has influenced processing moving forward.

Honey Processed Coffee

In the early 1950s Brazil sparked the idea of semi-washed coffee. Unlike the washing method where the skin is removed then the residual fruit is soaked and rinsed off, the seeds are laid out to dry with some or most of the sweet and sticky mucilage still intact. This process may also be known as the honey or pulp process because of the association of the honey-like sweet and sticky consistency of the fruit pulp. Not only does this method require less water for production it is also a manner of quality control. Honey coffee presented similar characteristics to natural processed coffee but without the intensity of the fruity and fermented notes. This practice became a balanced hybrid of both washed and natural processing methods providing a way for producers to control and discover different flavor qualities of their crops. Depending on the coffee region, weather, water accessibility, time and producer desired outcomes this particular processing style has a varied spectrum.


White, Golden and Yellow Honey

The exciting part of the honey method is the control and display of different flavor potentials. The variations within this process break down to how much mucilage is intentionally left on the coffee seed during the drying stage. Producers who desire a cleaner cup much like washed coffees but with a little more sweetness and body will opt for the white, golden or yellow honey methods. This usually means roughly 0-10% of coffee fruit is left on seed for white honey, 20-25% for golden and yellow typically ranging up to 50%. Less fruit means less natural sugars to oxidize in the sun leaving the parchment layer of the seeds pale, golden or yellow in color. Drying time is usually between 8 - 10 days producing a range of flavors from crisp and citrusy to floral and lightly fruity in the cup.

Red and Black Honey

Working our way up to increased fruit applications, the red honey is commonly associated with coffee from Brazil. Typically 75-80% of fruity pulp is left on the seeds which take 12-15 days to dry to a deep orange or reddish brown color. With more sticky mucilage intact this requires less raking and movement of the seeds since the sticky fruit starts clumping together. Because the coffee ends up clustering together the drying time is extended to ensure the crop is dried to the desired 10-12% moisture content. Red honey processed coffee is characteristic for sweet and syrupy brews.

Not too different from its cousin the natural process, black honey production removes the skin and leaves 50-100% of the sweet coffee fruit on the seeds opposed to the whole cherry. This method takes 30 days of care to ensure proper and even drying. Because of the amount of fruit remaining, the natural sugars begin to ferment some and oxidize resulting in a deep brown color to the seed. Black honey coffee presents complex, sweet, fruity and full body characteristics in the brewed cup without the intensity associated with natural coffee.

Coffee has made a long journey in history and it has a story to tell. The extracted complexities and nuances within this magical beverage spark inspiration throughout humanity. With the emerging interest of the honey process this opened up the exploration of other production possibilities. Producers gaining knowledge of these applications and understanding the variables which influence the quality of the cup have created a platform for experimenting with other methods. It is an exciting time to see new methods stem off the honey style and how producers are applying them to unlock more flavor characteristics. Finding the best cup is an endless quest however with the knowhow and diligent application of practices in processing from dedicated producers that achievement can be unlocked.

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