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Honey processing – When you hear about coffee processing, what comes into your mind first? Washed processing? Or natural processing? As we all know, post-harvest coffee processing has a lot of method in order to score coffee unique characteristics and to adjust to the area of origin.

Quoted by royalcoffee.com in the world of coffee, there are basically two ways to process post-harvest. You can minimally process before milling and export (i.e., natural, cherry-dried, and/or dry-process), or you can de-pulp, ferment, and wash the seeds before they dry.

Apart from natural and washed processes, we are also familiar with the hybrid process in post-harvest coffee processing. This hybrid process method is a combination of a normal process and a washed process. Maybe some of you would think this process as semi-washed coffee processing, but that is not the only case.

Hybrid processing consists of three types of processing methods based on the different methods used, namely pulped natural process, honey process, and semi-washed. Semi-washed coffee processing is part of hybrid processing, not the equality. These three types are well known in the coffee industry, but what we will discuss this time is honey processing.

Why is this processing method called honey processing? Does this process produce coffee with sweeter characteristics compared to others? We’ll cover the facts and learn more about honey processing, let’s dig in!


Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash

What is Honey Processing?

As we already know, coffee beans are in the coffee cherries. Coffee beans are the seeds of coffee cherries. Therefore there is a post-harvest process of freshly picked cherries. Coffee processing that we know is actually an activity to remove the flesh or layers from the coffee cherry so that the coffee beans can be dried and roasted.

Quoted by perfectdailygrind.com The two most common methods of cherry removal 1) removing it with water (washed processing) and 2) letting the coffees dry in the sun before mechanically removing it (natural/dry processing). Honey processing, however, is somewhere in the middle. You remove the cherry peel but leave some flesh inside. The “mucilage”, remains while the beans are dried.

The processing principle is almost the same as the natural pulped process. However, the honey process requires less water than the pulped natural process. The coffee cherries will be peeled using a de-pulper machine to determine how much pulp is left to adhere to the coffee beans before they are dried in the sun.

honey process coffee

Where the “Honey” Term Comes From?

The title “honey processed” leads many people to assume honey’s used in the making of the coffee or that the coffee itself resembles honey tasting notes—but in reality, neither is true. The remaining skin of the flesh in Spanish is termed miel which means honey. To put it simply, in the honey process there is a small amount of mucus – or mucilage – which appears sticky sugar-rich mucilage on the coffee beans.  From here this process is then called the honey process.

Well, how about the taste of the coffee with honey processing? Is it sweet? The answer is yes, the name has also stuck due to the sweet profile of the coffees (although they don’t tend to be as sweet as naturals). Maybe if you thinks that honey processing use ‘real honey’ you know the facts just know.

Here’s the fact! The more mucilage, the darker the color of the beans and the greater sweetness and body you can experience.

sticky honey coffee processing

Credit: caffeinmag.com

What Makes Honey Coffee Processing Famous?

Honey processing originally became popular in Costa Rica, who adopted it after seeing consistent improvements in the quality of their beans. Its popularity has since spread. This process is somewhat similar to natural pulped and is commonly used in many Central American countries such as Costa Rica and El Salvador. Recently this process has also become increasingly popular in Indonesia.

Honey processing become famous among farmer since then because farmer who wants to raise the quality (and subsequently price) of their coffee really only has three options: change the tree varietal they grow, change the terroir or change the processing method.

And yes, most farmers would rather experiment with processing before going to the extreme of moving their farm or investing a new varietal.

The Types of Honey Processing

type of honey processing

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If you familiar with honey process coffee, you may have heard of “red honey” or “black honey”. Even if you want to buy a honey processed coffee, you’ll find yourself presented with a choice: yellow, red or black. Some of them also described as a percentage. So, what’s the different of each types?

Quoted from perfectdailygrind.com said that farmers will often separate their crop into different categories. Some will have less mucilage, and therefore dry quicker. Others will have more mucilage, and will need a greater drying time.

A yellow honey (approx. 25% mucilage) typically has the least cloud/shade cover during drying in order to speed up the drying time, and will gain a yellow colour. Red honey (approx. 50% mucilage) takes longer and is typically developed with cloud cover or shading. Black honey (approx. 100% mucilage) is usually covered so as to elongate the drying period.

Yellow Honey

yellow honey

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Yellow honey coffees are often semi-washed, and slightly more mucilage is left around the bean. Christiano Leite de Castro Borges, CEO of Ipanema Coffees through perfectdailygrind.com mentioned that yellow coffee tends to be more balanced and to accentuate a little the acidity, but also have less body and sweetness.

Yellow honey can be said to be the ‘safest’ type in honey processing. If there is less mucilage, there will also be less sugar in the coffee beans so that when they go through fermentation and other chemical processes, the effect will not be too much. Broadly speaking, yellow honey has fewer risks but also has limited flavors, coffee characteristics, more like a ‘standard product’.

Red Honey

Red honey have a bit more mucilage, that’s why the parchment sometimes gets a reddish aspect because the left mucilage on the beans. And because of that left mucilage, you can have more influence on the final taste of your cup of coffee. According to the team at Ipanema Coffees through perfectdailygrind.com, red honey processing should result in a sweeter cup profile compared to yellow honey, with a medium body and high acidity.

red honey

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Black Honey

The time comes when we discuss the most risky types in honey processing. In the process black honey, you leave all the mucilage on the beans during drying. The beans dry surrounded by lots of sugar and microorganisms. We need to be considered to control the hear and so stabilize fermentation in this one.

Christiano mentioned that since you have a lot of mucilage, a lot of pulp, you have to avoid very thick layers. Very high layers can create a very fast fermentation process. But all worth the risk. Black honey tend to have a sweet cup, a heavy body, and a good amount of acidity.

Which type is better one?

In terms of taste? Of course black honey. As explained above, black honey tend to have a sweet cup, a heavy body, and a good amount of acidity. The higher the mucilage, the stronger the flavors.

But as a coffee producer, is only taste considered? Of course not. As coffee producers we must recognize market desires and minimize risks. Although we will produce quality coffee and of course at a high price because we use the black honey method, there are many things that must be considered.

black honey

Credit: bloggenuineorigin.com

Quoted by perfectdailygrind.com said that the darker the honey, the more work is involved. Black honey processed coffees require constant monitoring to avoid over-fermentation and mold developing. They also typically have greater potential to lose freshness. As soon as the green beans arrive they should be roasted so their sweet honey flavors are captured.

Black honey has more mucilage so it requires a longer drying process. The longer the coffee is dried, the more likely it is to ferment and develop bacterial infections, leading to defects. It also needs to be agitated and cared for far more regularly, and takes up space on the drying beds for up to twice as long, than with yellow honey coffees.

Honey Processing: A long process

So what’s involved with honey processing?

Basically, despite its popularity for its taste and processing, honey processing coffee is one that requires a lot of time and a lot of attention. Of course there are differences from each coffee processing -honey processing even has to be ‘noticed’ during the harvesting process or picking of cherry coffee from the tree.

Quoted from perfectdailygrind.com the first thing the farmers do is pick only the ripest cherries from the trees. The beans are then pulped from their outer skin, and as mentioned above, left in a layer of mucilage. This mucilage layer contains a high amount of sucrose (sugar) and acids which is really the key of the honey process.

honey processing

Credit: coffeereview.com

Of course it is not finished only during the selection process in cherry coffee picking. The next process, namely the drying process, is an important and sensitive one. You have to get the timing of this perfect. It’s crucial that you don’t dry the beans too quickly. If you do, the flavors won’t be converted from the mucilage to the bean. It’s also crucial that you don’t dry the beans too slowly. You need to be quick enough to avoid fermentation within the bean, otherwise you’ll end up with mouldy coffee.

When it has entered the drying process, the beans need to be raked or agitated multiple times each hour until they reach the desired moisture percentage. This usually takes between 6-10 hours.

Then, the coffee needs to be agitated once a day for a minimum of 6-8 days. Sun-drying honey processed beans takes this long because each night the beans pick up moisture from the air, requiring more drying the next day.

Maybe some of you now thinking that honey processing is tricky and risky, right? But why the producers still using this coffee processing? The only answer possible is of course the coffee taste.

Honey processed coffees generally possess great sweetness and a balanced acidity with fruity undertones. The flavors are typically less powerful than natural processed coffee, but the clarity and definition of them is much clearer and more pronounced.The key to this flavor difference is the sugars and acidity in the mucilage.

select coffee beans for roasters

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How about honey processing roasting process?

Mark Michaelson, 2017 U.S. Roaster Champion and Roaster at Onyx Coffee Lab, while on the Ally Coffee Champions Tour of Brazil on perfectdailygrind.com said that honey processing and natural need to takes the roast slower to preserve that characteristic sweetness.

As drying ends and yellowing begins, he explains, the sugars really start to caramelize the acids and proteins. By extending this moment, and also first crack, you can enhance the aromas, sweetness, and body. If caramelization passes too quickly, a lot of that sweetness in the coffee is left out because you don’t the chance to caramelize those sugars.

CV. Buah Berdikari is an active coffee trading and exporting company that is based in North Sumatera, Indonesia. Our domain of expertise lays on sourcing Arabica green beans from North Sumatera and Aceh origins. We will help you finding the perfect fits for your coffee needs.

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