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Let's talk about honey processed coffee, shall we?

Written by Kevin Pasman • Posted on October 15 2021

What is honey process coffee?

Our new coffee from producer Karla Portillo is labelled as a 'yellow honey process' coffee. If you are wondering what that actually means, you are not alone. The yellow honey process is one of the types of honey processing that can be done to coffee which includes other colour names like white honey, red honey, brown honey and black honey. You may be happy (or maybe sad?) to learn that there is no actual honey involved in the process. 

Time to talk all methods.

Because we know there's more than just one.


Let's take a step back, what is coffee processing?

Processing is the name we give to all the steps that get coffee from a small fruit on a farm to a small green seed ready to be roasted. Coffee beans are the pit of a small fruit about the size of a small cherry. Fittingly we call these coffee cherries. When the cherry ripens from green to a nice bright red, they are picked by hand and processing begins. The coffee needs to be dried out to lower the moisture low enough that bacteria will not grow in it while it makes the long journey to your cup. The coffee bean also needs to have the skin and flesh of the coffee cherry fruit removed from it; we just want the bean for roasting. After this there are a few more processing steps to go, but drying and removing the fruit flesh is our focus because it is the order in which these are done that determines what we call the processing. There are 3 general types of processing with many variations of each.


Natural Processing:

In a natural process coffee, the coffee cherries are picked and laid right out to dry as a whole fruit. Drying is usually done on large concrete patios or sometimes on large raised platforms with perforated bottoms to let air flow all around the coffee. After the coffee is dried out, the flesh of the coffee cherry is removed by machine. And that is pretty much it.
Natural process coffee is the oldest and most straightforward process, but it is far from easy. This process requires careful attention and work turning the coffee to make sure it dries evenly without moulding, rotting or developing bad flavours. If done correctly it makes a coffee bean that has lots of sugars and fruity flavours that have remained on the bean.
If you like fruity coffee this is the process for you. As an added bonus this process uses very little water which is a big benefit for areas that don't have easy access to a lot of water. And so this brings us to:
Washed Processing:
In a washed process coffee the coffee cherries are picked and pressed through a machine called a depulper to remove most of the fruit flesh. What is left on the coffee bean is an inner layer of fruit flesh called mucilage. This mucilage is sticky, slimy and sweet-to-the-taste, not unlike honey. (You might see where this is going, but don't skip ahead, we are still on washed process coffee).
The mucilage-covered coffee beans are left to ferment for a few days to help the mucilage separate itself from the bean. Then the coffee beans are washed with water. And washed again, and again, and as many times as it takes to get the sticky mucilage off the coffee bean. Once the mucilage is all gone the coffee is laid out to dry just like the natural process of coffee. turning the beans occasionally. The washed process carries a lot less risk of coffee being ruined by improper drying since all the sugars and acids that bacteria love to eat are removed from the bean right away.
The flavours of washed coffee are usually more delicate and lighter. If you prefer white wine over red wine you will likely prefer washed coffee to natural coffee. The downside of a washed process is the huge amounts of water used to clean the coffee bean. After washing the bean this water has absorbed large amounts of the acids from the mucilage and is not drinkable by humans or animals. It will even harm plants if it is used to water them. Disposing of this leftover water is a problem for those coffee farmers who have enough accessible water to use the washed coffee process.
Not all of them do.


Time to talk honey.

The moment you've all been waiting for:

Honey Process:
The honey process is kind of a mix between the two other processes. In a honey process coffee, the cherries are picked and depulped by a machine just like the washed process. Then the mucilage-covered beans are also fermented for a few days. Then the beans may be washed a little bit to remove some of the mucilage but not all of it. The beans are dried with the 'honey' still on them, and then that mucilage is mechanically removed from the beans once it dries out enough that it can be removed. After that, the beans are laid out to finish drying as mucilage-free beans.
The different colours of honey process coffee (black red, white) are determined by the amount of mucilage left on the bean after fermentation, and the amount of time the beans are dried before removing the mucilage. As the normally see-through mucilage dries on the beans it darkens in colour.
A white honey process coffee would have had most of the mucilage removed before drying and would have only dried for probably a few days before having the mucilage mechanically removed. This coffee would taste similar to a fully washed process coffee with just a bit more sweet fruity notes.
A black honey process coffee would be dried with most or all of the mucilage still on the bean and that mucilage would have turned black by the time the beans were cleaned. Black honey process coffees often taste quite similar to natural process coffees.
A red honey process would be somewhere in between those two colours. Farmers simply name the colour of their honey process coffee after the colour the beans reached before they removed the mucilage. Just like the natural process, the honey process requires careful attention to make sure the coffee does not acquire mould or rot while the sweet mucilage is drying, but the results can be delicious. 
Honey processing allows coffee farmers a wide range of different ways to complete their coffee rather than the standard washed or unwashed (natural) processing method. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of fantastic washed and unwashed (another name for natural) coffee, but some coffees greatly benefit from using a process somewhere in between the two. Who knows the coffee better than the farmer who grows it from a seedling and works with it every day?
Using the honey process the farmer can process the coffee exactly as they want to and fine-tune the final coffee product to bring out the very best flavours of the beans. Karla Portillo from Honduras decided that her coffee shines brightest as a yellow honey process (light to medium mucilage drying) and we couldn't agree more. Come find out for yourself!