Once coffee cherries have been grown and harvested, they must be processed. Processing is a crucial stage in the life cycle of a coffee bean that involves removing the layers of skin, pulp, mucilage, and parchment. Alongside roasting, it can have a significant influence on the final flavour of the coffee.
Until around 15 years ago, washed processing was the method of choice for the majority of producers. However, in recent years, some producers have been experimenting with new methods. One of the most popular, particularly among producers in Central American, is known as honey processing.
To discover more about honey processing and its benefits for both producers and roasters, I spoke with Dulce Barrera, Head of Quality Control at Bella Vista Coffee, World Cup Taster finalist, and MTPak Coffee Ambassador.
What Is Honey Processing?
The aim of processing coffee is to remove the fruit of the cherry, resulting in clean seeds (or beans) that can be roasted, brewed, and consumed. The two most common processing techniques are dry (natural) and wet (washed).
Costa Rica was one of the first Central American countries to popularise washed processing. However, in 2008 the country was hit by an earthquake, which led to extreme water shortages. Groups of farmers adapted to the droughts by using processing methods typically used in Brazil and parts of Africa where water is scarce. This gave rise to the technique known as “honey processing”.
Despite its name, honey processing doesn’t involve honey; instead, it refers to the sticky, honey-like mucilage that’s left on the coffee beans. Unlike natural processing (where the cherry is left on for drying) and wet processing (where the cherry is completely removed for drying), with honey processing the cherries are pulped to remove their skin and set to dry with the mucilage layer intact. It is often viewed as a hybrid of natural and washed processing, combining both techniques to create new differentiations in flavour.
Dulce Barrera is in charge of Quality Control at Bella Vista Coffee in Guatemala. She was a finalist in the 2019 World Cup Tasters Championship and was crowned champion of Guatemala’s national cup tasting competition three years in a row. She tells me that honey processing falls under different colour-coded labels depending on various factors.
“There are many honey processes, all of which can be split into sub categories with colour labels, including yellow, red, and black” she says. “The difference lies in factors such as temperatures and drying time. They also represent the percentage of mucilage left on the beans as they dry out. Black honey processed coffees, for example, contain the highest percentage, while white contains the lowest.”
Dulce explains that the amount of mucilage can have a profound impact on the final qualities of the coffee, imparting different flavours and aromas in the cup.
“White honeys don’t have the same aroma and flavour notes as black honeys,” she says. “This is because there is less flesh on the bean, which naturally means there will be fewer sweet, fruity flavours. Varieties can also have an impact, as the mucilage of some varieties contains more sugar than others.”
What Are The Benefits Of Honey Processing?
While still a relatively new concept, honey processing has quickly become a mainstay for many coffee producers in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Brazil.
One of the reasons it’s become so popular is the amount of water it requires compared to washed processing. In washed processing, vast quantities of water are used to remove all the skin and mucilage, before the beans are set out to dry. This can pose a problem for regions where water is in short supply.
Honey processing uses considerably less water because the washing stage is skipped and much of the mucilage is left intact. This is beneficial for farmers based in countries with drier climates and, as Dulce points out, is often considered more environmentally friendly than washed processing.
It’s impact on flavour is also a great benefit for producers aiming to obtain higher prices for their coffee. Honey processed coffees have grown in popularity among specialty roasters and consumers who value the unique characteristics it offers.
“These coffees have unique profiles if they are done very well,” Dulce says. “Compared to naturals, they tend to be sweeter and bring out the coffee’s flavours more. They are less acidic, with more body and heavier mouthfeel. These are highly valued qualities among some consumers.”
Not only do honey processed coffees produce appealing coffees, farmers have more control over the flavour of the coffees they produce. By manipulating the percentage of mucilage and light during drying, farmers can influence characteristics such as fruitiness, acidity, and sweetness. This offers flexibility that allows them to respond to specific changes in demand.
The highest price recorded at the 2017 Costa Rica Cup of Excellence auction was US $80.60 per pound for a honey processed Geisha varietal.
However, Dulce tells me that honey processing isn’t suited to all farmers and should only be adopted by those who know what they’re doing. “If a farmer has never used honey processing, it’s better to train first and then do it so as to avoid spoiling the yield. Honey processing is highly susceptible to defects when it’s carried out incorrectly.”
What’s more, honey processing can be more labour intensive for farmers, often requiring more attention than washed and natural processed beans.
Roasting & Selling Honey Processed Coffees
When roasting green beans, it’s important to factor in how they’ve been processed. Washed coffees, for example, tend to produce denser beans and need to be roasted aggressively. Natural coffees, on the other hand, will burn more easily than washed, therefore require lower charge temperatures.
Understanding how to roast honey processed coffees is essential. In most cases, they should be treated like naturals in order to protect their delicate sweetness. Dulce recommends taking the roast slower, extending the moment at which the sugars start to caramelise.
“By extending the first crack, the aromas, sweetness, and body will be improved,” she says. “If not, most of the sweetness that makes honey processed coffees special will be left out.”
Roasters should also use colour as an indicator of how much to adjust roast profiles. White and yellow honeys require longer roasting times to bring out more acidity and flavour, whereas red and black honeys should be roasted for a shorter period of time as the increased sugar levels will caramelise faster.
Once roasted, the coffee must be packaged and distributed. For specialty coffee roasters, it’s important to make sure their product stands out on the shelf. Honey processed coffee offers an inherent advantage because it’s more unusual than natural or washed coffee. However, Dulce points out that it’s how roasters use this advantage that makes the difference between a successful product and one that blends in with the rest.
“Make people aware of the honey processing wherever you can,” she says. “If the consumer is bored of the same coffee and wants to try something different, your product has to jump off the shelf and let them know it’s unique.”
Dulce suggests including clear information on the processing method, distinct mouth feels, and expected flavour notes. Consumers are more interested in the story behind coffee than ever before, so try to include as many details as possible.
She also advises playing around with the colour of the packaging to help it stand out from your other products. You could even match the colour of the bag to that of the fermented beans, alongside a brief explanation on the side of the packaging as to why colour matters.
Honey processed coffees have risen in popularity in recent years, as consumers look to try new, distinct flavours. While natural and washed coffees still have the most widespread appeal, specialty roasters can set themselves apart by incorporating a honey processed coffee into their offerings.
At MTPak Coffee, we can help you find the perfect packaging no matter what type of coffee you sell. With our range of sustainable materials and water-based inks, you can design a fully recyclable product for consumers that both attracts attention and protects your coffee.
For more information on our sustainable packaging, contact our team here.