What Is Honey Processed Coffee?


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Coffee beans don’t grow like peanuts in a shell or peas in a pod. Coffee beans are pits in cherries, and somehow, those cherries have to have the pits extracted from them.

There are three methods of coffee processing: natural, washed, and honey. Everything done to a coffee bean affects its flavor, so the processing method is not an exception. Honey processing seems different as this gives coffee some unique flavors that appeal to consumers.

My friend, a coffee salesman, brought me a cup of coffee. I inhaled its bouquet. It said, “Try me!” I took a sip, rolled it in my mouth, held it on my tongue, then let it trickle down my throat. I gushed, “This is good! What is it?” He told me, “It’s honey processed coffee.” I replied with surprise. “Honey processed? Really? What is honey processed coffee?”

How is Honey Processed Coffee Different?

My friend has taught me all I know about coffee, and he always seems to have more surprises for me. I was shocked when I learned coffee beans start as a cherry. I was going to get another surprise, now. I had asked him, “What is honey processed coffee?” and I was going to find out honey processed coffee is not what I assumed it would be.

The coffee cherry looks like any other cherry, with pulp beneath a skin. However, under the pulp of a coffee cherry is a sticky membrane called mucilage. The mucilage surrounds the coffee bean. Somehow, the bean has to be freed from its outer coverings. There are several ways to do that.

Natural Processing

Natural processing is what it sounds like. It is also called dry processing. Coffee cherries are allowed to sit in the sun, being turned regularly by the farmer, until they darken, ferment, dry, and shrivel like a prune. When they reach this point, the coffee beans are extracted and dried further in the sun. They are ready to roast at this point.

Natural processing is the earliest and simplest method. The coffee bean picks up a lot of flavor from the cherry because of continual exposure of the pit to the pulp. It has a sweet, fruity flavor.

Washed Processing

Coffee cherries go through a depulper, separating the skin and pulp from the bean and mucilage surrounding it. Then, the beans are put in a vat of water and agitated as they ferment. They ferment after 72 hours, and the mucilage of the cherry separates from the bean. The beans are dried for about two weeks and readied for roasting.

This process exposes the bean to the cherry less than natural processing. The bean doesn’t have the time to pick up a fruity flavor. But the bean’s flavor is much cleaner, with the taste of its environment, nutrients, and the soil it was grown in being much clearer in the coffee it produces. It is the most popular processing method.

Honey Processing

This process is not what it sounds like, although it is descriptive. The cherries have the skin and the pulp removed with varying amounts of mucilage left intact. The mucilage is sticky and sweet. The beans are put in racks to dry in the sun.

How To Make Honey Processed Coffee - Joel Kaburu from Sipi Falls, Uganda

Do Honey Processed Coffee Beans Have Honey in Them?

There’s no really honey involved. Honey processed coffee beans do not have honey in them, and the process does not expose the bean to honey.

The term “honey” refers to the appearance of the mucilage around the coffee bean. Also, that term actually comes from the smell, color, and how sticky the beans are, which resembles a honey’s perception. It has a sticky texture like honey and is about the same color as honey.

However, although there is no honey added in the process, it seems you can still taste a honey-like flavor in your coffee if the processing is done right.

Are There Different Types of Honey Processed Coffee Beans?

There are four types of honey processed coffee beans: white honey, yellow honey, red honey, and black honey. These categories are determined by how much mucilage remains around the bean after the cherry has been depulped.

1.    White Honey

White honey beans have the most mucilage removed – as much as 90% of it. Their color is pale. They ferment in the sun for the shortest amount of time. As a result, the white honey bean is close to a washed bean. It has sweet and fruity flavors, but they are more overtones than a direct statement.

2.    Yellow Honey

About 25% of the mucilage will remain for a yellow honey bean. It has a bit of brown color, making it more yellow than white. The bean ferments in the sun for about a week. The fermented and sweet fruit accents are more pronounced than a white honey bean.

3.    Red Honey

50% of the mucilage remains for this bean. The brown is deeper, giving it a reddish tone. It will spend two to three weeks fermenting in the sun. The flavor of the bean will be fruity with a brown sugar accent.

4.    Black Honey

These beans have almost none of the mucilage removed and spend two weeks to a month fermenting. The beans will have a deep purple to black appearance. These beans are the closest to the naturally processed beans. The flavor is sweet, jam-like, smooth, and complex.

Difference Between Honey Processed Coffee, Natural and Washed Beans

The mucilage present in honey processed beans allows them to retain some of the sweet fruity flavors from the cherry. The white end of the spectrum will never achieve the clear, clean flavor of the washed bean. The black end of the spectrum will be fruity and sweet without the harsh, unpleasant taste from green or under-ripe cherries in the naturally processed beans.

Is Honey Processed Coffee Good?

ALL coffee is good. Coffee beans are much like grapes, with variances created among Cabernets due to where the grape was grown. Honey processed coffee is no different.

Now, take the regional variances in flavors and multiply them by the three different processing methods and the four different types of honey processed beans. Now, consider that all of that can be either a light, medium, or dark roast – and we are still not done. Each of the plethoras of these variants can be a coarse, medium, fine, or extra-fine grind.

Are you bewildered and dazed yet? How about when you consider all of that can be multiplied once again by all the different brewing methods?

A person either likes coffee, or they don’t. That is a matter of taste. I have a friend who will drink nothing but instant coffee. I think that is blasphemy, but the reality is that his taste is different than mine. Is honey processed coffee good? Choose your brewing method, get a bag, and you tell me.

Like this article? You might want to read: Coffee Degassing: Discovering its Impact on Freshness