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What Is Honey Processed Coffee?

What is honey processed coffee? You might be too busy enjoying that cup of joe to wonder where it came from, but how coffee is processed before roasting can make a big difference in flavors. Honey processing is one of the lesser-known methods, but it brings a lot to the java table.

The honey processing method can be environmentally friendly, while creating some unique flavors that can’t be developed with washed or natural coffee. It uses the coffee fruit’s own layers to infuse natural fruit and sweetness into coffee beans. The exact attributes depend on the degree of honey processing.

Although honey processed coffee beans aren’t as popular as washed or natural coffee — it’s a great option that uses less water than the former, and requires less preparation time than the latter.

As we examine honey processed coffee, we’ll look at these aspects:

Anatomy of a Coffee Bean

In order to understand the coffee/honey process method, you should first get to grips with the structure of a coffee bean.

Many people are surprised to learn that a coffee bean is, in fact, the seed of a cherry-like fruit that grows on coffee plants. These ‘cherries’ are picked, sorted, and processed to reveal coffee beans inside. How these layers are removed depends on how those beans are processed.

The layers of coffee fruit:

  1. The skin and pulp. This is the outer layer of the coffee fruit.
  2. Mucilage. The mucilage is a sticky, gooey substance that surrounds two coffee seeds or beans inside. This layer is the key to honey processing.
  3. Parchment. This layer is sometimes included in the mucilage, but it’s a very thin, papery layer.
  4. Silver skin or chaff. An even thinner layer that’s silvery in appearance, hence the name, this skin will come off during roasting.
  5. Seeds or coffee beans. There are two seeds inside each coffee cherry, and these seeds are what will become roasted coffee beans. Ready to brew some java?
Honey Process Coffee

What Is Honey Processing?

Honey processing can be described as a hybrid method — somewhere between washed and natural processing. It has also been referred to as honey washed coffee.

The coffee cherries are picked and sorted, then their outer skins are removed — also known as depulping. This leaves the coffee beans still encased in mucilage, the sticky, sugary skin. That sweet, sticky layer resembles honey, which is where its name stems from.

Beyond this point, the process can vary a little from one place or farm to another. Some don’t use any water to wash coffee after it’s depulped. Instead, it’s laid out so it can dry in natural sunlight. The coffee must be raked and turned regularly to ensure that they dry evenly. Another way is to rinse the beans to remove part of their mucilage, then dry them. More on these methods in a few.

When the sticky mucilage is exposed to air, it oxidizes, and the color deepens. The more fruit left on a coffee bean and the longer it dries, the darker its color becomes. The drying process can take days or weeks, depending on the results desired.

Honey processing is thought to have originated in Costa Rica, where farmers were experimenting with ways to cut costs for growing and processing coffee. Honey processing has a few similarities to the natural pulped process developed in Brazil, but isn’t necessarily completely waterless.

How Honey Processing Compares to Washed and Natural Coffee

Coffee Honey Processing

So what makes honey processed coffee different from washed or natural coffee? This method attempts to combine the best features of both.

Honey processing uses far less water than washed processing. That’s not to say it doesn’t use any water, because some versions do, but it’s still better for the environment than washed coffee. However, because of the number of workers required to constantly supervise, rake, and turn the coffee, it can be expensive.

It also takes less time than natural processing, since less fruit is covering coffee beans, the beans simply dry faster during this part of the process.

However, honey processed coffee looks different from washed or natural coffee. The beans may not be consistent in color, due to the differences in drying. There’s also the possibility of human error with turning beans at the right time or allowing them to ferment too long. Over-fermentation or mold development can make for terrible tasting coffee.

If you’d like to learn more, or see how these processes differ from honey processed coffee, check out our washed vs natural coffee post.

Degrees of Honey Processing

There are different degrees — also referred to as grades or shades — of honey processing. While names are the same, the description can vary from one region to another. For example, some areas use degree levels to describe how much caramelization of the mucilage sugars has occurred. Others use these levels to categorize the amount of mucilage remaining on the coffee bean before drying.

White Honey

White honey is not always used as a descriptor for honey processing, so if you don’t hear it again, that’s not really a surprise. It refers to coffee beans that have had most, if not all, of the mucilage removed. This is often done by washing the coffee before drying. Remember how I said water may be used in honey processing?

Yellow Honey

Yellow honey denotes coffee that’s dried in the most direct sunlight. This also leads to more heat exposure, and they’re turned more often — speeding up the drying process. Warm sunny days, with low humidity, are ideal for yellow honey coffee.

These coffee beans will be dried within a few days to a week, assuming all conditions are perfect. What’s left of the mucilage will turn golden yellow.

Yellow honey can also be used to describe rinsed coffee beans. These beans have had about 50 to 75 percent of their mucilage removed, which allows them to dry rapidly.

Red Honey

Red honey processed coffee beans still have at least 50 percent of their mucilage. In this instance, after fermentation and drying, mucilage will turn a deep red color.

It takes 2-3 weeks for red honey coffee to dry properly. Overcast weather or shade is required so these beans can dry slowly. If the weather is sunny, farmworkers may cover coffee beans at times to reduce exposure to light and heat. These beans are also turned less often compared to yellow honey coffee.

Black Honey

Black honey is the term for the final degree of honey processing. These coffee beans generally have more fruit remaining and all of the mucilage. Black honey coffee dries for the longest length of time, a minimum of two weeks, often more. When dried, its mucilage will be a dark color, usually black.

It’s shaded even more than red honey coffee and is also turned less frequently than other types of honey processed coffee. It’s also the most labor-intensive of the honey processes. Because of how much time is required and the need for perfect conditions, black honey processing is the most expensive method.

Black Honey Coffee

Characteristics of Honey Processed Coffee

So what makes honey process coffee so special?

This coffee takes some of the best attributes from washed and natural coffee. These coffee beans create java that’s complex, possesses a heavy body, but low acidity. At the same time, honey processed coffee has decent clarity, sweetness, and suggestions of fruit.

Red and black degrees of honey processed coffee are known for making excellent espresso, as they are almost creamy when brewed. In addition to hints of fruitiness, the flavor profile of honey processed coffee often includes chocolate, brown sugar, or spice tasting notes.

Final Thoughts

Honey processed coffee takes its name from the mucilage — a gummy, sugary layer — that surrounds coffee beans within their coffee cherry and resembles honey. There are four stages, each having its specific characteristics and traits.

So, what is honey processed coffee? Gaining popularity in areas that have limited water supplies, honey processed coffee is a hybrid method, somewhere in between washed and natural coffee. This type of processing keeps the fruit in contact with coffee beans longer, creating sweet, fruity flavors. Although there’s absolutely zero honey involved,  you’re sure to love this java.

What is Honey Processed Coffee? FAQs

Why Is It Called Honey Processed Coffee?

Honey processed coffee gets its name, not from honey, but from the layer within a coffee cherry that surrounds coffee beans. This layer, the mucilage, is thick, gooey, and sweet like honey.

Is Honey Process Coffee Good for Espresso?

Yes, honey processed coffee is ideal for brewing espresso! Particularly the red or black honey-roasted coffees — they’re full-bodied and sweet, without being overly acidic.

What Is Honey Roasted Coffee?

Technically, there is no honey roasted coffee — roasting simply refers to heating coffee beans to bring out their natural flavors.

Roasting honey processed coffee is carried out in the same way as other forms of coffee, but preparation matters. The skin and pulp are mostly removed from the beans, while leaving part or all of the mucilage behind. Coffee beans are left to dry with the mucilage still attached, allowing that sugary layer to be absorbed into the bean.

Is Coffee a Cherry?

Coffee beans are actually the seeds of a cherry-like fruit that grows on coffee plants. It resembles a cherry, with an outer skin and pulp that must be removed before beans can be roasted.

What Is White Honey Coffee?

White honey coffee has had most or all of the mucilage removed, along with the outer fruit skin and pulp, before the coffee beans are allowed to dry. In some cases, coffee may be washed or rinsed to remove the mucilage.

What Does Honey Processed Coffee Taste Like?

Honey processed coffee typically has a taste that’s sweet and/or fruity, although not as fruity as natural coffee. It’s full-bodied and can be very intense, depending on the degree of honey processing it’s been through.