Honey coffees on raised beds in Costa Rica

Honey-Processed Coffees: Quiet Adventure

Honey coffee, honey-processing – what wonderful coffee language! It’s a language that sells (after all, most of us like honey), but it sells honestly. I can’t think of a better descriptor than “honey” for a process in which coffee beans are dried with the sticky-sweet, golden layer of fruit flesh still clinging to them, rather dried after the fruit flesh has been completely removed as it is in the conventional wet or “washed” process. The Brazilians, who basically popularized the honey process, still prefer to call it by the rather lumpy phrase “pulped natural.” (The Brazilian coffee leaders are no doubt trying to build on their earlier coffee language success, their popularization of the term “naturals” to describe beans that are dried in the whole fruit. Until some years ago coffees dried inside the entire fruit, skin and all, as most Brazil coffees are, were called either “dry processed” or – get this – “unwashed.” When I first started in coffee forty years ago I used to ask myself how the Brazilians could put up with this term. What, their beans don’t wash behind their ears? But no more. “Naturals” has prevailed, a dignified term for a fine and noble coffee type.)

But you can’t win them all, and the Central American invention of the term “honey” for dried-in-the-fruit-pulp coffees appears to have prevailed everywhere else in the world outside of Brazil. You can see both the victory of that term as well as the attraction of the process itself in the worldwide range of origins represented among the 21 honey coffees we tested for this month’s report: seven Costa Ricas (four reviewed here), five El Salvadors (two reviewed here), two Brazils (one reviewed here), and one each from a far-flung assortment of origins: Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Sumatra, Rwanda (the PT’s Coko Rwanda Honey appears here at 93), Thailand (the Paradise Java Thailand Semi-Washed is here at 91) and Honduras (the Red Rooster Honduras Finca Las Flores appears at 91).

The Honey Evolution

The relative dominance of Costa Rica honeys both in number of submissions and number reviewed should come as no surprise. Although the process was pioneered in Brazil, the term honey and the application of the process to small, refined lots of coffee was popularized in Costa Rica, part of the Costa Rican “micromill revolution” in which farmers took advantage of the newer compact mechanical wet-processing machines to begin processing their own coffees rather than selling their coffee fruit to large mills.

Honey coffees drying in raised beds

The availability of mechanical wet-processing machines, which squeeze or scrub the fruit flesh or mucilage off the beans using only a very small amount of water, made even further refinements of the honey process possible. Today you will find “black honey,” “red honey,” “yellow honey,” and “white honey” coffees. In the black honey and red honey processes, the beans are dried with all or nearly all of the fruit pulp adhering to the beans. The difference between the two processes, black and red, depends on how quickly or how slowly the beans are dried: black honey is apparently dried slower than red. In the case of yellow honey, the mechanical demucilaging machines are adjusted to remove somewhere between 20% to 50% of the mucilage or fruit flesh before drying (no explicitly described examples of yellow honey are reviewed here), whereas with white honey almost all of the fruit flesh is removed, leaving only a thin coating on the beans, perhaps 10%. So, if we follow a hypothetical model of how processing influences cup character, we might expect white honey coffees to cup the brightest and most transparent; in other words, most like a conventional washed or wet-processed coffee, whereas we might expect the black honey and red honey (in which all or almost all of the fruit flesh is left on the bean) to cup closest to a fully dried-in-the-fruit coffee: fruitier perhaps, with more chocolate and aromatic wood.

Cup vs. Hypothesis

Our results only in part supported these hypothetical expectations. Certainly the 93-rated Equator Costa Rica El Aguacate White Honey was among the cleanest and brightest of the ten coffees reviewed, whereas two of the three red honey samples we reviewed, the Magnolia Costa Rica Esnider Rodriguez (91) and the Manzanita El Salvador Loma La Loria (91) showed signs of processing-related variations in cup style, in particular an unusual though quite attractive interweaving of floral and aromatic wood notes. Nevertheless, a third red honey, the Reunion Island Sol Naciente Costa Rica (91) was by contrast crisp, delicate and zesty.

Moving to black honey, two of the four samples we tested displayed the heavy, rather woody character that one might expect from coffee dried in the fruit too slowly. On the other hand, the Willoughby’s 93-rated Costa Rica El Puente Cerro Verde Black Honey was particularly lively, with no signs of flavor-dampening fault at all, only a clean but impressively complex aromatic profile, spicy and deeply sweet, a sweetness that we might attribute in part to the black honey process and careful drying in the fruit flesh.

Further complicating any effort to generalize on our results, the processing methods for half of the coffees reviewed here were not described in detail, although the information we did have clearly qualified these samples for this report. For example, the engagingly complex Propeller El Salvador Finca El Pozo (93) and the striking and original PT’s Coko Rwanda Honey (93) were simply labeled “honey” with no color modifier attached. We can assume, given Brazilian practices, that the fine 91-rated pulped natural Espiritu Santo Brazil from Java Blend fits the criteria for “red” honey, though its pleasing juxtaposition of zesty tartness and berryish sweetness in the cup could just as well make it a conventional washed coffee. The Paradise Roasters Java Thailand Semi-Washed (91), rich with spicy chocolate character, was labeled “semi-washed,” although information we received on its processing suggests it fits the criterion for yellow or white honey, since it was dried with some but not all of the mucilage removed.

Gently Exotic Unpredictability

All of the preceding ambiguity reinforced our general conclusion as we cupped through these 21 honey samples: It appeared to us that the main characteristic that honey- (or pulped natural-) processing brings to coffees is a gently exotic, mildly unpredictable complexity. We certainly experienced far more variation in cup as we moved around the table with these coffees than we would with, for example, a table of conventional wet-processed or washed coffees from roughly the same set of origins. And, with the exception of the two rather flat, monotoned black honey coffees, those unpredictable differences were original and engaging rather than off-putting or distracting.

Probably these cup variations derived from differences in how much of the fruit flesh was removed from the beans before drying and how the drying was handled. In general, the four top 93-rated samples showed a natural sweetness, subtly exotic variations in aroma and flavor, and smooth, viscous mouthfeel that could plausibly be related to the virtues of the honey processing method. On the other hand, these four high-rated samples remained relatively pure, with clean, often bright acidity. The next tier down, the six 91-rated samples, were also quite engaging, but showed clearer (though still attractive) signs of impact from processing variation: spice and aromatic wood notes tended to complicate the fruit and flowers, for example, and in the case of the Red Rooster Honduras Finca Las Flores Honey, a faint though attractive hint of brandyish ferment surfaced.

Honey Process and Origin

On the basis of this modest sampling, it appears that the honey process does contribute adventure and originality to coffee types normally associated with the wet method. This is not to say that honey produces a “better” cup than wet-processing, just a different, and more exotic and less predictable one. In the case of origins where wet processing is typically pursued by traditional methods involving fermenting the fruit flesh before washing it off, as in Guatemala or Peru, for example, rather than through use of machines that squeeze or scrub the fruit off, as is usually the case in Costa Rica and Colombia, the advantages of the honey process in imparting complexity and nuance to the cup may be less significant. And with origins like Rwanda and Sumatra, where traditional local processing methods already add a particular intrigue to the cup, careful honey-processing may produce a different-than-usual cup, though not a more intriguing or adventurous one. Brazil represents still another situation entirely, since the norm in Brazil is “natural” or dry-processing. Honey or pulped-natural Brazils are almost always lighter-footed than typical Brazil full naturals, with more delicacy and brightness and greater emphasis on stone-fruit and flowers rather than nut and chocolate.

At any rate, coffee lovers who value the mildly exotic over the familiar and predictable in a still classically bright and balanced cup may be particularly well-served with honey coffees from classic origins like Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador. And committed aficionados should enjoy the pleasing challenge of reading in the cup the subtly original impact of still-evolving refinements of honey-processing technologies.

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Posted in: Tasting Reports

About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is the co-founder and editor of Coffee Review, as well as its primary cupper and writer. Associate editors and co-cuppers contributing to this article and reviews include Jason Sarley, experienced coffee taster and certified Q-grader, and Kim Westerman, a widely published food writer and certified wine sommelier.

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