Someone once said that "the best things in life never come easy." These words stand true for many things, including the coffee bean. Like wine, coffee has a variety of nuances when it comes to flavor, aroma, and body, and these characteristics are based on multiple factors. From the crop to the cup, the simplest adjustment to any of the steps in-between can create a diverse drinking experience. The primary way coffee flavor is distinguished is how it is processed after the initial harvest. One of the less well-known, but most successful ways to process coffee is called the "honey process."
To not be confused with the processed foods in your cupboard, coffee processing refers to the steps taken to remove the layers (pulp, mucilage, and parchment) around the coffee bean. This is the final step in harvesting before the raw, green beans are shipped to roasters. There are two main approaches used when processing coffee: natural (dry) and washed. The third method is called the honey (pulped natural) process, and the technique used is a combination of the natural and washed processes. This hybrid method creates a unique contrast in flavor.
The honey process is easily the most confusing out there. Perhaps it's because the name is deceiving and actually has nothing to do with honey. With this technique, the skin of the bean is removed, leaving a sticky, honey-like coating. As the beans are drying, they oxidize and darken in color. When the beans are first drying, they appear golden yellow. This beginning stage is referred to as the yellow honey process. The continued fermentation of the beans causes the mucilage to oxidize and transition to a red color, and finally to black. How much pulp is left on the bean will also determine the darkness and sweetness of the coffee. For example, black honey processed beans will contain more fruit than yellow honey coffee. The length of the drying process will also determine how fruity the coffee will be. Many coffee producers enjoy using the honey process because it requires less water. Unlike the washed method where the pulp is washed away, the fruit is dried onto the bean and then physically removed.
Honey processed coffees are gaining popularity because when handled correctly, the resulting flavors are incredibly sweet. Drinking a cup of honey processed coffee is similar to biting into a crisp, sweet apple. The resulting flavor profile is juicy and robust, with a complexity you do not typically discover with washed coffees. Many people enjoy drinking honey coffees black because of the natural sweetness it contains. This processing method confirms to the drinker that not all coffees are the same and that the final cup is ultimately determined by the decisions from the initial plucking of the beans.
My favorite way to unveil these flavors is to brew using an AeroPress or cold brew system. The AeroPress, with its total immersion brewing technique, produces a vibrant, yet smooth cup. A cold brew maker is ideal for highlighting the sweetness of the beans. I have discovered that both of these brewing techniques do an excellent job accentuating the bright, fruity notes so often found in honey processed coffees.
The complexities of honey processed coffees, from the amount of fruit remaining to the type of bean being processed, means that there are infinite delicious outcomes. Roasters and coffee producers working with specialty-grade coffee are now using processing methods to accentuate flavor notes, highlight acidity levels, and differentiate coffee types. The honey process, along with the other processing techniques, is an integral part of constructing the flavor and characteristics of coffee and can be used as a creative tool to influence the coffee buying and drinking experience.