The Hydro-Honey Process & Its Unique Hybrid Technique

As the coffee industry evolves and more technology is available to producers, more innovation is happening in coffee processing. Producers have more access to new technology that allows for more experimentation. Some are now reserving acreage strictly for experimentation. It's an exciting indication the flavor and quality of coffee are improving even as you read this. With innovation that can showcase the uniqueness of their crop, they can create their unique flavor and experience. A new trend is called the Hydro-honey process, which combines the washed, dry, and honey processes. Processing coffee is no small task. Some farms sit so high in the mountains that the only way to harvest is to pick cherries manually. The labor needed for such an endeavor is astounding. Not to mention the drying, washing, transporting, and shipping process. To be able to be part of such an extraordinary coffee evolution is exciting.

First, let's quickly look at each processing method and then see how combining methods create the Hydro-honey processing method.

Washed Coffee

A washed bean has the pulp, mucilage, and parchment completely removed before it is dried with a water mixture and a de-pulping machine. Washed coffee produces a very consistent flavor because producers have perfected this process over the years. The flavors specific to the origin are showcased when you brew high-quality washed coffee. Washed coffees consistently score very well all over the world.

Natural Process

The dry, also known as the natural process, is probably the oldest process. Maybe it's because it doesn't require all the water, and since coffee processing dates so far back, it may be that farmers found a way to harvest without a lot of water. This type of processing method removes the washing step entirely.

  1. Right after the coffee is picked, it's almost immediately putting immediately out to dry.
  2. Then, the coffee is spread out to be sun-dried on a drying bed with the pulp and skin still on the bean. With this method, the cherry fruit is attached to the coffee bean much longer than a traditional or wet-processed coffee. 

Honey Process

Honey processed coffee beans are some of the sweetest, most unique coffee beans you'll ever taste. They are hard to come by and incredibly labor-intensive to produce, but all of that work at origin is shown by amazing tasting notes in the cup of coffee they produce. 

Every type of coffee process involves the removal of the skin, pulp, mucilage, and parchment and the drying of the seed. What separates coffee processes is when and how it's all removed. In the natural process, coffee is dried before removing all the parts from the seed, which means coffee dries in its natural state. The honey process can be easily confused with the natural process, so let's break it down. First, it doesn't have anything to do with honey from honey bees.

  1. The skin of the bean is removed, leaving a sticky, honey-like coating.
  2. When the beans are first drying, they appear golden yellow. As the beans are drying, they oxidize and darken in color. This beginning stage is known as the yellow honey process.
  3. 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. 

Even within the honey process, there are variables that impact the flavor of the coffee. There are three categories for the honey process; yellow, red, and black. Yellow is the fastest drying because it receives full sunlight while drying. The drying process lasts about eight days. When the cherry is peeled, only 50% of the mucilage is left behind. Red takes longer to dry because it's not exposed to so much sunlight. There's usually more cloud cover when drying. The drying process lasts about 12 days, and 75% of the mucilage is left on it. The black is the most complex, takes more labor, and costs more money. It takes the longest to ferment, so drying beds are not as available, making this coffee more limited than the yellow and red. Black honey processed beans will contain more fruit than yellow honey coffee. The longer the drying process, the more fruitier the coffee will be.

Many coffee producers choose the honey process because it requires less water, but the work is intense. Unlike the washed method, where the pulp is washed away, the fruit is dried onto the bean and then physically removed. Drying time takes about 15 days, and 100% of the mucilage is left. When you stop to consider how much work goes into the honey process, it's astounding to think about the amount of labor and workers needed for a successful crop, and it's only the beginning. All that processed coffee must be transported and shipped. But before any of that can happen, the farm needs customers to buy from them.

Hydro-Honey

Even with the complexity of some of the processing methods, the Hydro-honey process takes it to a whole new level. This process combines parts of the washed, natural, and honey process to create the hydro honey process. Each step outlined below is meticulously performed before it goes to the following processing stage.

  1. Coffee is picked and harvested in the morning.
  2. The liquid from the cherry is measured for sugar content. Some cherry juice is squeezed out and then measured using a refractometer that provides a percentage of sugar content. The ideal measurement is 23-25% measured in Brix. One Brix equals one gram of sugar. If the cherry has the right amount of Brix percentage, it means the cherry is ripe and ready for drying.
  3. Coffee is placed on drying beds to be sundried from 4-8 days, much like the natural process. The climate determines the exact number of days.
  4. Cherries are soaked for 18-24 hours which is referred to as the rehydration process.
  5. Cherries are depulped and dried again for 12-15 days, like with the honey process.

As you saw, the hydro honey process combines some of the washed, natural, and honey processes. It may be the most labor-intensive and expensive processing method, but the result is excellent. Between making sure that just the right amount of mucilage stays on the bean, then measuring the sugar content, and depulping, which is sometimes done manually, it shows how much producers believe in the process and are willing to be meticulous. 

Coffee has come a long way. Now we don't just talk about coffee in terms of region; we also talk about processing. It's becoming so specialized even within individual farms. It used to be that the biggest challenge producers had was bringing awareness to their farm and their coffee. Now, they are experimenting with new processes to create a unique product that will set apart their coffee even more. Gone are the days of just dry or wet processing. We can now enjoy coffee that is processed in a way that showcases the best part of that particular farm and process. Coffee has become highly specialized to suit the taste of any palate.

If you made it this far in this blog, you're clearly very interested in coffee processing. I didn't write this entire blog to leave you hanging. For the first time in the history of Sagebrush, we are featuring a Hydro-Honey from Guatemala. To be more specific, it's from our direct supplier Onyx Coffee. Onyx is one of our favorite suppliers. We get our Guatemalan Gold as well as our other Guatemalan coffees from them. This Hydro-honey coffee flavor notes feature brown sugar, cherry, and cream flavor. It's a dense-bodied, subtle, but complex coffee from the El Milagro Farm. If you want to know more about Onyx, visit our blog, where CEO Edwin Martinez talks about his passion for coffee.

Click here to read the next blog in this series!