You may have heard the term “honey processed” thrown around a lot. So what is this mysterious category that sits in between natural and washed coffees? The Kore Directive‘s Sierra Wen Xin Yeo explains.
Honey processing is a term used to describe a process after harvest when the skin of the coffee cherry is washed off at a wet mill, leaving the pulp and/or mucilage generally intact on the coffee seeds before they are dried.
The amount of mucilage you leave on the seed influences the cup flavours, with the different ones typically classified into five gradations, named here in descending order of amount of mucilage left on the seed: black, red, gold, yellow and white honey.
Honey processing is achieved with either a traditional pulper that separates only the seeds from the cherry, or with a depulper and a mechanical washer. With the traditional pulper, all the “honey” is left intact, allowing the producer to manipulate factors such as parchment thickness and how often seeds are turned. With the depulper and mechanical washer, meanwhile, friction is used to remove the mucilage. “Depending on how you calibrate, you can remove a different amount of mucilage resulting in different colours of honey,” says Bram De Hoog, green coffee buyer for Ally Coffee. “This is further influenced by bed thickness while drying.”
Honey vs pulped natural
The first thing coffee drinkers should consider is the difference between the terms “pulped natural” and “honey process”. “For me, they are definitely not interchangeable,” says Bram. “Pulped naturals are prevalent in Brazil, whereas honeys originated in Central America.”
In contrast to honey coffees, pulped naturals are made by depulping the cherry, usually with water, then drying the parchment with most of the mucilage on it, which is most similar to black honey coffees. Other factors contribute to the production of unique lots: the altitude and microclimate of the farm, the soil and even the amount of sunlight.
Ultimately, the name method simply gives us a general idea of the actual process used. “Honey and pulped natural are brand names we use to more or less indicate what happened to a coffee,” says Bram. “When I’m offered a honey or natural, I always ask to have the process described to me in detail.”
The origin of honey processing in coffee is often attributed to Graciano Cruz in Panama before it spread globally; pulped natural was popularised in the late 1990s in Brazil as a cost-saving method because it used less space for drying than natural coffees.
“In the late 1980s, three farmers started to pulp the coffee and not remove the mucilage,” explains Carlos Brando, director of P&A Marketing, who has more than 20 years’ experience across the supply chain. “They dried it by revolving it every 15 minutes under the sun to the point where it didn’t stick any more. This resulted in the dark brown parchment.”
Brazilian low-acidity coffees made pulped naturals a happy medium for people looking for something with a little more clarity than naturals. But for countries that already produce naturals, what is the draw of these methods apart from a reduction in cost? “One reason is just to be different,” says Bram. Producers are looking to make their farms more interesting to buyers, but this means they risk of experimenting beyond their means. “You shouldn’t start producing honeys or pulped naturals out of the blue,” Bram cautions.
With plenty of innovation today among origins who are turning more and more to these methods of processing and the sweet, juicy coffees they produce, we expect a surge in popularity for honey processed coffees from consumers. The next time you pick a bag up, you’ll know the right questions to ask about exactly how the coffee has been processed.