What Is Honey Coffee?

Learn more about honey coffee and the honey-processing coffee method. What are the steps to create “honey coffee”? How does it differ from wet-processed coffee? What are the taste differences?

Honey coffee is a hybrid method of processing coffee fruit, that creates a cup somewhere between a traditional wet-process coffee and the fruitier natural coffee process.

Let’s start with the most basic clarification: No honeybees are harmed when you create honey coffee! 😉 Honey process has nothing to do with actual honey other than the fact that they’re both sticky.

In fact, the sticky aspect of the coffee after it is pulped is precisely where the name originated. If you worked at a coffee mill and were used to handling wet process coffee, it would seem to you like someone had drizzled sticky honey all over your nice clean wet-parchment coffee! Your hands would be a mess after handling this “honey coffee”.

What is Honey Coffee? A video in 2 parts!

What is Honey Coffee? Part 1 : Focuses on the process method at the farm or mill. 1

What is Honey Coffee? Part 1 focuses on the process method at the farm or mill.
What is Honey Coffee? Part 2 looks at the parchment and roasted Honey Coffee and the cup taste.

Where did “Honey Coffee” originate?

It’s a term that became popularized in Costa Rica (called Miel coffee) as another way to describe the “pulp-natural process,” which is then name used in Brazil for some time prior to anyone saying “honey coffee”.

In fact, the first I heard of “Miel” coffee was from a farm lot we bought back in the year 2000, from Finca Santa Elena in Costa Rica! (If I recall correctly, it was in conversation with Erna Knutsen, who described the process to me. From her I heard that “Miel” AKA Honey, was a term the farm’s owner had come up with. So it may be that Santa Elena farm originated the term “honey coffee”).

In any case, Miel or Honey coffee is really just a bit of marketing overlay on a more commercial process that didn’t sound so attractive. Pulp Natural vs Honey Coffee … pretty obvious which will sell more.

Less is more, I suppose, when it comes to selling the honey coffee process. It sounds like an added step, something that makes coffee better and more valuable? Wrong … it is actually the removal of a step in the wet-process method; fermentation in water.

So it makes sense that pulp natural in Brazil originates with a labor and cost-saving reduction in the steps used to create washed coffee, and has roots in large-scale processing of base-level 80-81 point specialty coffee vs. in the high-end coffee market.

What is the process method that defines “Honey Coffee”

The honey process involves mechanically removing the outer cherry skin from coffee beans within, while leaving the sticky fruit mucilage intact. A pulper is the name of the machine that peels off the coffee fruit skin using friction / abrasion. Water is mostly a lubricant in pulping, but it can be done without water.

In wet processing you remove the mucilage by fermenting the coffee, and then washing it away. But with honey processing, fermentation is bypassed altogether and the fruit-covered coffee beans are sent straight to dry.

Honey coffee processing has some different variations, which depend mostly on how much of the fruity pulp is left on the parchment layer when it is layed out to dry. A minimal amount of fruity mucilage left on the coffee can appear as a light golden color (“yellow honey”) or even a white-looking parchment (“White honey”) much as wet-process parchment looks. If you leave more fruit on parchment, you get at an amber color (“red honey”), and if you remove the coffee cherry skin and leave most of the pulpy fruit, you will see an even darker hue that is almost black (“black honey”).

What are the roast dynamics and flavors of Honey-Process Coffee?

Roasting honey coffee is not dramatically different from roasting wet-processed coffee. When I approach honey, I want to think about what the best attributes are in the coffee, and try to highlight those in my roasting approach. The more moderate acidity of a honey (vs washed) coffee can make it a nice option for espresso, so I will factor that into my roast curve as well, and when I chose my end point of the roast.

The impact honey processing has on flavor varies, depending on the origin and particular style of honey coffee (yellow honey, red honey, etc). But a generally it should boost thickness of body, tone down acidity, and even bring out fruitier flavors. (We’ll discuss the cup differences in the Q and A section below… as well as in the videos.)

Where are we at with Honey Coffee in 2024?

It’s hard to sum up honey coffee in a singular way. There are so many variations on how it is produced (coffee variety, pulping method, climate / drying environment), and these give a wide range of ways to approach a honey coffee in roasting and brewing. There isn’t a precise metric to locate a particular honey on the spectrum between a washed coffee and a natural coffee, and trying to do so, I realize in an imperfect binary approach. But it gives a basic starting point to understand how a honey-processed coffee can differ, and what might distinguish it.

The biggest variables in honey coffee, how much pulp is left on the parchment, and the specific thermal dynamics of drying (humidity of drying environment, peak and low temperatures, total drying time duration) are variables I feel few producers have truly mastered, or in some cases even managed! There are great honey coffees being made, but there is still a rather haphazard element of luck.

There’s a recent consumer-driven impulse toward novel processing methods, fermentation additives, holding unpulped coffee fruit in bags, etc. Producers are trying to meet the demand since there is an implicit reward with being on trend. But I don’t think the real variables influencing the results of older processes (washed, natural, and honey too) have really been accounted for. It feels like producers are being pressured to hastily try new methods driven by the labels on retail bags, vs. really controlling and reproducing a good product. So much can be done with honey coffee processing, but exploring the range of possibilities within this method doesn’t seem interesting to roasters and their customers looking for “new” methods, even if they taste bad.

Honey coffee can be a great method, environmentally and financially, for coffee producers. So hopefully better guidance and techniques lead to improved consistency in high quality results in the future!

FAQ on Honey Coffee and Honey-Processing

Here are some common questions about honey coffee, other than what I have already addressed. If you have any further questions, please ask them in the Comment Section below and we will reply!

Does the green coffee that is honey process look different than wet processed coffee?

green coffee honey vs roasted

It can be hard to tell the difference in the green coffee between Honey and Wet-Process. In some cases Honey vs. Dry-Process can be more obvious.

But honey coffee types represent a wide range, and some like “Red Honey coffee” or “Black Honey” can look like a natural. This would have more silverskin attached to the green bean, and a yellow tint to that silverskin.

Does Honey Coffee roasting differently than other coffees?

The difference in roasting Honey vs Wet Process (washed) coffee is slight. If density and moisture content are the same as a comparable washed coffee, they will behave similar in the roaster. The main difference might be the way you want to approach them, accentuating bright acidity perhaps with a wet-process coffee vs body and more developed roast level for honey, playing to it’s best features.

Does the roasted honey coffee look different than wet-process or natural (dry process) coffee?

Roasted Coffee: Red Honey versus Washed

It depends on which type of honey coffee we are referring to … yellow honey, where less fruit is left on the parchment to dry, can look more like a wet-process coffee when roasted.

Red honey, with more fruit left on the parchment, can sometimes appear similar to a natural (dry-process) coffee. This picture shows a Red honey, and the staining of the silverskin strip in the middle is more obvious versus the wet-process coffee beside it.

What are the taste differences that can be expected from Honey Coffee versus wet process coffee?

Depending on the type of honey, and all other things being equal, I would expect slight lower aromatics from the honey, more moderate acidity in the cup, more body or a thicker more viscous mouthfeel, and perhaps a longer duration in aftertaste. When I cup coffees from the same farm, grown side by side, but processing differently, these can be the aspects that distinguish a honey coffee vs a washed coffee. I expect a more rustic sweetness in a honey coffee too. Think cane sugar for washed coffee, and raw brown sugar for honey coffee … as a rough analogue.

How does honey coffee taste different from dry-process (natural) coffee?

If we are talking about a yellow honey coffee, there will be more distinction from a dry process coffee for sure. Yellow honeys tend to profile more similar to washed coffee. But a red or black honey, with a high percentage of fruity mucilage left on the parchment coffee to dry, can cup closer to a full-on natural coffee. A red honey can have similar body to a natural, a heavier mouthfeel. It might have some of the natural fruited aspect, or a fruit-chocolate bittersweet dynamic like a natural coffee.

Why is Honey Coffee a good option for some coffee farms and coffee mills?

Penagos Eco-pulper can produce a washed style coffee, or reduce water and produce a honey style

There are other factors that make honey-processing a good option for a coffee producer or farm. Honey processing uses much less water than traditional wet-fermentation methods. So if a farm or mill doesn’t have access to a lot of water, honey can be a good alternative to washed coffee.
A Penagos type “eco-pulper” can be used to produce a washed style coffee where the fruit is “demucilaged” from the parchment seed. But by using less water, some produce more controlled honey process coffee with the same machine.
Honey process can also result in a fruited coffee, yet take much less time to dry than traditional dry-process (natural) coffee. So a farm that might struggle to dry the entire coffee fruit in a timely way, such as 25 days or less, might do better with honey coffee, which might dry in 15-18 days.

5 Responses

  1. Great information, one question, are all countries that produce coffee beans using the Honey process?

    1. Hi Mark, glad you enjoyed the post! That’s a really great question. With growing demand the last decade or so, you certainly see it more and more. It especially makes sense for countries where water is an issue.

      -Dan

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