What’s a Honey?



We’ve received a number of customer questions regarding the term “honey process” used to describe some of the Central American coffees on our offering page. Since we will be bringing in a number of these coffees this year, we thought a detailed explanation was in order.

“Coffee processing” refers to the method of removing the cherry pulp and parchment from the coffee seed (bean), with the finished result being the hard green beans ready for roasting. Generally speaking, there are two methods for processing coffee: Wet-processed (or “washed”) coffees are brought to the mill soon after picking, where the coffee cherry is de-pulped, allowed to ferment for about 20 hours, washed of all pulp and then dried (usually on cement patios). Dry-processed (or “natural”) coffees are whole, intact cherries dried directly on patios, raised beds, tarps or rooftops; once dried, the hard cherry pod is hulled to remove the skin, pulp and parchment in one step. There are over 70 countries in the tropic zone that grow coffee and, as you can imagine, many variations of these two processing methods have evolved over the years based on tradition, climate, economy, quality and so on.

About seven or eight years ago, we began to see coffees from Costa Rica and Panama called “honey-processed.” This is a variation of the “pulped natural” processing method in which the skin and pulp are removed, but the sticky, sugary “mucilage” is allowed to remain and dry on the bean. The name is derived from the honey-colored appearance of the beans after they have dried for a day or so. If performed carefully, with ripe cherry, this process can add perceptible sweetness and body to the final cup character of the coffee. Drying techniques are critical in the honey process, as mold and fungus defects can easily develop if the coffee is not properly and uniformly aerated. African-style raised beds have become the standard for drying honey coffees, as these allow for good air circulation and easy access for turning the coffee at regular intervals. Proper drying requires that the bed depth of the coffee never exceeds two inches. Even for a small farm and mill, honey processing necessitates quite a bit of square footage dedicated to raised beds. Along with the added labor involved for proper drying, this means that honey processing can be more expensive for the producer. The added costs, however, can be well worth the effort when the result is a sweet, clean and full bodied cup.

The honey coffee trend began when small, quality-oriented roasters in Japan and the U.S. developed relationships with small producers in Costa Rica and Panama who were willing to process quality “honeys” for a premium. From Costa Rica, look for honey coffees from the following small (“micro-mill”) farms: Brumas el Zurqui in the Central Valley, Herbazu in the West Valley, Don Mayo in Tarrazu and Puente Ecologico Tarrazu, also in Tarrazu.

In Panama, look for honey processed coffees from Elida Estate, Mama Cata and Los Lajones, all located in the Boquete growing region. The Los Lajones farm, operated by Graciano Cruz, deserves a special mention. Graciano was among the first Central American farmers to experiment with honey (as well as natural) processed coffees – traditionally, Central American coffees have always been processed by the wet method. While quality has always been his goal, Graciano was also motivated by ecological issues concerning the use of water. Today, he has become a dedicated advocate of honey and natural coffee processing using very little or no water. Sustainably speaking, this is far superior to wet-processing coffee, as it does away with the polluted water by-product that wet mills can create. While controversial to some, natural and honey-processed coffees may offer an economical and sustainable alternative to many small farmers throughout Central America, as long as the quality is kept high. Graciano has recently been working with farmers in El Salvador, so look for the first-ever honey coffees from that country to arrive sometime this year.