Before we get into how the honey process works, let's look at what coffee is. It is the dried and roasted bean (or seed) of a coffee tree. The whole fruit is called a coffee cherry and the bean is in the middle of the coffee cherry, surrounded by pulp, as shown in this diagram from Seattle Coffee Works. The pulp and other bits need to be stripped away from the bean before it can be roasted and made into your daily cup of joe.
There are two main methods for processing coffee beans. The most common method is to remove the coffee pulp before drying the beans. This is known as the Wet or Washed method because one of the steps in the process is to "wash" the coffee cherries in big vats to help remove the fruit from the bean.
The original method, still very common in some countries, is the Dry or Natural process, where the whole coffee cherry is dried in the sun. Once dried, the pulp is stripped away leaving the beans. Drying the entire coffee cherry takes longer than the wet process. Because of this, it requires a very hot, dry environment and careful monitoring of the crop to ensure it doesn't over ferment.
The honey process aims to get the best of both worlds, taking aspects of both the dry and the wet processes. After harvest, the farmer strips the coffee beans of the skin and most of the fruit and then sun-dries them.
It is known as the honey process because the bits of fruit mucilage left on the beans are sticky and golden like honey. First developed in Costa Rica, the honey method is now spreading to other Central American coffee growing areas.
During the drying process, some of the sweetness from the mucilage is absorbed into the bean. And the drying takes less time and has low risk of over fermentation compared with the dry process. Unlike the washed process, the honey process uses no (or very little) water. These factors provide huge environmental and economic benefits to the farmers. The benefits for us coffee lovers are a coffee that has an intense and rich, sweet flavour with elements of tropical fruit and lower acidity than other natural processing methods.
Want to know more?
The National Coffee Association describes the process of how coffee is produced 10 Steps to Coffee: From the Seed to the Cup. And in How Coffee is Processed Around the World, Serious Eats explains how the different coffee processes impact the taste in your coffee cup. Typical coffee processing methods and results are contrasted for Ethiopia (dry / natural process), Kenya (wet / washed process), Costa Rica (honey process) and Brazil (mechanization).
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