Honey Processed Coffee: What’s The Difference Between Yellow, Red, & Black?
“How much honey is in the honey-processed coffee like a Costa Rican espresso?”
If that sounds like a riddle, don’t worry. You’re probably familiar with honey, natural, and washed coffee. You may have heard of “red honey” or “black honey”. But it’s less common to see these distinctions made at your local café. So today we’re going to break down the different types of honey processing.
To do this, I spoke to Cesar Magana of Finca Lechuza in El Salvador and Francisco Mena and Wayner Jimenez of Finca Sumava in Costa Rica. All three of these producers are passionate about honey processing, and Francisco has been hugely influential in Costa Rica’s micro mill revolution. Today he exports coffee from almost a hundred different small lot farmers in Costa Rica, as well as managing Finca Sumava. Here’s what I learned.
Honey in the making! Credits: Menachem Gancz
WHAT IS HONEY PROCESSING?
(Know your honey? Skip straight to the next section, Yellow, Red, & Black Honey: What’s The Difference?)
Coffee beans aren’t actually beans at all. They’re the seeds of coffee cherries. Yes, that’s right. Your favorite caffeinated beverage comes from juicy red (or sometimes yellow or orange) fruit.
Before you roast the “beans”, you must remove the coffee cherry layers and dry the beans to around 11% moisture content. The two most common methods of cherry removal 1) removing it with water (washed processing) and 2) letting the coffees dry in the sun before mechanically removing it (natural/dry processing).
Honey processing, however, is somewhere in the middle. You remove the cherry peel but leave some flesh inside. The “mucilage”, remains while the beans are dried.
Breakdown of a coffee cherry. Credit: Danielle Kilbride
So why is it called honey? Well, “mucilage processed coffee” is less appetising. if it weren’t for one lucky coincidence. Mucilage is extremely sweet and sticky, like honey. And while the name has nothing to do with the taste, these coffees are known for their sweet flavors.
YELLOW, RED, & BLACK HONEY: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
So now we know what honey processing is, it’s time to look at the different kinds of honeys. These descriptions might be rare on coffee packaging, but you’ll find producers and exporters referring to coffees as white honey, yellow honey, gold honey, red honey, and black honey.
Simply put, the white and yellow honeys have less mucilage left after being mechanically washed. Gold, red, and black honey coffees, on the other hand, have much more mucilage remaining. This leads to a fuller-bodied coffee.
Can we break these descriptions down further? Roughly speaking, yes. Humidity, heat, and the oxidation of sugar all affect honey processing – and these things don’t provide an exact formula. Approximately, different honey processed coffees break down in the following manner:
White & Yellow Honey
White honey coffees tend to be mechanically washed, leaving minimal mucilage around the bean. Yellow honey coffees are often semi-washed, and slightly more mucilage is left around the bean.
There will be some variations in what these terms mean from farm to farm, however. These labels are useful, but it’s good to also discuss the exact processes used when buying or selling beans. This way you’ll avoid any miscommunication.
White honey, unique and complex. Credits: Caffé Pecora
Gold, Red, & Black Honey
What differentiates these three is the amount of light and drying time the beans are exposed for. More humidity and a slower development lead to black honey. Slightly less humidity leads to red, and even less to gold.
Gold honey will be dried during warm, sunny times with little humidity. This helps it to dry quickly. Red honey, however, is processed under more shade to slow down the drying time. This will increase the amount of humidity the beans are exposed to. And black honey takes even longer, and is dried under even more shade.
Black honey coffee, rich in body, flavorful, laborious, and expensive. Credits: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers
Why Process Darker Honeys?
The darker the honey, the more work is involved. Black honey processed coffees require constant monitoring to avoid over-fermentation and mold developing. They also typically have greater potential to lose freshness. As soon as the green beans arrive they should be roasted so their sweet honey flavors are captured.
So if black honey is so much hard work, why do it? Because the darker honeys come across well in espresso, where it almost tastes as if someone added a drop of honey to your cup. White and yellow processed coffees, in contrast, tend to have a cleaner taste when prepared as a filter coffee.
Black honey processing in Costa Rica. Credit: OR Coffee
HOW DO PRODUCERS CONTROL HONEY PROCESSING?
I asked Francisco, Wayner, and Cesar how they control their honey processing to achieve the right color. They explained that it needs a lot of effort. Throughout the 60-90-day harvest season, they do visual inspections on the patio/beds and collect samples.
Francisco is in a unique position because he is both an exporter and a farmer. The epitome of practicing what he preaches, he’s constantly searching for ways to improve the coffee industry in Costa Rica. He now color-coding drying beds.
These beds assist farmers throughout the drying process, enabling them to identify the beans and continue to process them appropriately. He shares charts explaining the color system with other fincas who have also adopted it. And it’s his aim for all farms, mills, and even roasters to use it.
Colour-coded drying beds. Credit: Francisco Mena
WHAT DIFFERENT HONEY PROCESSES MEAN FOR YOU
As a producer, are you considering classifying your honey processed coffee even farther? If you’re a roaster, are your importers and direct trade partners educating you on the best way to highlight the work they’ve put into the coffee? If you’re a consumer, are you looking for coffees that with notes of dried fruit or chocolate?
Or, as a marketing professional, how are you informing your audiences about the differences between the processing styles? Explaining the intricacies of different honey processes to consumers without overwhelming them is a challenge. A quick one-liner seems reductive. Could an infographic or a visual chart be the way forwards?
Coffee has an extensive story to tell. With the many different processing methods and flavor characteristics available, the nuances of different honey processes are precious. I hope they’ll have the opportunity to be both highlighted and appreciated.
With thanks to Cesar Magana, Francisco Mena, and Wayner Jimenez.