I have often compared tasting the variations in coffee to that of wine. Indeed, there is as much variety in green (unroasted) coffee beans as there is in wine grapes. In addition to the variations in crops and regions, the method in which the freshly picked cherries are processed into green coffee beans—ready for shipment and eventual roasting—also creates distinct differences in the way coffee tastes. Traditionally, coffee producers have used two main techniques for processing their beans: natural (or dry) and washed. The honey (or pulped natural) process is a hybrid that combines elements of both techniques to create new differentiations in flavor. There is also another method, primarily used in Indonesia, wet-hulled, which will be discussed in another post.
Is All Coffee Processed?
Yes. Coffee beans are the pit/seed of cherries which grow on plants the size of a large shrub. When the coffee cherries are harvested, the seed/bean must be separated from the cherry fruit and mucilage before it is roasted. Originally coffee would be allowed to simply dry in the sun with fruit intact until ready for milling. This natural method is still widely used today, especially in Brazil and Ethiopia. However, it is most common today to find washed coffees which have the fruit removed before they are dried. This process is quicker, and is the predominant method of processing around the world. There is also a hybrid between natural and washed which is the pulped natural or honey process. All coffees, regardless of processing method, are milled or hulled to remove the last layers of skins that protect the inner bean.
In the washed process, beans are completely de-pulped, removing all of the cherry fruit. Then they are soaked and allowed to ferment for 12 to 72 hours before being washed clean of any remaining fruit and dried. It is probably the most common method for preparing green coffee beans. Washed process coffees usually have a bright, clean taste. Most Central and South American coffees use this method. Most East African coffees are also washed.
Natural or Dry Process Coffee
This is the most traditional process method. In the natural or dry process, whole coffee cherries are left to dry in the sun, leaving the fruit on the bean, allowing it to “raisin-ify” around the bean. Natural fermentation occurs resulting in the creation of complex flavors and sugars. This is a longer process than other methods. Naturally processed coffees often have complex fruity notes in the final cup like berries or citrus. Good examples of natural coffees are our Ethiopia Sidamo Natural Organic or the Bali Kintimani (currently out of stock--returning in fall.)
What is Honey Processed Coffee?
Pulped natural or honey process is a method in which the fresh coffee cherries are de-pulped, but allowed to dry without washing. Some of the fruit is still there, but not nearly as much as in the natural process. Most of the cherry is gone, but the remaining golden, sticky mucilage is reminiscent of honey, which is where the process gets it name.
One benefit to producers is that honey processing uses less water. Allowing the fruit to dry on the bean means that it can be physically removed during milling rather than being washed off as is typical of washed coffees.
Yellow, Red, and Black Honey Processing
During the honey process, as the coffee is drying, the sticky coating on the outside of the beans oxidizes and darkens in color. Beginning a golden yellow color, coffee which is stopped at this point is referred to as yellow honey process coffee. Allowing the coffee to continue fermenting, the mucilage further oxidizes to a red and finally a black color. The more fruit is left on the bean the darker the color as well. Black honey processed coffee can also have more fruit left on the bean during the drying process than yellow honey coffee.
As the coffee beans dry, yellow honey process coffee is turned more often to encourage drying, red and black are turned less often. It is the length of that drying process which allow the coffees to develop more or less fruity flavors.
How Does Processing Affect Flavor?
In the cup, honey-processed coffees tend to be more complex than their washed analogs, but not as fruity as natural coffees.
If you want to try a honey process coffee with a naturally sweet, fruit-forward cup, try our Tanzania Honey from the Finagro farm. It's a uniquely processed lot from the same estate as our regular Tanzania Edelweiss, so it's especially fun to try both and compare how the honey processing affects the flavor of beans grown in the same area, but processed differently.
Honey Processing is Still Evolving
There are many variations in the complex application of the still relatively new honey processing method. From the amount of fruit left on the bean to the drying time, as well as the wide variety of different types of beans being processed ensures we still have many exciting things to expect from this new twist on classic coffee production.
Trianon Coffee also a special varietal of black Honey processed coffee, Costa Rica Black Honey. Order some today while supplies last! We only have a few pounds and then its gone again until next season.
Learn more about coffee processing:
Mowery, L. (July 2016). Coffee Got Complicated: Know Your Natural From Your Washed From Your Honey. Retrieved September 2016, from Forbes.
Turp, R. (July 2016). Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101. Retrieved September 2016, from Perfect Daily Grind.
Shuler, J. (2015). What Makes a Washed a Washed (PDF). Retrieved September 2016, from SCAA Events.
Most recently revised August 2019.
This article was originally published September 2016.
Original photo credit: Broken Banjo Photography for Trianon Coffee