We have a couple of Costa Rican coffees launching this week (Herbazu & Los Angeles). The coffees are Honey Processed, which is all the rage in Costa Rica. A unique process that doesn’t actually involved honey or bees. So what the heck is it?
Honey processing is one of the many ways mills process their coffee cherries. This wasn't always the way in Costa Rica. After an earthquake in 2008, there was a water shortage within the country. Farmers were left dealing with the lack of water and had to come up with creative ways to not waste their crops. Other coffee producers in places like Africa have long been processing without loads of water. Adopting similar techniques, farmers began to embrace the different aspects of the coffee cherry and use it as an aide in the process. Wait, cherries? Yep, coffee comes from bright, colorful cherries. Let’s first break the coffee cherry down:
As you can see, a coffee bean is underneath four protective layers. The outermost layer is the pulp, which resembles a cherry. In the honey process, the pulp is removed. Which brings us to the mucilage. This is where the term "honey" comes from because this layer is a sugary, sticky substance. Both of these components play a big role in the honey process.
Depending on which color honey process (white, yellow, gold, red, or black) is relevant to how much mucilage is left on during processing & how much light it receives during drying periods. While it is not an overall standard, white/yellow honey process removes almost all of the mucilage, red honey removes about half, and black honey removes only the skin before drying. Generally speaking, lighter colors represent a quicker dry time because there is less mucilage vs. a darker color has a longer dry time, which means more fermentation. "This yields a flavor profile that has the most acidity of any honey process, but not quite as much as the washed process," Sam Mirto, Director of Coffee at Ferris explains. Think vibrant or bright notes! With more sugary mucilage left to oxidize, the seeds turn dark shades of red and black, hence red and black honeys (science!) The length of the dry time, what they are drying on, how often they are turned or rotated, and all aspects of weather are factors in the results during fermentation. "Honey processed coffees usually have some stewed fruit and coffee pulp flavors, but white honeys will have the least of this kind of flavor.
There are many risks to producing this style of coffee. Leaving on mucilage can cause mold a chance to grow if not turned to aerate or the exposed drying beds get a healthy dose of rainfall. Honey processed beans aren't the prettiest of beans (no shame!) but it can potentially lead to less sales. Farmers in the region of Costa Rica are taking the risk. The Costa Rican government and coffee associations have imposed stricter water-conservation regulations so the interest in honey processing has been an appealing alternate to traditional washed methods. The global awareness of environmental concern has only been growing and finding alternative methods is a natural process of evolving. The results of changing and taking risks have some big pay offs. For instance, both our Herbazu and Los Angeles coffees are Cup Of Excellence award winners and have placed a number of years in top ten lists. Think about it, without honey process experimentation, we might not have ever had the delicious results we do now.