The Honey Process
The Honey Process
This month we’re focussing on a specific post-harvest process, but applied in very different ways on very different raw material
The honey process has been used for many years, but rose to prominence in Costa Rica in around 2008.
Since then, the process has spread to quality-focussed producers across the coffee belt.
Processing coffee this way leads to an opportunity for very deliberate flavour creation during drying.
Adam Overton of Gesha Village in Ethiopia has shared a honey-processed Illubabor varietal.
Raul Rivera of Finca Santa Rosa in El Salvador has shared a honey-processed Pacamara.
1 x coffee
Illubabor Honey (250g / 5.3oz)
2 x coffee
Illubabor Honey (250g / 5.3oz)
Finca Santa Rosa (250g / 5.3oz)
First coffee - Ethiopia
Isolated heirloom by Gesha Village
Jasmine, Apricot and Honey
(250g / 8.8oz)
Gesha Village lies in the Bench Maji zone of South Western Ethiopia, not far from the border with South Sudan. This area, in the high altitude humid forests where the Great Rift Valley passes into South Sudan, is thought to be the birthplace of Arabica coffee, and is still home to great genetic diversity. Here at Gesha Village however, one varietal sits in the spotlight; Geisha. Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel first travelled to Ethiopia in 2007 to make a documentary about its unique method of coffee production, and fell in love with the country. They decided during that short trip that they would eventually move to the country to start producing coffee themselves. They found a 471 hectare plot of land in Bench Maji, further west than we normally find specialty coffee in Ethiopia, in a remote area of untouched high altitude forest. The wild forest remained as coffee was planted, maintaining as much as possible of the biodiversity so crucial to the Ethiopian mode of production, while also providing ample shade for the fragile Geisha trees.
Gesha Village is located only around 20 km from the Gori Gesha forest, where the hallowed varietal of the same name was first isolated by British researchers in 1931. When preparing Gesha Village, the team behind the project trekked into the forest and gathered seeds from the wild coffee trees growing there, selecting individual strains of Geisha to cultivate on their own land. This lot is made up of another varietal selected from those same forests, on an earlier expedition in 1974. This selection was made by the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre, and focused on finding a strain that had a high level of disease resistance and good yields, while retaining very high quality in the cup. While lacking some of the overtly floral character of a true Geisha, Illubabor Forest 1974 closely resembles the cup profile of mixed Ethiopian Heirloom coffees, with clean bergamot often found alongside soft stone fruit and tea-like notes. To create this lot, the Illubabor Forest varietal was planted on the Dimma plot of the farm, located between 1966 and 2019 metres above sea level, and processed using the honey method.
Second coffee - El Salvador
Finca Santa Rosa
Blood Orange, Brown Sugar and Date
(250g / 8.8oz)
This is our third year buying coffee from Jorge Raul Rivera. Raul is a second generation coffee producer, based just outside the town of La Palma, in the far north-west of El Salvador, close to the border with Honduras. His farm, Finca Santa Rosa, is located not far from La Palma, at around 1550 masl on the slopes of El Pital, El Salvador’s highest point. The farm is planted mainly with the famed Salvadoran varietal Pacamara, and has produced some of the country’s highest quality and most innovative coffees in recent years.
Finca Santa Rosa
Jorge Raul Rivera Sr.
Jorge Raul Rivera Sr. began growing coffee, mainly of low quality, in the region around La Palma in 1979. This was the very beginning of El Salvador’s brutal civil war, so many were abandoning their land, selling cheap and fleeing into neighbouring Honduras. Raul Sr. capitalised on this, bought some plots cheaply and began to grow coffee. He was one of the first to grow coffee in the area, and one of the few that stayed during the war. As El Salvador began to settle again after the war, the Riveras bought the land that would become Finca Santa Rosa, and began to grow timber, due to government subsidies aiming to help the post-war rebuilding effort. However, in 2003, the Cup of Excellence came to El Salvador, a great showcase for the first few speciality coffee producers in the country. The Riveras saw a prime opportunity to enter the high quality coffee market, and realised that the conditions at Finca Santa Rosa were perfect. The family knew that if they could produce micro-lots of high enough quality, they could fetch high prices at the Cup of Excellence auctions, making their farm highly profitable. They therefore planted their farm with Pacamara, famed for high quality cups, and set off in pursuit of the Cup of Excellence crown. Years of work have resulted in three wins, in 2014, 2017 and 2019, all with their honey-processed Pacamara. The pine from the old timber plantations has been retained as shade for the coffee, always reminding us of a Danish pine forest during our visits. Visiting Raul is always a treat, he’s a genuinely passionate and professional coffee producer who’s enthusiasm is rather infectious, in fact it’s sometimes difficult to leave Finca Santa Rosa, as Raul is always keen to share his knowledge and experience. The pride he takes in every single detail of the farm and step of the process is obvious, and this translates into the incredibly high quality lots of coffee he is able to produce. During our visit in March, we were also able to visit Raul’s small cupping lab in San Salvador and taste some of the truly special lots he was considering entering into the Cup of Excellence. We picked four lots for this year, and are excited to share them with you over the coming weeks. This Honey Pacamara is becoming somewhat of a feature coffee for us here at La Cabra, with the floral notes of the Pacamara shining clearly through the sugary sweet character produced by the honey process, tied together by a crisp blood orange freshness.
The Honey Process
For this month’s subscription, we are focussing on a single method of post-harvest processing, one which is applied in very different ways in very different parts of the world.
The basic premise of a honey process involves removing the skin of the coffee cherry, while leaving the slippery sticky mucilage layer attached to the seed. The seeds, with sugary mucilage still attached, are then dried to a stable and exportable moisture content, essentially locking flavour into the seed itself. This method has been popular in Brazil for a very long time, although here it is known as the pulped natural process, and was initially devised as a way to speed up drying in a country where full natural processing dominates the landscape.
The term ‘honey’ was coined in Costa Rica, during the micro-mill revolution of the 2000’s. During this time, many small producers built their own small wet mills and began processing their own coffee, taking them further down the coffee value chain and gaining the ability to create microlots by experimenting with processing and varietals. After a 2008 earthquake threw much of the country into an extreme water shortage, the government enacted tight controls on water usage, effectively rendering traditional washed processing impossible in much of the country. The newly empowered and innovative producers of Costa Rica sought a way to maintain the clean and acidic characteristics of their washed coffees, without using huge amounts of water. The result they came to was honey processing, according to legend named either for the sweetness brought to the final cup, or for the sticky nature of the freshly de-pulped coffee on the drying beds during the first few days of drying. They initially used their existing de-pulpers to remove the skin from the cherry, and transported the sticky mucilage-covered seeds directly to the drying tables. However, whereas with washed coffees, the fermentation and drying stages are discrete steps, in honey processing they begin to blend into one, which creates an opportunity for more deliberate flavour creation during drying. This opened up new flavour possibilities for Costa Rican coffee, and cementing the country’s reputation as one of the most innovative and diverse speciality coffee origins.
Deliberate flavour creation
Since the advent of honey processing in Costa Rica, the process has spread to quality focussed producers across the coffee belt, each with different methods and goals. Just this year, we have purchased honey processed coffees from Burundi, Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Costa Rica among others. The presence of extra sugar on the surface of the drying seed, along with microbiota from the cherry, leads to fermentation during drying. The degree of this fermentation can be controlled by the producer, often referred to as a ‘colour’ of honey due to the colour the drying parchment takes on due to the fermentation. Coffees referred to as white or yellow honey generally don’t ferment as much during drying, leading to a more delicate and acidic ‘washed-like’ profile in the cup, those referred to as red have an enhanced sweetness and mouthfeel due to a degree of fermentation, while black honey coffees will taste almost like a natural coffee. The way this is controlled varies from producer to producer, and can even depend on outside factors such as temperature and humidity. The most discussed method of control is that used widely in Costa Rica, where high-tech de-pulpers, often from Penagos, are calibrated carefully and often combined with mechanical ‘demucilaginators’ in order to leave a controllable amount of mucilage on the seeds. The more mucilage, the darker the ‘colour’ of the honey, and the more ferment character in the cup. Using this method can even remove almost 100% of the mucilage from the seed, creating a close approximation of a washed coffee but without any fermentation and almost zero water usage. In less established or less affluent speciality coffee origins, where producers don’t have access to high-end equipment such as Penagos de-pulpers or demucilaginators, they can control the colour of honey in different ways. Fermentation is affected by both moisture and temperature, which can be controlled with careful work on the drying tables. Drying the parchment in thick layers and not turning so often early in the process means that the coffee remains at a higher moisture content for longer, and allows the temperature of the fermentation mass to rise. This leads to more fermentation, and a darker colour of honey. If a producer wants to maintain a cleaner, more ‘washed’ profile in the cup, they can simply dry in thinner layers and turn the parchment coffee more often, reducing the moisture content more quickly and keeping the temperature low, preventing fermentation from taking place. We have also heard of producers controlling honey processing using pre-fermentations in cherry. Keeping the picked cherries in a tank for longer can kick start fermentation before de-pulping even takes place, leading to a darker colour of honey.
What makes a Gesha Village honey?
We spoke with Adam, founder of Gesha Village, and Bahailu, quality manager, in a recent phonecall, and gained more insight into their use of the honey process. They have been working with honey processing for over 4 years now, having started not long after beginning the Gesha Village project. Over the years they have found this the most difficult process to really nail. The process is very labour intensive, requiring a very high degree of sorting before the process, and a great deal of attention during drying. Small tweaks have been made year to year, slowly improving and finding consistency, both logistically and in the cup. This year, the team at Gesha Village really felt like they nailed their honey process, with every single lot tasting clean and crisp, and importantly, exactly as they expected. Adam and Bahailu made clear that the result of a process is never better than the raw material used, so selective and thoughtful harvesting is vital to the quality of the cup. For instance, the best honey lots each year are harvested in the middle of harvest, normally in early January, as there are frequent rain showers here, resulting in a larger amount of sugary mucilage in the cherries, driving fermentation. The carefully harvested and sorted cherries are then depulped, leaving 100% mucilage. In early years, they experimented with removing different amounts of mucilage from the seeds, in an attempt to control the ferment character in the cup. However, the best results were always found with 100% mucilage, and controlling the fermentation through careful manipulation of the drying process. The harvest season is most often very dry and windy, leading to dust contamination of the sticky honey coffees during the early stages of drying. This leads to earthy flavours in the cup, so the coffees have to be protected carefully using greenhouses and nets. The use of high temperature greenhouses and shade nets are also methods that the Gesha Village team can use in their careful control of drying. The object is to dry the seeds quickly at first, using very thin layers of around 1 cm, in order to slow down fermentation and avoid moulds and bacteria growth. The seeds are also turned often during this stage, before the layers are gradually built up to between 3 and 5 cm, slowing down the overall drying time to between 15 and 20 days. This is mainly a shelf-life decision, avoiding damage to the coffee’s cell structure by drying quickly. During the first couple of honey experiments at Gesha Village, the coffees were in thin layers throughout and dried within 7-8 days, but the flavours started to fade very quickly after harvest. Adam also mentioned during the call that they want their honey coffees to have a character all of their own, not simply a halfway house between a washed and a natural. There is a clear juiciness to the profile, with round tangerine-like citric notes, a very deep sweetness and an elegant balance. The terroir and varietals that are planted here lead to crisp and clear florals, and the clean processing means that these don’t get muddied up, and can be perceived with separation and clarity.
The finest examples of honey processing
The honey process has spread across coffee lands in recent years. While the term is widely used, and the basic premise of the process widely understood, it is actually applied in very different ways by different producers in different parts of the world, giving very different results. The coffees we’re sharing this month are some of the finest examples of honey processing we could get our hands on, produced by dedicated people who we’re excited to share conversations and work closely with. We hope you enjoy Adam and Raul’s coffees this month, and their insights into how they process coffees using the honey method.
Stay bright and curious - John Gibson
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