Most coffee aficionados are aware that the heart- and hand-warming cup of java they cradle each morning is made from roasted beans, available in whole bean or ground form for use in a drip, French press, stovetop, or pod machine. At least for the majority of caffeine enthusiasts, it is a daily rite of passage. Before the beans are even roasted, however, they undergo an invisible process that is as intricate and nuanced as the flavor profiles we crave. “Bean to cup” is more than just a catchphrase on coffee-shop signage; the steps just after picking the coffee “cherries” are frequently where the flavor is born.
According to the Paulig Barista Institute, coffee cherries undergo traditional dry processing in countries such as Ethiopia and the vastly more common wet processing to become the beans we know and love. However, there is a third way to prepare these freshly harvested treasures for their journey to your cup. It’s called honey processing, and actual honey isn’t even remotely involved. This coffee processing technique derives its name from three of the most cherished characteristics of genuine honey: its color, its sweetness, and, of course, its gloriously sticky texture.
According to Coffee Affection, honey process coffee gets its stickiness from a naturally occurring component of coffee cherries: the mucilage coating found between the outer pulp and the actual cherry (which eventually becomes the coffee bean). Due to its viscous nature and yellow color, mucilage is frequently referred to as “honey.” The bean absorbs sweetness as the coating ferments, and the longer it ferments, the sweeter and more fruity it becomes.
The honey method differs from the other two methods in a number of ways. In traditional dry processing, also known as the natural method, the outer shells, mucilage coatings, and inner cherries remain intact until sun-drying. This results in the complex flavors that true coffee enthusiasts crave. However, the lengthy process and lack of consistency make it challenging for coffee vendors to market distinct flavor profiles to customers. Many opt for wet or “washed” processing instead.
According to Patriot Craft Coffee, washed beans undergo a water bath to remove the outer skin and pulp, are submerged in water tanks, and then undergo fermentation. During this phase, the mucilage coating dissipates and the natural bean sugars are converted to acids or alcohol, which accounts for the wine-like aromas in some coffees. The beans then undergo a second water rinse and a brief period of sunbathing before embarking on their long journey to roasters and coffee cups across continents.
If you thought coffee processing couldn’t get any more intricate, here’s a deeper dive into how the changing colors of a bean differentiate flavors. It only occurs when honey coffee is processed, and it consists of ever-darkening yellow, red, and black hues. In accordance with Coffee Affection, the colors change as the cherries ferment; the longer they are allowed to ferment, the deeper and richer the colors become, which ultimately affects the flavors.