The Bee’s Knees: Honey Processing

The Bee’s Knees: Honey Processing
Mason, one of Airship Coffee's Roasters

Written by Mason Bowen, Airship's most experienced roaster. They are a master of parameters and tamer of the beans. All those notes you read on a bag? Mason makes sure they shine through your cup.

Though my interest in caffeinated beverages started with working in a tea shop, my interest in coffee quickly became an obsession. Soon enough, I was roasting my own coffee with a popcorn popper on the porch of my college dorm and tinkering constantly with different brew methods and recipes. Nowadays you'll most likely find me behind the roaster here at Airship, watercolor painting alongside a river at golden hour, or at home snuggling with my cats.


Throughout my years of obsession over coffee, I’ve always been drawn to learning about the chemical changes that happen with the coffee cherry as it goes from the fruit itself all the way to the tasty, caffeinated beverage we all know and love. One umbrella of chemical changes occurs during roasting, but the processing that the coffee fruit undergoes to become green coffee to be roasted is another step in the journey to becoming a drinkable beverage. These processes, of which there are many, all affect the way that coffee can taste when it ends up in your cup. Honey processing has always stuck out to me as an interesting one, because it is largely focused on controlling the way that coffee ferments and develops different sugars through that process.

During honey processing, fermentation is encouraged by leaving a layer of mucilage intact after removing both the pulp and skin. While the coffee dries, the mucilage provides an excellent environment for fermentation to take place. The level of fermentation and the length of necessary drying time can be controlled largely by the amount of mucilage left on the cherry before drying. Less mucilage will offer less drastic acidity and sweetness, whereas more will generally result in much higher sweetness, body, and acidity. Depending on the amount of mucilage left intact before drying, the process will be referred to as white, yellow, gold, red, or black. White honey process has very little mucilage intact while drying, whereas a black honey process will have a much greater amount, resulting in higher intensity of the process's effect.

The honey method yields a wide variety of affectations to the profile of coffees processed this way. Generally these coffees are going to be sweeter and more acidic than similar coffees that are processed utilizing a washed or semi-washed method. Though most often not as intense or directly fruit-forward as some natural processed coffees, red and black honey processing tends to yield flavor profiles that highlight jammy, fruity, or caramel sweetness as well as high acidity. 

A personal favorite honey processed coffee has been our Honey Bourbon from Finca Colomba in El Salvador. This coffee highlights the complexity and nuance that honey processing can bring to coffees if done carefully. It is a beautifully balanced cup with lots of brown sugar sweetness complementing almond and apricot notes, as well as a rich body and bright acidity.

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