Small Batch on the road
Costa Rica and The History Of Honey Process
With the release of the delicious Yellow Honey from Hacienda Sonora in Costa Rica a few weeks ago we’ve had a few questions in our shops about what exactly honey processing is so Al thought this would be a good time to write a little about the process and it’s development in Brazil and then Costa Rica.
I wanted to use this coffee as an opportunity to explain the techniques of processing and specifically honey processing in a bit more detail as we are seeing more and more of these coffees every year. If we look at Natural and Washed as the two main schools of coffee processing then Honey, aka pulp natural, aka semi washed would be the third principal type, the rose of the coffee world if you will.
Honey process is a refined version of the more traditional pulp natural process that was developed in Brazil in the 1970’s and 80’s as a way of conserving water usage in areas that were not blessed with a ton of available clean water.
The name pulp natural hints at its halfway house existence between fully washed and natural; the cherries are pulped as in the washed process and then dried with mucilage on like a natural coffee. The idea behind this development was that pulping the coffees improves the clarity and acidity of the cup like a washed coffee, but drying them with the mucilage on takes out the need for fermentation and washing where 90% of the water at a coffee wet mill is used and simply isn’t available in many coffee areas in Brazil.
Pulp Natural coffee drying at Fazenda Sao Silvestre in Brazil
This tends to give the coffees more body and sweetness and so in a country like Brazil, whose coffees are generally body led and rich and chocolatey, this was a good fit and pulp natural processing has become the norm for most of Brazil’s sizeable harvest with great success and consistency.
The technique was so successful in Brazil that you might wonder why it hasn’t become more prevalent elsewhere as water can be scarce in so many of the coffeelands. There are two reasons for this; firstly, pulp naturals tend to be more body and mouth feel led, thus lacking a little in acidity which works well in Brazil but would reduce the quality and value of coffees from say Kenya or Ethiopia, other areas where fresh water for processing can be hard to come by.
Secondly this style of processing requires a climate that is warm and low in humidity as drying coffee with exposed mucilage on must be done quickly otherwise there is a great risk of mould. To take our examples of Kenya or Ethiopia, the finest coffees there are grown at anywhere from 1700m to 2000m and higher. Temperatures can get quite cool at these altitudes compared to the 1000-1200m that coffee is typically grown at in Brazil. Similarly, countries like Rwanda or Guatemala are humid and can be rainy during harvest season and so the idea of patios full of pulp natural coffees would not work there.
The second era of pulp natural processing addressed both these problems by refining the techniques of both the pulping and drying stages, and succeeded in producing better quality cups in more countries around the world. The technique also received something of re-brand during this second phase when the ‘Honey’ process was born in the micro mills of Costa Rica in the early 2000’s.
Freshly de-pulped honey coffee on the left, you can see the sticky mucilage adhering to the beans. On the right, raised beds for drying natural and honey coffees.
Costa Rica is probably the most famous country in Central America and its coffees are rightly known across the world. In truth they are generally a little lower in quality than the best coffees from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. There are many reasons for this but the primary one being a relative lack of high altitude areas where coffee can grow.
Because the country does not have regions like Huehuetenango in Guatemala or Santa Ana in El Salvador where coffee can flourish at altitudes of 1800-2000 metres it is harder to find truly outstanding washed coffees from Costa Rica (though not by any means impossible). The result of this is that a lot Costa Rican washed coffees tend to be good but a bit more generic in quality.
As the third wave or speciality movement of coffee developed in the early 2000’s, producers and exporters in Costa Rica saw the developments being made in neighbouring countries to refine their coffees and the prices being paid for them and looked to processing as a way for their lower grown coffees to appeal to this new burgeoning market.
They realised that their lower altitudes and higher temperatures were perfect for pulp natural processing and with the development of the eco-pulper they were able to refine the technique by varying the amount of mucilage that was removed during the pulping phase.
Variations of the traditional pulping machine have been used all over the coffee world for decades in the washed process and work by forcing coffee cherries between two large disks to pop the beans out of the skin and cherry flesh. The beans come out of the machine covered in sticky mucilage, a sort of clear, honey-like substance. In the washed method, coffees pulped like this would go off to fermentation tanks to break down the mucilage or for traditional pulp naturals straight to the patios to dry. (mucilage is often simply referred to as ‘miel’ the Spanish word for honey in Latin American countries, hinting at where this new process got its name)
The Eco Pulper developed by Colombian company Penagos works differently to these traditional pulpers in that after pulping the beans enter a second chamber where large spinning brushes scrub the mucilage off the beans (kind of like the large spinning brushes in an automatic car wash)
These machines were actually designed for producing washed coffees using far less water as they remove the mucilage without the need for fermentation (ironically the same problem that created the first pulp natural coffees in Brazil) but producers soon realised the brushes could be adjusted to remove very specific amounts of mucilage from the beans, ranging from taking 100% off to simply removing the cherry skin and leaving all of the mucilage on the bean.
Thus the new White (10-20% mucilage left on, very close to a washed coffee), Yellow (50%), Red (80-90%) and Black (almost 100% intact, very similar to natural) Honey coffees were developed. These developments allowed for a much wider range of flavours and levels of complexity in Honey coffees. Red and Black honeys are similar to natural process coffees, heavy bodied with strong fermentation flavours while yellow honeys are more akin to Brazilian pulp naturals. White honeys taste almost like washed coffees with just a little extra sweetness and mouthfeel.
- Black Honey: Almost 100% mucilage left to dry on bean, only cherry skin removed
- Red Honey: 80-90% mucilage left on
- Yellow Honey: 50% mucilage removed, similar to traditional pulped natural style
- White Honey: 10-20% mucilage left on
At the same time that these advancements were being made in pulping, the market for higher grade coffees, microlots and experimental processes led to an advancement in drying techniques that helped to significantly improve the quality and complexity of these new honey coffees. Again, the producers of Costa Rica were one of the driving forces behind these developments as they sought ways to improve their coffees and started to build micro mills to dry these new microlots with greater care and attention.
African style beds were introduced in place of the traditional Latin American patio to dry the coffees. These raised beds of mesh or chicken wire are much better for even drying of the beans as they allow air to circulate underneath the beans and do not heat up in the sun like concrete patios. Crucially if it rains, or gets too hot or simply gets to the end of the day it is very quick and easy to cover coffee on a long thing bed, and much more time consuming on a wide vast patio where the coffee must be raked into a pile before covering.
Coffee must be turned constantly while it is drying to ensure evenness and to do this on beds is a very labour intensive compared to a patio; think of the images you have seen of teams of workers turning coffee along beds in Africa compared to one or two guys with a rake or even a tractor turning a whole patio in Central America or Brazil.
The relative cost of labour in Costa Rica is much higher than in rural Africa making this technique very expensive, but the improvement in quality, especially for these honey coffees where the drying stage is so crucial to avoid mould, is huge.
Indeed, drying is so important to the honey coffees that farmers started to move their coffees to different areas where the climate was perfect to dry the coffees. Many producers now process the cherries at their farm and then drive the pulped coffee lower down the mountain to their house, some extra land or maybe a friend or neighbours farm, to dry the coffee where the climate is warmer and dryer.
Similarly, many producers started to build more advanced drying areas to create the perfect environment, building parabolic dryers that covered the beds with a clear plastic to keep the air temperature at the optimum level and control airflow coming through the dryer. These structures are now becoming more and more common throughout the coffee lands from Colombia to Rwanda.
Raised beds in the covered drying area at Santa Ana La Huerta, Guatemala
Honey processes such as these are now the key projects each harvest for many producers in Costa Rica and around the world. The development of this style of coffee in Costa Rica was one of the main factors in spurring the growth of the micro lot, micro mill and experimental culture we now see throughout the coffee producing world.
These microlots, while risky and expensive to produce, can add huge value to the price of a coffee for a producer and are becoming vital for many farmers in Costa Rica where the terroir of their coffee is perhaps not optimum and where their land could be worth more to developers if the price of coffee is not high and sustainable
Hacienda Sonora is a perfect example of these modern Costa Rican set ups as all of their coffee is now processed by the honey or natural methods and separated into single varietal, individual process microlots. They have been producing these coffees for several years now and are going from strength to strength.
I hope you are enjoying it!