One of our most popular roasts, La Mirella, has generated a great deal of discussion about its complex fruity balance of honey, fig, and molasses flavors. The answer lies in a special and relatively unknown processing method that we want to share with you.
Processing methods vary by country, region, water availability, and local custom. Here at White Tale Coffee, we think it is important to understand processing as part of the story behind the perfect cup. So let’s get started by explaining one of our favorites: the Honey Process.
Most people don’t know much about the process coffee goes through from harvest to brewing. Yet it’s fundamental to the quality of the final product.
Different processing techniques allow producers to best express the beans' inherent qualities. In effect, these processes determine what level of the coffee cherries' potential will be realized. They impact the flavor, body, aroma, and sweetness of the coffee.
Before we jump deeply into the subject, we suggest a quick crash course on the anatomy of the coffee bean to familiarize ourselves with the terminology used:
The five layers, starting from the outside, are:
- Skin / Pulp: On the outside, the two coffee seeds are covered by a cherry-like skin and pulp. With the exception of dried-in-the-fruit or Natural Process coffee, this outer layer is removed within a few hours of harvesting. In an edible cherry (like a plump and sweet Rainier cherry from Eastern Washington), we might call this skin the “flesh.” In coffee, the skin is mostly considered a by-product (some people make tea out of it, but it's uncommon). The machine to remove the pulp is aptly called a depulper.
- Mucilage: Beyond the skin lies the mucilage, a sticky, gluey substance surrounding each of the two seeds. Because it’s so sticky and sugary, it is sometimes called Honey. Mucilage is found in most fruit. It’s not unique to coffee.
- Parchment: After the mucilage, a layer of cellulose protects each of the coffee seeds. When dried, this layer looks and feels like parchment paper, hence the name.
- Silver skin / Chaff: Further inside, an even thinner layer coats the seed. This layer is called the silver skin because of its somewhat silverish sheen. This layer comes off during roasting. If you ever notice flakes in ground coffee, that is usually bits of silver skin or chaff that didn’t separate from the beans during the roast process.
- Seed / Coffee Bean: The coffee bean that we are after is actually one of the two seeds from inside the coffee cherry [Sidenote: peaberries are an anomaly in which only one small, round seed formed inside the cherry. Usually, about five percent of all coffee is graded as a peaberry, a Tanzanian delicacy]. The coffee seed/bean is dried and infertile by time we receive it, ready to be roasted.
Now, onto the subject at hand. After coffee cherries are picked and sorted according to color and quality they must be processed.
The honey process has three sub-types: yellow, red, and black. Each approach can result in a substantially different flavor profile from the other.
The cherries are typically sorted into classes based on the mucilage or “honey” content (that sticky, sugary substance around the seeds) with labels like 40%, 60%, 80% or 100%. That percentage refers to the amount of "honey" left on the parchment encasing the bean after being passed through a mechanical depulper or quick fermentation.
The different grades can be seen below:
- Black Honey - this grade has the most mucilage left on the bean before processing. The process includes a quick fermentation and not a lot of turning the beans (we want to keep as much of the honey intact as possible in order to impart more flavor. The beans are often left in a thick layer during the drying process, which allows the sugars (mainly glucose, fructose, and sucrose) to caramelize quickly on the outside of the parchment. That’s what gives it the rich black color. The black honey process uses very little direct sunlight when drying, making the process longer - usually three weeks of drying. The time involved coupled with the bold flavors that result from it make the beans especially pricey.
- Red Honey - These beans are dried for two to three weeks, usually on overcast days or in the shade. Mucilage content varies from 60% to 80%, depending on local customs and practices.
- Yellow Honey - These beans are exposed to the most sunlight, which means more heat and quicker drying. This coffee usually takes just a week to dry.
Drying times generally depend on the weather - temperature, humidity, altitude. In some cases, the coffee cherries are taken to a dryer location to accelerate processes and prevent molding, which is considered a major defect and can be a cause for immediate rejection at the port of entry.
The resulting coffee can have slightly higher acidity than what is found in traditionally processed coffees (not to be confused with bitterness). We think of these flavor notes as “bright” or “vibrant.” This is because of the small amount of fermentation that happens during the time the mucilage dries.
As roasters, the way that coffee is processed is outside our of control and we depend entirely on coffee growers’ experience when it comes to crafting the perfect beans. As a country, Costa Rica is at the epicenter of honey processing. There, coffee growing and bean processing is usually performed by different parties; farmers focus on growing and central mill stations - with better facilities as well as economies of scale - dedicated to processing. This contrasts starkly to what happens, for instance, in Colombia where farmers grow and process their own beans.
We had the opportunity to secure access to a few bags of these exotic coffee beans and we would love to share it with you! La Mirella is a Red Honey processed coffee, lightly roasted, and you can find it here.