by R. Miguel Meza
I’ve spent the last week with Graciano Cruz in El Salvador, cupping lots of coffees, many of which are honey coffees he is working on. Honeys are a style recently being experimented with quite a lot in Central America, also called pulped natural and pulped sundried coffees elsewhere. In traditional wet-processing coffee cherries have the skin pulped off and then the fruit layer, called mucilage, is fermented and rinsed away. Then the coffee in parchment layer is dried. In the honey style the skin is removed but the fruit layer left on to dry. Often this is done on raised screens rather than patios or mechanical dryers. Because the fruit is sticky the coffee needs to be raked frequently so that it doesn’t clump up, dry unevenly and present opportunity for fermentation and mold.
There are some very good reasons Graciano and others around the world are pursuing this style. Traditional wet processing uses a lot of water and produces a lot of contaminated water. On the order of billions of gallons in just some small areas per year. Water is a precious commodity in most parts of the world and conservation is of great importance in coffee producing regions. Other modern coffee processing equipment like mechanical demucilagers, developed in Colombia, seek to minimize water usage as well. Also at many larger mills around the world coffee is mechanically dried, using very large amounts of fuel to provide heat to dry the coffee. Even if only a small percentage of a mill’s production drying of specialty coffees is in the sun, it saves energy. Luckily in El Salvador and many growing regions the harvest time for coffee is a time of warm sunny weather and drying in the sun is quite easy to do. But this isn’t so everywhere.
How do honeys taste in the cup? It varies a bit. Almost always there is an elevated perception of sweetness and enhanced aroma. Aroma may be a slightly sweeter, more intense version of the aromas in a washed version of the same coffee or may display very different berry, grape and grapefruit-like citrus notes. Acidity can be higher or lower depending on how the drying was carried out. More sweetness, better aroma, water and energy savings all sound like a win/win scenario right? Almost. Unfortunately this process doesn’t always produce simply a more distinctive coffee. It carries with it a lot of risk and it’s far easier to create a vastly inferior coffee than a better one and hard to create superior ones as consistently as one would with washed processing. Sugars and hot tropical weather or humid conditions as exist in many coffee regions don’t play so well together. Difficulty drying in less than ideal weather or from poor raking or too deep of coffee in the drying bed can easily result in mold, resulting in a flattened, dirty tasting cup. Fermentation of the fruit can also create a sour quality to the acidity, bitterness in the finish and over-ripe/off tasting fruit flavors. Sometimes these coffees also pick up vegetal, garlic and onion tastes which I at least generally find undesirable in most coffees. In El Salvador the climate is very well suited to doing this style and most of the coffees we cupped were clean and free of the tastes I described above. But in wetter more humid environments like Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Indonesia, and Hawaii (where I reside) doing this style and natural processed coffees is more risky. But good results can be accomplished.
I always encourage farmers to experiment, but to proceed with caution. I have tasted many samples from farmers who were experimenting with the styles but really didn’t know much about doing them or the risks associated with them. Often the coffees where very flawed and vastly inferior to washed coffees from same producer, in some cases almost undrinkable and not sellable. Of course poor care of washed coffees can yield terrible coffees as well. Honeys are a new emerging style, and quality and consistency should improve as more people experiment with them, share information and refine the process. Consumers looking to try these coffees should be able to find examples from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil and India if they search. When they are executed well honeys can be a sweet deal for both producer and consumer.