Honey processing: Did the world steal Costa Rica’s coffee niche?

honey processed coffee
  • Costa Rican coffee farmers pioneered honey processing
  • A honey process Geisha received $80.60/lb at the 2017 Costa Rica CoE
  • Today, honey-processed coffees can be found everywhere from Ethiopia to Indonesia

IT’S NOT unusual for a coffee origin to become known for a particular processing method. Brazil, for example, is known for its natural coffees, as is Ethiopia.

The coffee-growing regions of Kenya, meanwhile, are dotted with washing stations for wet processing, while Honduras is also known for the full-bodied sweetness of its washed coffees.

For years, Costa Rica was recognised as the home of honey processing – a technique that involves pulping the coffee cherries and drying them with varying degrees of mucilage left intact.

The idea, like any processing method, is to enhance the characteristics of the coffee. However, for Costan Rican coffee producers, it was also born of necessity.

“Honey-processed coffee is particularly popular in Costa Rica and their reasons for introducing it are twofold,” says Ally Coffee’s sourcing manager, Bram de Hoog. “One was to differentiate and to increase and improve the cup profile and two, was to save water.”

Before the turn of the century, water shortages weren’t a particular problem in Costa Rica. In fact, during the second half of the 20th century, it was recognised as one of the first countries to modernise washed processing thanks to its pioneering washing stations and wet mills.

But in 2008, the country was hit by an earthquake, which led to extreme water shortages and strict, government-imposed water conservation measures.

Groups of farmers responded to the droughts by adopting processing methods found in countries where water supplies are scarce. It was a risk and, at first, many cuppers rejected the coffees, citing that they were “unclean” and “wild”. However, given time, buyers began to recognise the coffees for their interesting flavour profiles.

“A honey coffee won’t necessarily have more intense and fruity notes,” Bram explains. “But it will tend to have more sweetness, more body, and perhaps more complex acidity.”

It’s no surprise, then, that honey coffees started to catch on in a big way.

A number of specialty coffee roasters around the world started to include a Costa Rican honey-processed coffee into their line of offerings, while at auctions they began to fetch the top prices.

At the 2013 Costa Rica Cup of Excellence awards, a honey-processed coffee from Valle Occidental won with a score of 90.75. Four years later, a honey-processed Geisha coffee fetched $80.60/lb.

“Traditionally, Costa Rica was well-known for quality coffee but not for small, unique microlots that identified the farmer, the variety and the process,” the Alliance for Coffee Excellence commented at the time. “Now, discriminating buyers from around the globe head to Costa Rica to find outstanding honey process coffees with a wide-range of flavour profiles.”

Same but different

Costa Rica produces less than 1% of the world’s total coffee output. But honey processing helped establish a global reputation and keen interest in the work of the country’s coffee farmers.

However, as a point of differentiation, its powers started to wane. As consumers became increasingly familiar with the honey process, it was no longer enough to create excitement and command significantly higher prices.

At the same time, a number of other coffee-producing countries had begun to experiment with their own take on honey processing to capitalise on demand, including Indonesia, Ethiopia, Colombia, and El Salvador.

“You can see honey-processed coffee in a lot of places,” Bram says. “It’s being produced in higher volumes as well. It’s not as crazy as a natural coffee might be, so it speaks to a large consumer base.”

Before long, new types of honey processing flooded the market. “There are now several variations of honey,” Bram says, “such as white honey, red, black, pink, orange and golden. But to keep it simple, we call them white, yellow, red, and black. A white honey is closer to a washed coffee, while a black is closer to a natural.”

However, while new honey processing methods were appearing in name, standardisation was struggling to keep up. In other words, a red honey to one producer might be considered a yellow honey to another.

“These are names that producers are giving to the coffee themselves,” Bram explains. “There’s nobody checking the colour or regulating the process.”

Although the intention was clearly never to deceive, it has been interpreted by some as an attempt to create a sub-category of differentiation and a sign of honey processing’s declining ability to attract buyers’ attention.

Sticking with it

Honey-processed coffees continue to receive high prices at auctions. Only last month, a 60kg bag of honey-processed Geisha from Ethiopia was purchased by a consortium of Japanese buyers for more than $33,000.

However, there’s no doubt that, as a processing method, its pull power isn’t what it once. In recent years, other innovative processing methods have emerged which have taken its place and stolen marketshare.

“There is still innovation going on with honey,” Bram says, “and a lot of roasters still rely on honey as a sort of a base to build on to make innovative lots. But it’s not as exciting as koji processing or carbonic maceration. For many people it has become ‘normal’.”

According to Bram, the trend has been saturated over the years, causing its popularity to slow. Yet, having said that, he believes it still has immense value, particularly in Costa Rica and its neighbouring countries where washed processing is more challenging – and these producers have little reason to move away from honey processing.

“Only a few farms have the ability to produce very good washed coffee in Central America if you compare it with Colombia for example,” Bram explains. “You could go to a farm in Huila or Nariño and find a washed coffee with 87 or 88 points. But because of the low altitudes in Central America, it’s more difficult for them to do this.

“Whereas there are producers in Costa Rica filling containers with honey-processed coffees who have mastered the process and are producing consistent, high-scoring results. That region is still leading the way with honey processing and it’s allowed them to get into the realm of microlot coffees where otherwise they might not have been able to.”