May 30, 2017

Honey & Experimental Processing on a Guatemalan Monastery-Farm


When consumers and coffee buyers think of coffee processing, they think of two things: the coffee’s taste and the impact on the environment. But when producers consider processing, they have to consider far more variables: the labour, time, space, climate, cost of equipment, quality control, risks, the price that will be paid, the popularity of the method among consumers…

I work on Shan Ren Farms, which is in a mountain temple and monastery on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. We are both monks and coffee producers. And when it came to coffee processing, we chose not washed/wet or natural/dry processing, but the less common honey and other experimental methods.

Today, I’d like to share with you why we chose our processing methods – and how we work to ensure high-quality practices.

Versión en Español: El Proceso Honey y Procesamientos Experimentales en un Monasterio Guatemalteco

monastery farm

Temple residents sort green coffee beans. Credit: Shan Ren Farms

Spirituality & Coffee

We wake before sunrise and practice 7 hours of meditation each day. Coffee is, for us, an extension of our meditation practice. Our practice is one of precision, attention, care, and contemplation. And we believe that the end product will contain the same quality as the mind that went into producing it.

Spiritual practitioners cultivating coffee may seem unusual, but it is not a new phenomenon. There’s a long history of monks practicing agriculture. What’s more, in the 15th century, coffee was consumed in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. And according to legend, Ethiopian monks would drink coffee to stay awake during the long hours of spiritual practice in the 9th century.

SEE ALSO: Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101

We do not necessarily use coffee to stay awake. However, we greatly appreciate the subtleties of a good cup’s aromas and flavors, and enjoy the craftsmanship that can go into growing and processing the beans. We are continuously looking for ways to improve every step of this. 

monastery farm coffee

“For the good of all beans… er, beings.” Credit: Shan Ren Farms

Coffee Processing: A Basic Explanation

(Already know the basics of coffee processing? Skip straight to Why Choose Honey Processing!)

Coffee processing is the removal of the flesh of the coffee cherry from the seeds, or “beans”, inside. There are normally two beans per cherry, but 5% contain only one large bean: a peaberry.

It’s extremely hard to remove the flesh of the cherry, which has several layers, without machinery and/or significant time and labor. The most common processing methods are natural/dry and washed/wet.

Natural/dry processing requires leaving the coffee cherries out in the sun to dry for a long period, before using machinery to hull the flesh off. Since it’s in the fruit for so long, this creates a fruity and sweet profile. However, quality control is a challenge.

Washed/wet processing, on the other hand, involves leaving the cherries in water to ferment, loosening the flesh, before using machinery to pulp them. This will typically produce a cleaner, brighter taste in the cup.

Then you have honey and pulped natural processing, which are growing in popularity. With these methods, part of the cherry flesh is removed and then the seeds are left to dry. They are known for their great sweetness and body.

In certain regions, you’ll also find specific local processing methods (e.g. wet hulling in Indonesia, double fermentation in East Africa). And then there are an array of experimental methods, which have the potential to significantly improve coffee quality – but come with a risk.

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The team at Shan Ren Farms discuss different processing methods. Credit: Shan Ren Farms

Why Choose Honey Processing?

Washed coffee offers a clean and consistent cup of coffee. However, we would need to invest time and money in order to construct a wet mill. With our wet mill under construction and the coffee cherries turning red, we had to make a decision. We could either outsource our wet milling or figure out a way to process it ourselves.

Sending our cherry to the local mill would take the quality control out of our hands. As meditation practitioners dedicated to precision, attention, and quality, this did not appeal.

monastery farm

Xiǎolián sorts green coffee. Credit:  Shan Ren Farms

As for naturals, we simply don’t have enough space. Situated on the side of a mountain, we can’t build a large, flat drying patio. Coffee cherries need to be spread evenly to ensure even drying, meaning a sloped or uneven patio would be of no use.

As a result, we would need many African raised beds. These are recommended for drying natural coffees: they keep the cherries off patios, where they could become dirty, and keep air circulating to help them dry evenly. However, we didn’t have the space for as many beds as this would require, either.

Honey processing, on the other hand, we could do.

monastery farm

Gregory Sergi checks the drying progress of yellow honey coffee. Credit: Shan Ren Farms

How to Red & Yellow Honey Process Coffee

There’s more than one type of honey coffee: you’ll find red, yellow, black, gold… At Shan Ren Farms, we’ve been producing both yellow and red honey coffees.

Yellow honey coffee:  After removing the fruit, the beans are immediately laid out in a very thin layer for a rapid initial drying (known as the oreado phase). The outside humidity will dry in one day. We then pile our coffee in thicker layers (maximum 5cm) to decrease the drying speed.

With yellow honey, our aim is to produce a cleaner flavor profile – similar to washed coffee – but with a hint of fruity sweetness.

Honey processed coffee

Shan Ren Farms’ yellow honey processed coffee. Credit: Shan Ren Farms

Red honey processed coffee: To produce red honey coffee, we lay the beans out in a thicker layer. The coffee is carefully turned throughout the day to prevent fermentation, while maintaining some humidity on the outside of the beans.

Cloudy weather provides a good opportunity to experiment with red honeys. Too much sun makes it difficult to maintain the humidity on the outside of the bean.

Our aim here is to produce a fruitier, more complex flavor profile, without any hints of undesirable fermentation.

Honey processed coffee

Shan Ren Farms’ red honey processed coffee. Credit: Shan Ren Farms

Processing Risks & Improvements

Processing our own coffee allows us to record, analyze, and improve our methods. There are many subtle aspects to drying coffee. We carefully record the conditions of how each harvest was dried. Afterwards, we cup selected harvest dates to understand how different drying conditions and methods affect the flavor profile.

This means we can learn how to develop more specific and consistent flavors. It also gives customers a chance to explore more of the profiles coffee can offer. If the only coffee you have ever tried is washed coffee, there is a whole new realm of flavors waiting for you.

Although the honey process is a good way to create a more unique cup, it’s also riskier than the washed process. There is a higher possibility of an inconsistent cup  profile. And every specialty coffee buyer wants consistent quality.

If you detect uneven flavors, your processes need improvement. During drying, the coffee must be carefully monitored. This is especially true for the first few days. If the beans are not turned often enough, there is a high chance of over fermentation due to the sugars in the mucilage. If this occurs, even in a very small percentage of the harvest, it will lead to an inconsistent and often unpleasant taste in the final cup.

monastery farm

Gregory Sergi checks the humidity levels of parchment coffee. Credit: Shan Ren Farms

Experimental Coffee Processing

We have also been considering experimenting with K72 coffee processing. This is a Kenyan process, and is a variation of the double fermentation common in that region. Double fermentation is known for its exceptionally clean profile.

To do K72 processing, first, submerge the fresh cherries in water for 24 hours. Then pulp and ferment them for a further 48 hours after that. Wine enthusiasts have been collaborating with coffee producers to control the amount of oxidation that occurs during this time, which can affect the development of flavor.

Experimenting with less common processing techniques can be an exhilarating experience for producers, roasters, and consumers. It is a chance to explore one’s senses and discover unique cup profiles.

However, it also comes with a risk: not all lots will respond the same to different processing techniques. Producers should always begin by experimenting in small batches.

“Just because you do a K72 process doesn’t mean that it will produce a good cup,” says Daniel Yancur of Ensoluna, Guatemala. “One lot processed [in the] K72 [method] may produce an excellent cup, while another lot processed in the exact same way may produce a very average cup.”

These are all points we have to consider before making a final decision.

monastery farm

Daniel Yancur explains K72 coffee processing in the Ensoluna Cupping Lab. Credit: Shan Ren Farms

As coffee producers, we have an opportunity to explore different processing methods. And in learning about how coffee processes affect the cup, it is possible to produce a more niche coffee while adding value.

At the same time, we must consider many factors: our resources, the climate, our buyers, the risks… This means that the right processing method for one farm may not be the right process for a neighboring one.

The processing method we choose should be one that’s best for our farm and our vision – as honey processing was for us. And then we can focus on increasing quality and producing even better flavor profiles in our coffee.

Written in collaboration with Xiǎolián of Shan Ren Farms.

Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article.

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