Roasting coffee is one of the most gratifying hobbies that I know.
It’s also a smart decision financially, since it’s way cheaper than buying from your local bean dealer.
To get the best results, however, you need some excellent green coffee beans. Among the professionals this is often just referred to as greens.
I have mentioned it many times before on this blog, but the secret to being a great home-barista is to work with top-notch ingredients. In other words: the quality of the raw, unroasted coffee beans will determine whether that first sip of the cup is heavenly or hideous.
What are green coffee beans?
Green coffee beans, in spite of the name, aren’t technically beans.
Instead, they are seeds from the coffee cherry.
The name (once again) is a bit misleading because the seeds are often yellowish rather than green.
Coffee grows on small bush-like trees. The fruits are usually called cherries because they look a bit similar when ripe. They start out green but will eventually turn ruby red.
Pickers will then harvest the cherries and take them to a processing station or wet mill. Here the cherries are usually washed, depulped, and put in a fermentation tank for 24 hours. This process, however, does vary depending on the desired flavors and the local tradition.
The coffee seeds will dry for an extended period until the moisture content is down to around 10-12%. At this point, they are dry milled. That means that a thin but substantial layer of parchment is removed with particular machine. What you are left with it, what we call green coffee beans.
Green coffee beans for roasting
The process that I outlined above sounds rather simple, but in reality, a lot of things can go wrong. Here’s a simplified list of all the labor that goes into creating green coffee beans.
When we use the term ‘specialty coffee,’ we usually refer to coffee that lives up to the criteria below:
- The cherries must be picked at precisely the right time to ensure maximum sweetness
- The processing must begin relatively soon after the cherries have been harvested. Otherwise, mold might form.
- Floaters (aka unripe cherries) must be discarded
- The fermentation and the drying stages must be closely monitored to ensure uniformity and to avoid fungus and mold.
- Before and after dry-milling the raw coffee beans must be stored carefully, so they don’t pick up odors from the surroundings
- The green coffee should be graded and sorted correctly to ensure that it’s roasting evenly and that there are no unwelcome pebbles and corn seeds among them.
As you might be able to tell from the list, it’s not that easy to be a coffee farmer or processor.
Also, remember that coffee production mainly takes place in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where access to clean water, technology, and skilled labor is often limited.
All these things you need to have in mind when you’re buying green coffee beans for personal use.
Unroasted coffee isn’t like purchasing flax seeds or pecan nuts, where you can expect a standard product and only need to keep an eye on the price.
Instead, it’s more like an organic, living thing where the effort of the coffee farmers and exporters have to match your ambition as a home roaster.
How to buy Green Coffee Beans
When you see green coffee beans for sale, often the bag will have coffee lingo that you probably don’t know. Here are some things you should pay attention to:
- Washed coffee: This is the standard way of processing coffee in many countries. It gives the beans a clean, mild flavor with pronounced acidity.
- Natural/dry processed coffee: This kind of coffee is often very fruity and has deep chocolate notes. There’s usually a hint of fermentation as well. You should roast this kind of coffee a bit lighter and more gentle than you’d roast washed coffee.
- Single Origin: If you can see which farm the coffee is from and the altitude it’s grown at, it’s usually a sign of good quality. Often you’ll only be able to see the name of the subregion on the package. If the only information you have is which country the coffee is from, I wouldn’t consider it a single origin.
- Fair Trade: It’s complicated to find green coffee that has this label. If ethical coffee production is crucial to you, I will encourage you to get a single origin coffee from a coop or single estate instead of more vague descriptors. The less you know about the green beans, the more likely it is that the middle man has made a profit rather than the farmers.
You also need to ensure that the coffee beans are relatively uniform. Usually, the beans will be sorted beforehand but if you buy coffee directly from farmers the quality is often quite inconsistent.
Green beans have a shelf life of up to 18 months, so it shouldn’t be a major concern. However, if you see that the beans are from a harvest more than a couple of years ago I wouldn’t buy them. ‘Old crop‘ as it’s known in the industry tastes rather dull.
Green coffee beans for Sale
When you buy green beans online, it’s worth trying a lot of different stuff in the beginning to find out about your personal preferences. For that reason, it might make sense to try sample packs from various coffee companies so you can get an idea of what you like.
If you’re already accustomed to specialty coffee from artisan roasters, you can buy the same kind of beans you’d get from them. For instance, an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is pretty simple to roast at home with good results (the trick is to go quite light).
Since green coffee is so cheap you can also splurge and go for something epic like Colombian natural processed Geisha, which will surely take you on a sensory journey to new heights.
However, if you’re used to drinking generic dark roasted coffee from the supermarket, most of the green beans you’ll be able to buy online will probably be of higher quality.
If your preference is rather dark roasted coffee, my advice is to buy a cheap green coffee from Latin America. It should taste sweet and clean and roast quite evenly.
Good luck, and no matter what, always keep an eye on your beans while roasting!