No not those green beans! Coffee beans go on one hell of a journey before they reach our cup in the form of our favourite beverage.
Whether you enjoy a milky flat white, an espresso shot or a fruity filter coffee, the beans you use always begin their life as green beans. In fact, let’s start even further back right in the beginning of their journey as we dive deeper into our coffee knowledge to learn about green coffee.
From farm to cup
As we mentioned, coffee beans have to endure a wild journey before they are enjoyed by consumers. That journey of course begins on a coffee farm that could be on the highland plateaus of Kenya, the steep fincas in Brazil or in any of the other 70 countries that are renowned as coffee origins.
The beans begin their life formed inside the delicate cherries produced by either of the coffee plant species, Arabica or Robusta. The taste is nothing like the sort of sweet cherries we may be used to but their anatomy is largely similar, comprising a colourful outer skin, flesh and mucilage surrounding the bean inside.
You’ll usually find two beans inside a cherry, but on occasions you’ll get what is known as a peaberry, which is when there is just one coffee bean inside. These are highly revered as that single bean will have been able to soak up all the moisture, sunshine and nutrients from the roots without having to share them.
If you haven’t seen one before, check out the picture of a coffee plant below, they’re really quite beautiful! They take around five years to mature and yield any fruit, so coffee farming requires lots of planning and patience.
The cherries are harvested, usually by hand before the outer layers and flesh are removed through various processing methods. The two main methods for processing are washed, where the bean is stripped clean of any mucilage or flesh before drying, or natural where some or all of it is left on.
The beans need to be dried to concentrate their flavours because they’ll still be full of moisture (around 55%). This usually happens on raised sunbeds or on a concrete patio and they’re left to dry until they reach moisture levels of around 11%. That’s when they take the form of what we call ‘green coffee’.
When the beans reach this stage the beans are sorted, judged, traded and then exported all across the world. Speciality coffee beans are given a score of 84+ points out of a possible 100 by professional coffee judges known as Q Graders.
Speciality beans command a much higher fee, the price per kg is usually around 3X more expensive than Fair Trade commodity coffee for example. This is why certain origins like Rwanda, coffee farmers are encouraged and incentivised to produce seriously high-quality low-yield crops by their governments.
Some green coffee harvests can sell for literally thousands of GBP/USD per KG at auction if they’re really exceptional and in short supply. Some farmers may only produce enough coffee to fill a pallet or two but can make enough money to fund their farm for the next year if it is of exceptional speciality quality.
It’s not just tiny small-holders in Africa who produce and rely on the export of green coffee beans, around 10 million tonnes are produced worldwide every year! It can take months to ship the green coffee beans to their final destinations at roasteries or importers’ warehouses in places like Europe and the US.
Can you brew green coffee beans?
Technically, yes you can brew with green coffee beans. The real question is would you want to? To which the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.
Although the beans have been dried to reduce the moisture levels, making them safe for room ambient storage, none of the flavours from the sugars, proteins and acids are concentrated enough to deliver a pleasant drinking experience. In fact, it’d probably taste like you’ve added hot water to some straw, yum!
You wouldn’t take a bite out of a raw potato (if you do then all power to you) but you know that if you bake it in the oven for around an hour, the result can be super tasty.
That’s because the cooking process completely transforms the taste and the texture. This is what needs to happen to our green coffee beans to make them taste delicious. Professional coffee roasters are essentially coffee cooks who dedicate their lives to achieving the perfect roast profile. The aim is to extract as much pleasant flavour from within the green coffee beans as possible, without overcooking them which would make them dark and bitter, or undercooking them which would make them taste ‘green’.
The green beans are cooked in specialist equipment, the coffee roaster is a bit of a hybrid between an oven and a tumble dryer to look at, with a cooling tray on the front for the cooked beans to drop into.
Each new sack of coffee we receive at our roastery will require its own roast profile because coffee is a natural product. Therefore, the processing method, the varietal (there are over 5,000 coffee varietals), the origin and even the weather the day the cherries were picked will make a difference in how the beans will roast.
At the end of this stage, what were once the seeds within a cherry of a coffee plant have been transformed once into green beans, and now again into roasted coffee beans. The roasted beans are now a shade of brown, they’ll have almost doubled in size and they’ll be a lot lighter due to moisture loss (down to around 3%).
These beans are now ready to ground and brewed to make a delicious coffee beverage.
One piece of the puzzle
So, when we talk about green coffee, we’re really talking about one of the forms that coffee beans take at an important stage in their journey from farm to cup.
They begin their life as a bean inside a cherry that’s produced by a plant. Then, they’re picked, processed and dried which is when they become ‘green beans’. We also know that they need to be cooked and transformed again into roasted beans before they can be brewed, because they’ll taste pretty gross if they stay green!