Green Coffee, Defined

Ecological? Colored Green? Raw? From Mars? 😜

What is green coffee? Sometimes the most basic question is the best, and when we skip basic definitions we might end up with basic misunderstandings! So what is the definition of green coffee?

Green coffee is raw coffee, before it is roasted. That’s the quick answer.

Why is it not stupid to ask, “what is green coffee?”

Because “green coffee” implies that it is produced with care for the environment, which could be true (and is with the coffee we buy at Sweet Maria’s). But it is not necessarily true.

extra-green-coffee
Super extra green coffee (lightly filtered in photoshop!)
Uganda coffee, wet-process aka washed.

Is Coffee Green?

Coffee can be produced by taking out native forests, removing primary/secondary shade trees. Coffee can be produced in steep terrains without regard for soil erosion. Coffee can be produced using chemical fertilizers to boost fruit set, or using fungicides and pesticides to protect it.

Generally this is not the way coffee is produced by small-holder farmers, those with less than 2 hectares of land. One simple reason is that it is not cost effective to use chemical inputs and sprays, and they simply cannot afford it. When they are used, they are used with care and sparingly. This is a huge generalization I know, but after 20 years traveling to coffee farms, it is my experience.

The other thing I know from my travel experience is that coffee farming practices and post-harvest processes are different everywhere. (Another reason that my generalization is a bit problematic!) What happens in Aceh Indonesia, San Pedro Necta Guatemala, and Othaya Nyeri Kenya are completely different.

A coffee farmer from one place, transplanted to another, would be completely bewildered. And a technique from one place would likely fail in another. On no level is coffee a monolith, yet we use the same words to describe the “coffee producer” on a global scale.

Brazil Coffee Farm
Brazil-Mechanized Processing, and No Shade Trees. Not very green.

Green but not Green

So what else does “green coffee” imply that needs clarification? That is actually green in color. It may be, or not. And it might be a range of other colors too.

The appearance of green coffee is hugely diverse. A typical wet-processed (aka washed) coffee is usually greenish, and the green will fade as it ages and loses quality. Coffee that is too fresh, dried to the requisite moisture level (usually 10.5% or so) yet just a couple weeks off the tree, might be a deeper green. Yet the cup quality will often have grass or herbal green notes. So greener is not better.

Different varieties and drying regimens will shift the range of green hues. And the lingering silverskin, an inner layer clinging to the seed in the fruit, will give the coffee a different, more yellow appearance.

Some coffee is still polished at the mill, a final step before bagging and export, to create a uniform look and better appearance to please the buyer. This removes most of any clinging silverskin.

It also can ruin the coffee, as the friction burrs of the polisher heat the coffee and can hurt the cup quality if too much heat is produced. We ask that our coffees are not polished before export.

green versus decaf green coffee
Green wet-process coffee (Uganda) on the left, and unroasted decaf coffee (Swiss Water Process Ethiopia) on right.

Not Green but Green

Dry process coffees are a different beast. Since the seed is dried in the outer fruit layer, the whole thing intact, it has more silverskin attached and takes on a place yellowish hue. Yet we still call dry-processed, unroasted coffee “green coffee”

Then there are some exotic processes like Monsooned coffee, usually from India, swollen parchment yellow in appearance. Or Aged coffee from Sumatra which is a orangey-brown color.

monsooned coffee
Monsooned coffee from Indonesia on left and wet-process coffee from Uganda on right

And I guess we should include decaf coffee, which can be hard to roast since it is already a brown color, close to the final roasted result. But we call brownish decaf coffee “green” too.

So yeah, green coffee: not necessarily green-ish, or eco green, while it is often kinda green. That’s why even the simplest question about coffee is not a bad question at all! – Thompson

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