How to Buy Green Coffee and Decode Specialty Coffee Labels

After the post about how to roast your own coffee with an air popper, several people asked me how to buy green coffee? Many of the things to look at when buying green coffee are the same as buying single-origin coffee (check out my post on buying roasted coffee). The first time you shop for green or specialty it can be a little overwhelming. Green coffee and specialty coffee labels may contain some combination the following:

  • Country of Origin
  • Region
  • Processing Method
  • Farm, Estate or Processing Station
  • Size or Grade
  • Variant or Cultivar
  • Elevation or if Shade Grown

Check out this page for a great graphic of coffee types, needless to say there are a lot. Usually they don’t make it into the label though, but if you dig into the descriptions online they may show up.

I won’t dive into all aspects of this because it would be a super long post, but if you’re interested to learn more about all things coffee a great book is the World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffmann that breaks down the different areas around the world where coffee is grown and just a really great baseline for about all the brewing methods.

It’s important to note that coffee is an agricultural product and like any agricultural product there are harvesting seasons and variation. Wine is similar, sometimes there are good years, bad years, good harvests and bad harvests. There is an entire industry dedicated to sourcing green coffee as coffee is the world’s 2nd most traded commodity behind petroleum products.

Similar to wine, coffee is very personal. What one person likes the other person may not. Some people prefer more floral or tea like flavors while others people want bolder coffee or chocolate notes.

Let’s breakdown some examples of green and specialty coffee names.

Ethiopia Guji Hambela Dabaye

  • Country of Origin: Ethiopia
  • Region of Origin: Guji
  • Processing Station: Hambela
  • Kebele (Municipality of Ethiopia, similar to a town): Dabaye

Costa Rica La Minita Estate Tarrazu Washed

  • Country of Origin: Costa Rica
  • Region of Origin: Tarrazu
  • Estate/Farm: La Minita Estate
  • Processing Method: Wet Processed or Washed

In the above example you will notice the name will sometimes include if it is Wet Processed (Washed), Dry Processed (Natural) or Honey Processed. While not always the case, usually dry processed coffee will indicate that it is dry processed, otherwise most of the time if it is not indicated you can assume it is wet processed. You’ll also notice there isn’t a standard convention to put the estate or region in any specific order.

You can read more about the different processing methods here. Try out the different types and see which ones you like. Dry processed coffee tends to be described as more floral or wild tasting. The latest trend is Carbonic Maceration and Anaerobic Fermentation which you can read more about here, I haven’t tried either.

Decaf has its own types of processing, try to pick one that is Swiss Water Process (SWP) or Mountain Water Process (MWP) which doesn’t use chemicals like they do in the other processes.

Sometimes it will include the size or grade such as 17/18, AA or Supremo which refers to the diameter of the bean. There is a good article about it here that breaks down how different areas have different terms. Specialty Coffee means it has met standards which you can read about here. You may hear the term Third Wave Coffee used, but there is no agreed upon definition of that like there is for Specialty Coffee.

Here are some other acronyms you may see:

  • FT: Fair Trade
  • FTO: Fair Trade Organic (I mentioned in this post that it isn’t necessary to buy organic coffee)
  • RFA: Rain Forest Alliance (read more here)   

Here are the two main sites I buy green coffee from, because I really like their detailed notes and instructions:

  • Burman Coffee Traders is recommended a lot, but I haven’t tried them yet. Will update the post when I do.

These sites also sell some roasted coffee so you can buy some and see how your home roasting compares to theirs. Add about 25% to the cost of green coffee if comparing to roasted coffee prices to account for the roughly 20% weight loss in the roasting process.

Hopefully this crash course has helped you to decode some of the green coffee and specialty coffee names, below you will see all the different types of coffee I have bought green and roasted myself. There is not a single one that I thought was bad after I found the right grind size, the ones in bold are the ones I particularly enjoyed and would purchase again (if it was in available). You’ll notice some don’t have the processing station or farm on them, that is because they were purchased from a larger supplier that didn’t break it down that far. Since then, I have tried to source only fully traceable green coffee. I could have made this post a lot longer, but as with my other posts, I take a lot of information and try to condense it for easier reading with links throughout if you want to read more about it.

  • Colombia Sierra Nevada FTO Washed
  • Ethiopia Shakiso Guji Dry Process
  • Ethiopia Guji Hambela Dabaye
  • Ethiopia Guji Uraga Yabitu Wet Process
  • Guatemala Acatenango Gesha Lot 2*
  • Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Washed FTO
  • Costa Rica La Minita Estate Tarrazu Washed
  • Ethiopia Sidama Shantawene Village
  • Panama La Esmeralda Gesha 1500*
  • Indonesia Bali Blue Moon Organic
  • Colombia Supremo 17/18 RFA
  • Ethiopia Guji Shakiso
  • Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Aricha Washed
  • Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dumerso
  • Ethiopia Dry Process Guji Hambela
  • Panama Dry Process Paso Ancho
  • Ethiopia Sidama Damo
  • Guatemala Proyecto Xinabajul Chalum
  • Costa Rica Helsar Macho Ave
  • Rwanda Dry Process Ngororero
  • Colombia Pavon Finca Los Palomos
  • Ethiopia Sidama Shantawene Village
  • Kenya Kiambu Evans Farm AA

Like I said, coffee is very personal and you can see some recurring themes here. I tried Yirgacheffe and Sidama from a local roaster and still felt that I also enjoyed the Yirgacheffe more than the Sidama. However, my wife really likes the Sidama so everyone will enjoy different things. This article really dives into the different types of coffee.

*Quick note on Gesha (alternate spelling Geisha) coffee, which you may have already heard of. If you have heard of it, you know it is very expensive, around $30-50 per pound for roasted coffee. The green coffee sites I use had some for about half that price so I thought I would try it out. It was great coffee, very floral and almost tasted like black tea, but I didn’t think it was twice as good as some of the other Ethiopian (also known for floral notes) beans that I roasted, so I wouldn’t necessarily purchase them again unless I was planning a nice gift for a coffee lover.

Sweet Maria’s has particularly robust notes on their green coffee so I encourage you to check out the different tabs for Overview, Specs, Farm Notes and Cupping Notes.

Coffee needs to be shipped to its final destination and the way it is packaged is important, the industry standard is a GrainPro Liner which will keep the coffee fresh and keep bugs and pests out, so that is something you can check on also although most sourcing channels will use this type of packaging. Green coffee can last quite a while when shipped and stored properly, it is roasted coffee that we really need to watch the dates on.

Here are some examples of the graphical representations you can find on Sweet Maria’s site. You can look for notes you like in your coffee.