The Differences Between Roasted And Unroasted Coffee Beans

green unroasted coffee

When I first started roasting my coffee beans at home, I found the whole process overwhelming, to say the least. Special equipment, coffee types, roast temperatures– it’s enough to make your head spin. But now that I’m somewhat of a seasoned roaster, I realize the best way to understand this process is to break it down into the simplest terms possible. So, let’s begin at the beginning; what exactly are the differences between roasted and unroasted coffee beans?

An unroasted coffee bean is a coffee bean in its raw form. Unroasted coffee beans are green in color, while roasted coffee beans are light to dark brown. While you can brew coffee with unroasted beans, the flavor is woody, acidic, and unpleasant, as opposed to traditional coffee brewed with roasted beans. 

So, while you wouldn’t want to brew a cup of coffee with unroasted coffee beans, the quality of unroasted beans makes a huge difference. If you want to get into roasting coffee at home, you’re going to need to understand exactly what the roasting process does to your beans, as well as what makes a good unroasted bean. Keep reading if you’re interested!

What Makes Unroasted Beans Different than Roasted Ones?

The roasting process is kind of like magic. In their raw form, coffee beans don’t leave a lot to be desired. They’re hard, bitter, acidic, and altogether unpleasant to consume. But when raw coffee is roasted, certain chemical reactions take place inside the beans which unlock their hidden flavors. 

When introduced to heat, the natural sugars in coffee beans begin to oxidize, resulting in a process called caramelization. The process of caramelization brings out those sweet nutty flavors often associated with a quality cup of coffee. It’s also what lends roasted coffee beans their dark brown color. But caramelization isn’t all that happens during roasting. 

The bitter, acidic flavor of unroasted coffee beans is due to coffee’s high acid content. When roasted, the acidity of coffee beans begins to mellow and become more balanced, resulting in a far more pleasant taste. 

In general, the longer you roast your beans, the more acid is drawn out of them and the more caramelization takes place. 

You might think that the objective is to get rid of as much acidity as possible, but wait! Not all the acids in coffee beans are bad. Some acids are responsible for the floral, fruity, complex flavors occurring naturally in raw coffee beans. On the other hand, while caramelization imparts a deep, full-bodied flavor to your beans, too much can result in a bitter, burnt flavor.

It helps me to think of roasting as a process of finding a perfect balance between the natural coffee bean flavors and the flavors imparted during roasting. Finding this “perfect” balance depends entirely upon your taste, but that’s what makes roasting challenging and rewarding!

Roasted vs Unroasted Beans: Major Differences

ColorAcid ContentMain Flavors
Roasted BeanLight to Dark BrownLower acid the darker the roastBitter & Woody
Unroasted BeanGreenHighly acidicComplex (nutty, flowery, smoky, caramelly)

How to Choose Your Unroasted Beans

There’s more to making high-quality roasted beans than just throwing any old raw bean in the roaster. One thing to keep in mind is, you can’t cook quality into beans. If you want delicious coffee, you have to start with the highest quality unroasted beans you can find. The question is, how do you identify a high-quality coffee bean? 

Uniformity

The first thing to check for when purchasing green coffee is uniformity. Beans that are inconsistent in size will roast unevenly, resulting in an unpredictable flavor. The smaller beans will also burn quicker than the larger ones, potentially ruining your coffee!

Age

When kept in ideal conditions, raw coffee can be stored for up to 18 months. Any older than that, unroasted beans begin to rapidly lose their flavor. When looking for unroasted coffee beans, always check the date of harvest. If it’s over 18 months, don’t bother unless you want bland coffee. 

Often, unroasted beans will have information on the bag to let you know how the beans were processed after harvesting. This information is important for understanding what to expect from the flavor of the beans, but the terminology may be a little unclear. Here are some common phrases you’ll find, and what they mean: 

  • Dry Processed: With this old-school method, the fruit of the coffee plant is sun-dried with the coffee beans still inside. The flavor of these beans is fruity and chocolatey with a hint of fermentation. They also respond best to lighter roasting methods to preserve those delicate fruity notes. 
  • Washed: This is the most common way of processing coffee beans. It means the coffee bean is removed from the fruit and transferred to a holding tank immediately after processing to remove any pulp clinging to the beans. The flavor of washed beans is clean, mild, and acidic. If you’re after a more standard, predictable flavor of coffee, washed beans are the way to go. 
  • Single Origin: As you might have guessed, this is coffee sourced from one origin. This means, depending on the country and climate, you can expect a consistent flavor. The more specific the label is, the better. If you can see the exact location of the farm where the beans were harvested, you’ll know exactly what to expect when it comes to the flavor of the coffee. 

A question I often get is, how do you know which unroasted coffee is right for you? While all the options can seem overwhelming, the process of finding your ideal coffee doesn’t have to be. Ask yourself what flavors you’re looking for in your roasted beans. Once you narrow down the answer, finding raw beans that suit that flavor profile is as simple as reading the descriptions on the bag. High-quality raw coffee beans will typically have flavor descriptions. 

However, when it comes to getting these desired flavors from the beans, it’s important to remember that finding the right roast level is crucial. Remember: the lighter the roast, the more of the floral, fruity qualities you’ll bring out of the coffee beans; the darker the roast, the more mellow, roasted, chocolate notes you get. 

Tim S.

Tim loves roasting, brewing, and experimenting with coffee. After years of perfecting this craft, working as a barista, and owning a small coffee service in college, he has decided to share his knowledge with the world.

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