Coffee 101: The Basics of Specialty Green Coffee

specialty coffee farmer raking washed coffee drying in sun

Specialty green coffee is a global industry that can feel a bit daunting to wrap your head around at times. It can be especially intimidating if you’re just dipping your toes into the specialty world for the first time. Between different subspecies or “varietys”, processing methods, knowing who and where your coffee came from, knowing how altitude pertains to cup profile, best times to buy, and a dozen other factors, there is a fairly steep learning curve for someone is just getting into the industry. If you’re new to buying specialty green coffee, it can be difficult to navigate these waters. To help you out, we put together this article to cover some specialty coffee basics. We hope this gives you the resources needed to make informed decisions about the types of beans you purchase.

Specialty Green Coffee Origins and Arrival Schedule

specialty coffee origin map

One of the more difficult parts of sourcing green coffee is understanding the seasonality of the crop. Since coffee grows in both the northern and southern hemispheres at all different altitudes, it’s important to have an idea of when the coffee you’re looking for will be arriving so you can plan ahead. It’s also important to know which beans work as seasonal substitutes for others. For example, Peruvian and Mexican coffees often have similar traits, so many roasters will use Mexican coffee in the spring and summer when they are abundant, then switch to a Peruvian coffee in the fall since it has an opposite harvest schedule to Mexico. Of course, there are several ways to tackle substitutions based on how it’s being roasted and where it’s represented in your lineup, so tapping into your trader’s experience is usually the best way to go.

For an in-depth look at arrival schedules and origin profiles, check out our Coffee Origins Guide. Here you’ll get a look at typical coffee arrival windows. You’ll also find some info on the most popular origins that we source from.

Sorting Classification and Glossary

If you’ve spent time looking for green coffee, you may have noticed a variety of grades and denotations from country to country. Most origins have their own unique ways of sorting and classifying their coffees based on various criteria. Some focus on bean size, while others focus on visual green defects, uniformity, cup quality, and so on. Because of this, it can often take some time to determine what’s what.

To make it easier to identify these notations, we’ve put together a Sorting Glossary at the end of this article. We hope this helps you understand the classification or green preparation of the coffee you’re considering when looking at our offerings however, we are in a global industry with constant experimentation so there will always be new grades, distinctions, and sorting standards coming into the fold. Be sure to ask your trader if you find any verbiage you’re unfamiliar with!

Specialty Green Coffee Processing Methods

How coffee is processed & dried after the cherry is picked is one of the most crucial elements to coffee production. Knowing how post-harvest processing methods impact flavor will ultimately help you pick the best beans for you and your customers. You can check out our Coffee Processing Guide for all the info or keep on reading below for the four primary processing methods.

Fully Washed

This is most common in Central American and South American countries (except for Brazil) known for clean, mild coffees like Colombia or Honduras. In this process, the fruit is first removed from the seed using a depulper. A depulper is a machine designed specifically for removing skin and fruit from a coffee cherry.

depulper used to produce washed coffee in Colombia

From there, the beans are typically soaked in water for anywhere from 8 hours to several days. This step helps to break down whatever mucilage (pulpy fruit remnants) remains on the seeds before being dried. Once dry, an exporter with a “dry mill” facility removes the papery parchment layer and sorts the good beans from the bad to adhere to the importer’s contract standards. Then the coffee is ready for export. When you purchase a fully washed coffee, you’ll get only the inherent flavors from the coffee bean itself rather than influence from the fruit.

Learn more about fully washed coffees here.


coffee cherries on a raised bed to dry and produce natural coffee

Natural processed coffee is the original processing method for coffee. Coffee producers have used this method for hundreds of years since coffee was first discovered. In this process, the depulping and soaking steps are skipped over and the cherries are left out to dry fully intact. One important step to natural processing is regularly rotating the cherries to prevent mold growth, so producers will rake the cherries over the weeks it takes to fully dry natural coffees. During this time, the fruit around the cherry ferments, and in the simplest terms, imparts a fruit-forwardness to the coffee. Once dried to ideal moisture levels, the coffee is then milled to remove the dried fruit and parchment from the seed in preparation for export.

Learn more about natural coffees here.


honey processed coffee drying on raised beds in Costa Rica

Honey processing, also known as “semi-washed” or “pulped-natural” is a relatively new process that’s gained popularity over the last ten years. In honey processing, the process is started the same as a washed coffee, with a depulper removing the skin and pulp of the fruit from the seed. What differs from washed coffee is the soaking and washing stages are omitted to allow the remaining mucilage to influence the final flavor profile of the coffee.

Leaving various amounts of mucilage on the bean during the drying phase is what makes it a honey-processed coffee. The amount of mucilage and time the bean is left to ferment and dry will determine how fruit-forward the end result is. You’ll often hear the terms “yellow honey”, “red honey”, and “black honey” used to describe how fruit-forward a honey-processed coffee is, with yellow being the least fruity and black being the most. The benefit of a honey is its ability to provide a range of fruit and sweetness in the cup profile depending on the clients interest.

Learn more about honey processed coffees here.


close up of wet hulled green coffee beans

Wet-hulling or “Giling Basah” is a method exclusively used in coffees from the South Pacific and is the main driver of the robust, big bodied, low acidity, profile associated with that process. Wet-hulling involves removing the fruit from the seed, the same as washed and honey, but it goes a step further by also removing the parchment layer while still at high moisture. From there, the beans are sold by smallholder producers to a local mill, either directly or through a collector who comes around to purchase from small farming communities. With no parchment and high moisture, the wet green coffee needs to complete it dying to an acceptable moisture level.

Learn more about wet-hulled coffees here.


It’s worth mentioning that there are a number of experimental processing styles in addition to these, like anaerobic and carbonic maceration. Every year, producers are coming up with creative new ways to produce their coffee. Learn more about anaerobic and carbonic maceration here.

The Specialty Green Coffee “C” Market

Perhaps the most difficult part of green coffee buying is understanding the market that acts as a foundation for Arabica prices. The “C” market exists to set coffee’s value based on current supply and demand. Similar to how gasoline prices fluctuate based on the cost of oil, green coffee prices fluctuate based on a number of factors that can be divided up into two categories: fundamentals and technical.

Fundamentals can be very simply defined as the ratio of global production of coffee to global consumption of coffee. Technicals refer to every other determining factors – weather events, cost of production, export volumes, currency values, pretty much anything that could spell gains or losses for the investment funds and individual investors who trade “futures” contracts, very similar to the stock exchange. It can take months or years to fully understand how the “C” market works, but keeping an eye on it will give you a good indication of when to buy and when to wait…if possible.

Our prices fluctuate in accordance with the market from Monday through Friday, 7:30am through 1:30pm EST, at which point all trading stops and levels stay put until the market reopens. Check out our RNY Market Watch articles for updates on trends and forecasting!

The Basics of Specialty Green Coffee

Overall, there isn’t a fast track to fully understanding the world of specialty coffee and green buying and there will always be something new to learn. Our hope is that this gives you a head start and resources to find out more about coffee on your own. And as always, our team of experienced traders is here to help. Feel free to contact us here!

Specialty Green Coffee Sorting Glossary


European Prep (EP)

Refers to coffee that has been sorted to remove a minimum of 90% of minor defects, 100% of major defects, and screened to scr 15+

GrainPro (GP)

Coffee stored in GrainPro brand bags

Ecotact (E)

Coffee stored in Ecotact brand bags

Central & South America

Hard Bean/High Grown (HB/HG)

Refers to Central/South American coffee grown between 900 and 1200masl (meters above sea level) [excludes Mexico]

Strictly Hard Bean/Strictly High Grown (SHB/SHG)

Refers Central/South American to coffee grown over 1200masl [excludes Mexico]



Refers to coffee screened to 15/16 64ths of an inch


Refers to coffee screened to 17/18 64ths of an inch



Refers to Colombian coffee screened to 17/18 64ths of an inch


Refers to Colombian coffee screened to 15/16 64ths of an inch


Hard Bean/High Grown (HB/HG)

Refers to Mexican coffee grown between 1000 and 1700masl

Strictly Hard Bean/Strictly High Grown (SHB/SHG)

Refers Mexican coffee grown over 1700masl




Refers to flat bean coffee with at least 90% of the sample representing screen size 18+


Refers to flat bean coffee with at least 90% of the sample representing screen size 16+


Refers to coffees sorted to remove all flat beans, leaving only peaberries.



Refers to flat bean coffee with at least 90% of the sample representing screen size 18+


Refers to flat bean coffee with at least 90% of the sample representing screen size 15+



Refers to flat bean coffee with at least 90% of the sample representing screen size 17+


Refers to flat bean coffee with at least 90% of the sample representing screen size 15+


Grade 1 (GR1)

Refers to washed Ethiopian coffees with only 0-3 minor defects per 300g*

* Grade 1 was previously reserved for washed Ethiopians. However, many high-scoring Ethiopian naturals have been categorized as grade 1 in recent years.

Grade 2 (GR2)

Refers to washed Ethiopian coffees sorted with only 4-12 minor defects per 300g

Grade 3 (GR3)

Refers to natural Ethiopian coffees sorted to 13-25 minor defects per 300g

Grade 4 (GR4)

Refers to natural Ethiopian coffees sorted to 26-45 minor defects per 300g


Double Picked (DP)

Coffee sorted for defects twice

Triple Picked (TP)

Coffee sorted for defects three times

A/X (specific to Papua New Guinea)

‘A’ refers to a “full, reasonably balanced, uniform, clean cup” while ‘X’ refers to a lot that has had the outlier largest and smallest beans removed for the sake of size uniformity.