A coffee bean is a seed of the Coffea plant and the source for coffee. It is the pit inside the red or purple fruit often referred to as a cherry. Just like ordinary cherries, the coffee fruit is also a so-called stone fruit. Even though the coffee beans are not technically beans, they are referred to as such because of their resemblance to true beans. The fruits – coffee cherries or coffee berries – most commonly contain two stones with their flat sides together. A small percentage of cherries contain a single seed, instead of the usual two. This is called a “peaberry“. The peaberry occurs only between 10 and 15% of the time, and it is a fairly common (yet scientifically unproven) belief that they have more flavour than normal coffee beans. Like Brazil nuts (a seed) and white rice, coffee beans consist mostly of endosperm.
Two methods are primarily used to process coffee berries. The first, “wet” or “washed” process, has historically usually been carried out in Central America and areas of Africa. The flesh of the cherries is separated from the seeds and then the seeds are fermented – soaked in water for about two days. This softens the mucilage which is a sticky pulp residue that is still attached to the seeds. Then this mucilage is washed off with water.
The “dry processing” method, cheaper and simpler, was historically used for lower-quality beans in Brazil and much of Africa, but now brings a premium when done well. Twigs and other foreign objects are separated from the berries and the fruit is then spread out in the sun on concrete, bricks or raise beds for 2–3 weeks, turned regularly for even drying.
The term “green coffee bean” refers to unroasted mature or immature coffee beans. These have been processed by wet or dry methods to remove the outer pulp and mucilage and have an intact wax layer on the outer surface. When immature, they are green. When mature, they have a brown to yellow or reddish color and typically weigh 300 to 330 mg per dried coffee bean. Nonvolatile and volatile compounds in green coffee beans, such as caffeine, deter many insects and animals from eating them. Further, both nonvolatile and volatile compounds contribute to the flavor of the coffee bean when it is roasted. Nonvolatile nitrogenous compounds (including alkaloids, trigonelline, proteins, and free amino acids) and carbohydrates are of major importance in producing the full aroma of roasted coffee and for its biological action. Since the mid 2000s, green coffee extract has been sold as a nutritional supplement and has been clinically studied for its chlorogenic acid content and for its lipolytic and weight-loss properties.
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