What Are The Different Types Of Coffee Beans? Which Is The Best?

different types of coffee beansAsk three different baristas what the different types of coffee beans are, and you’ll get three different answers. That’s because “type” can mean a lot of different things when it comes to coffee beans.

There’s a lot to know about coffee, and it can be overwhelming if you’re just starting to learn about it. Think the menu at your local cafe reads like an encyclopedia in a foreign language? That’s just the different types of beverages you can order. When you dig deeper into the art and science behind coffee, things get complicated fast. Understanding origins, processing styles and roasting styles might make your head spin at first, but it’s an important step in getting a full picture of the world of coffee.

The more you know about how coffee is made, the more enjoyment you will get out of it. Imagine serving up a cup to your friends or co-workers and telling them the name of the farm where the beans were grown, the method used to process it, and maybe even the specific variety of coffee tree that it grew on. Like wine, the production of coffee involves a worldwide industry of artisans and professionals dedicated to producing the best of the best.

Ready to become a coffee connoisseur? Read on for an introduction to the basics of the coffee bean.

What Is a Coffee Bean?

Millions of people drink coffee every day and never stop to think about where it comes from, or what it even is. If you want to know what different types of coffee beans are available, it will be helpful to know what a coffee bean is.

A Coffee Bean is the Seed of a Fruit

When you take beginner courses in green coffee from the Specialty Coffee Association (http://sca.coffee), the instructor often begins by pointing out that coffee is a plant. It seems obvious when you think about it, but a lot of people find this news astonishing.

There are three species of coffee trees grown commercially around the world:

  • Arabica is a delicate plant that needs very specific conditions to flourish. The coffee it produces is complex and sweet, and is the coffee of choice for specialty roasters. If you’ve had coffee in a good cafe, you’ve tasted Arabica. Within this species are thousands of sub-species called varieties. Typica, Bourbon, and Caturra are examples of Arabica varieties.
  • Robusta is intense, smoky, high in caffeine, disease resistant, and tolerant of pests. It also thrives in a broad range of growing conditions. Today, you’ll find Robusta in lower quality blends and instant coffees, but it’s also an ingredient in traditional Italian espresso blends.
  • Liberica is not so tasty, and is generally used as grafting stock for pest resistance in other species.

In every coffee species, the fruit has the same structure: a hard seed covered by a layer of tough, papery material called parchment, which is in turn covered with a sticky layer of pulp. The whole thing is encased in a thick skin that can be either red, yellow, or orange when ripe.

The seed, of course, is the part that roasters are interested in. The skin, pulp, and parchment are removed during processing (more on this later), and the seed is then dried and roasted to become a coffee “bean”.

There are no actual beans in your coffee,

Coffee Origins

When you ask what are the different types of coffee beans, you might be thinking about the different places where coffee is grown.

If you’ve spent any time around coffee, you might have heard someone talking about “origins”. In the coffee industry, origin is the term used to talk about the place where a particular coffee was grown. For example, Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia are the top 3 coffee producing origins.

Fun Fact: In 2019, Brazil produced about 7.8 billion pounds of coffee. That’s more than 35 pounds of coffee for each person living in the country!

Do Different Coffee Origins Taste Different?

The short answer is: yes.

The details are a bit more complicated. To make things easier, we can group the different origins into four main regions. Each region possesses general flavors and characteristics.

  • African coffees (especially those from Ethiopia) are floral, citrusy, berry-like, and light-bodied.
  • Central American coffees offer clean flavors, crisp acidity, citrus, nuttiness, medium body, and even some mild fruit flavors.
  • South America is well-known as the biggest coffee producing region in the world. As Frank Sinatra said, they’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil. South American coffees have mild acidity, chocolate and nut flavors, and little to no fruitiness.
  • Asian coffees include Vietnam (the top producer of Robusta coffee), China, and other mainland countries, but what most people mean when they talk about Asian coffee is Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, etc), and Papua New Guinea (or PNG as it’s affectionately known in the coffee world). Indonesian and PNG coffees tend to be heavy bodied, wild and complex with flavors of spicy green peppers, wet soil, and dark chocolate.

Coffee Processing Methods

Origin plays a role in the flavor of coffee, but a bigger factor is the way in which the coffee seeds are processed.

How Does Coffee Processing Affect Flavor?

You could read several books on coffee processing methods and still only scratch the surface of this complex science. We can simplify things by grouping processing methods into four categories that each have their own distinct flavors:

  • Natural processed coffee is dried in the whole fruit like a raisin. The fruit is picked from the tree and laid directly on a drying bed without removing anything. Good natural processed coffees are sweet, fruit-forward, complex, and heavy bodied.
  • Pulped Natural coffee has the outer skin removed before drying. The fruit is picked, the skin is stripped off, and the seed with its covering of sticky pulp is laid out on the drying bed. Pulped natural coffees have a little of the fruitiness of naturals and a little of the clean crispness of washed coffee.
  • Washed process coffee is the most common worldwide. In this process, the skin and pulp are both removed from the seed. The seed (still covered in parchment) is then washed to remove any remaining sticky bits before drying. Washed coffees are clean, crisp, higher in pleasant acidity, and lighter bodied than naturals.

Bringing it All Together

Connecting all these factors to the flavor in your cup takes training and experience.

In the wine world there are sommeliers who study the nuances of vintage, variety, and terroir. The coffee industry has its own equivalent of a sommelier known as a “Q Grader”. Q Graders are professional coffee tasters who are required to pass a rigorous three-day sensory exam. The exam proves a Q Grader is able to distinguish minute variations in coffee species, origin, and processing.

So, what are the different types of coffee beans?

Now that you know a bit about where coffee comes from, it may be difficult to look at America’s favorite hot beverage the same way. When your friends ask you what different types of coffee beans are available, you can confidently respond, “Well… It’s complicated.”

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