The coffee bean is the seed of the Coffea plant, and it is the heart of the coffee cherry, which is the fruit of the coffee plant. You can use it to brew coffee, after you remove the coffee bean from the coffee cherry and wash, dry, roast and grind it.
Within the Coffea genus, there are four main species of coffee beans. The most common and economically relevant are Arabica and Robusta coffee beans, which make up over 90% of global coffee production. The other commercially grown types of coffee beans are Liberica and Excelsa.
This article will discuss what makes each type of coffee bean special and how to choose the best one for your morning brew.
Arabica coffee makes up most coffee grown at present, accounting for about 60% of commercial coffee production. It originated in Ethiopia, where it grows wild. However, people first cultivated it in Yemen, and it is from there that it takes its name.
Arabica coffee has sweeter and more complex flavors than Robusta coffee, which is why it currently dominates coffee markets, especially specialty coffee markets. Arabica coffee beans have a bright acidity, medium body, and multiple layers of flavor. They are well suited to be brewed pour-over style, which lets their subtleties shine more than espresso or immersion brewing.
Coffea Arabica plants are easily influenced by their environment. They do best at higher elevations, with plenty of rain, well-draining soil, natural shade, and minimal temperature variations. In particular, they thrive in volcanic environments, which offer all of the above and mineral-rich soils. It can be challenging and resource-intensive to grow Arabica coffee beans in environments that don’t naturally meet those criteria.
Of the four types of coffee beans, Arabica is the most fragile. It doesn’t grow well when conditions aren’t optimal, and it is prone to fungal diseases like Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR), Coffee Berry Disease (CBD), and Coffee Wilt Disease (CWD). These are particularly dangerous when Arabica plants are grown as a monoculture because an outbreak of disease can easily wipe out an entire crop.
Robusta is the second most commonly grown type of coffee bean. Robusta’s name comes from being more robust than the Arabica plants, which is why you can grow it in a broader range of environments. Therefore, it is less prone to disease. However, despite these advantages, it remains less popular than Arabica because its flavors and aromas aren’t as desirable.
Robusta beans are known for having a darker, earthier flavor, and for this reason, they are most often subjected to a darker roast to better match their natural character. Robusta beans also have nearly twice the caffeine of Arabica beans.
While Robusta beans are generally considered lower quality than Arabica, this is not necessarily the case. There are a growing number of farmers and processors working to develop high-quality Robusta beans and Robusta-Arabica hybrids.
Robusta beans are best when prepared as espresso. Indeed, in Southern Italy, most espresso blends contain at least a portion of Robusta beans. They yield a richer crema than Arabica beans, and their naturally dark and earthy character is the perfect foil for sweet steamed milk in drinks like lattes and cappuccinos, where the subtleties of an Arabica bean would be lost.
Liberica beans make up only about 2% of the world’s current coffee crop. Once upon a time, this varietal was far more critical after disease wiped out much of the world’s Arabica supply. Arabica has since made a comeback, and Liberica production has primarily ceased. However, that may change in the future, as climate change makes it increasingly challenging to produce the more sensitive Arabica plants reliably.
Liberica coffee has a unique flavor, pairing floral and fruity notes with a deep smokiness that some describe as woody. It has a full-body, reminiscent of Robusta coffee. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but there are some exceptional Liberica coffees to be had when done right.
Liberica trees grow much taller than either Robusta or Arabica, and the coffee beans from these trees are larger and more irregularly shaped. They thrive in light shade and well-drained soils and can succeed in poorer soil than Arabica. Though the Coffea liberica plant originated in West Africa, it is primarily grown in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Excelsa has recently been reclassified as a type of Liberica coffee because it thrives in the same conditions and grows a similarly tall tree. But the actual coffee it produces is vastly different. It has a much fruitier character than Liberica, with a tart acidity that makes it popular for adding complexity to coffee blends.
Excelsa coffee makes up only about 7% of the current coffee market. Still, given its appealing flavor profile and the fact that it is nearly as resilient and productive as Robusta, this seems likely to grow. Much like Robusta, Excelsa coffee has been regarded as poor quality, but this is more due to poor growing and processing practices than the bean itself. With the proper care, Excelsa has the potential to be specialty-grade coffee.
Tips to Choose the Types of Coffee Beans
There are many factors to consider when choosing the types of coffee beans you want to brew. Thousands of different coffees are on the market, and no two are exactly alike. So it can be difficult to select just the right one to suit your taste. These tips will help you narrow it down.
Knowing Your Preferred Taste
You must know what style and flavor of coffee you prefer to choose the right type of coffee for you. Just because a coffee is expensive or recommended by an expert doesn’t mean it will be to your taste.
Different types of coffee beans, Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa, all have different flavor profiles and work best with different brewing methods. Each type of coffee bean can produce a wide array of flavors depending on its processing and roasting, so use this advice as a guideline rather than a set of hard-and-fast rules.
In general, if you prefer naturally sweeter coffees with a light body and bright acidity, then Arabica beans are the only way to go. They are characterized by various flavors, including fruits, florals, nuts, and chocolate. On the other hand, if you prefer more bittersweet and earthier tasty coffees with a heavy body, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa coffees are all excellent options. Or a blend of any of these with Arabica beans can offer a nice balance.
Knowing the Broad Categories
Understanding the different categories of coffee is important when choosing a type of coffee. There are many ways to classify coffee: by variety, by flavor profile, by roast level, by caffeine content, by grind, by brewing method, by additives, and so on.
You need to understand at least the main features of each category when you go to a store or coffee shop to buy coffee. You want a coffee whose flavor you enjoy, but that is also compatible with the brewing equipment you have on hand.
Determine the Amount of Caffeine You Want
Not all coffee beans are equal in caffeine quantity, so knowing how much caffeine you want is an excellent way to help decide which coffee to buy. Excelsa coffee beans have the lowest caffeine content of the four, with about 1 g of caffeine per 100 g of beans. Liberica is next, with 1.23 g of caffeine per 100 g of beans. Arabica coffee has 1.61 g/100 g, and Robusta is the most caffeinated bunch, with 2.26 g/100 g.
Check the Roast Date
If you want the best tasting coffee, knowing when it was roasted is imperative. You don’t want to drink coffee too soon after roasting, and you don’t want to drink coffee too long after roasting. The best window to drink coffee is between 4 days and a month after roasting, depending on the roast level and how well you store it.
For the first few days after roasting, the coffee beans release a significant amount of carbon dioxide in a process called degassing. While carbon dioxide doesn’t have a flavor, gas in the coffee beans will interfere with brewing, making it very difficult to achieve a proper extraction. For dark roast coffees, this process occurs faster, so you can start brewing 4 or 5 days after roasting. With lighter roasts, it’s better to wait 5 or 10 days.
But if you wait too long, the coffee begins to go stale, mainly if you expose to heat, light, and oxygen. It loses its complexity of flavor and becomes bland tasting. As long as you don’t get the coffee wet, it won’t go bad in the sense of making you sick. But it will become less enjoyable.
Avoid Beans Labeled as 100% Coffee
To avoid beans labeled as 100% coffee is a bit of a contradictory recommendation. You want to be drinking coffee that is 100% coffee, but the best coffees rarely feel the need to specify such a thing on the label. Instead, better coffees might be labeled “100% Arabica,” or they might even list the specific varietals of Arabica beans found within, such as Bourbon, Caturra, Typica, etc.
If you see a coffee labeled 100% coffee, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should stay away. But it suggests you should dig a little deeper to find out what types of coffee beans are in the bag.
Which Type of Coffee Bean is the Healthiest?
The healthiest type of coffee beans is Arabica, but that statement comes with some caveats. Very little research has been done on either Liberica or Excelsa coffee beans, so this section compares Arabica with Robusta.
The main healthful components in coffee are trigonelline, choline, and chlorogenic acids. These have variously been shown to ward off diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, many forms of cancer, and cardiovascular disease. After roasting, Arabica beans contained more of these compounds and were in better ratios than Robusta beans. That said, Arabica beans contain less caffeine than Robusta beans, and caffeine is well known to enhance energy levels and exercise performance, which can aid in good health.
Roasting destroys some healthy compounds in coffee, like chlorogenic acids, and enhances others, like melanoidins. So there is no reason to choose a roast level for health reasons. The exception is very, very dark roasts, like Italian roasts, in which you will have destroyed a large proportion of the antioxidants.
Which Coffee Bean is the Sweetest?
Arabica coffee beans are naturally sweeter than Robusta, Liberica, or Excelsa coffee beans. This is another aspect in which they may be more healthful. If you’re looking to avoid added sugars in your diet, you may be satisfied by the inherent sweetness of an Arabica coffee, whereas you might be more inclined to add sugar to a bitter Robusta brew.
From Which Country Do the Best Coffee Beans Come?
All coffee is grown within what is known as the coffee bean belt, a region between 25 degrees north of the equator and 30 degrees south. But some countries within this belt are known for producing better coffee more consistently than others. This comes down to several factors, including climate, soil conditions, elevation, infrastructure for processing and transportation, and government support afforded to farmers.
Colombia grows nearly 10% of the world’s coffee, making it the third-largest coffee bean producer. Almost all of Colombia’s coffee is Arabica. As one of the world’s biggest coffee growers, Colombia has a well-established infrastructure for growing and exporting coffee.
Most coffee in Colombia is grown in what is known as the Colombian Coffee Growing Axis, a triangular region in the northern half of the country. It is characterized by high elevations of 3,000 to 6,500 feet, ample rainfall, mild temperatures, and mineral-rich volcanic soils. These conditions make it ideal for growing Arabica coffee beans.
Colombian coffee is very versatile. It tends to have clean flavors and a medium body, so it takes well to light, medium, and dark roasts. Light roasts are characterized by citrus acidity, medium roasts by flavors of fruits and nuts, and darker roasts tend to roasted nuts and chocolate flavors.
Guatemala produces 2.5% of the world’s coffee and is the tenth-largest coffee producer. There are eight official growing regions within Guatemala, which produce high-quality, shade-grown Arabica beans. Within Guatemala’s growing regions are hundreds of microclimates, ranging from an altitude of 1,600 to over 16,000 feet. The farms mainly lie on the slopes of volcanoes, which provide rich soils and excellent drainage. Because the country’s growing regions are so diverse, Guatemala’s coffee has a variety of flavor profiles. Beans grown at lower elevations tend towards nuts, chocolate, and smoke flavors, whereas the higher elevation coffee beans taste citrus, apple, and berries.
Costa Rica is responsible for less than 1% of the world’s coffee production, making sense as it is a tiny country. However, its coffee is widely acclaimed for its high quality. This is partly a result of government mandates; it was illegal to grow Robusta beans for over 30 years, and the crop remains almost exclusively Arabica.
Costa Rican coffees are grown primarily on volcanoes or in the valleys beneath them. Perfect for cultivating Arabica beans are fertile soils, high elevation, and microclimates generated by the peaks. Costa Rican coffee farmers often rely on honey processing, a method developed in that country that produces sweet and clean-tasting coffees. Typical flavors associated with Costa Rican coffee beans are peach, honey, vanilla, citrus, and chocolate, with the dominant tasting note dictating the roast level.
The Arabian Peninsula
On the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the primary coffee-growing country, though it accounts for less than 1% of global production. Once upon a time, Yemen was the epicenter of the coffee world, and it was the first country where Arabica beans were grown commercially, and much of the coffee now grown and consumed around the world has its roots in Yemen.
Yemen has a very different coffee-growing climate than most other top coffee-growing countries, and it is dry and rocky and lacks the fertile volcanic soils so prized elsewhere. However, Yemeni coffee growers have adapted organic farming techniques to tackle these challenges. The best coffees from Yemen taste stone fruits, berries, and dried figs.
Ethiopia is the homeland of Arabica coffee, where people first found the plants growing wild. There are still hundreds, maybe even thousands, of varietals of Arabica coffee beans found in Ethiopia that are found nowhere else in the world. Many of these heirloom varieties don’t even have names.
Ethiopia provides about 3% of the world’s coffee beans, all Arabica. Ethiopian coffees are grown at high elevations, between 3,500 and 8,000 feet, which gives them a bright character and pronounced acidity. Ethiopian coffees are complex and do best when light or medium roasted. Their flavors are typically described as fruity, floral, winey, and tea-like.
Jamaica is a tiny island nation providing only a small percentage of the world’s coffee crops, less than 0.1%. However, Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Coffee is famous worldwide for its high quality and high price tag. Coffee in Jamaica is grown in the Blue Mountains, at elevations between 3,000 and 5,500 feet. The coffee is grown on steep hillsides, making it difficult to cultivate but providing excellent drainage. The best Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee has a rich and creamy body without adding cream to your cup. It has balanced flavors of nuts, chocolate, herbs, and fruits.