For most people coffee is pretty simple. It’s that bitter hot brown wake-up-juice that we gulp in the mornings until we are able to open our eyes and function. However, saying that coffee is simply coffee is the same as saying that wine is simply fermented grapes – it’s a lot more complicated than that. Just like wine, there are countless varieties of coffee with slight taste variations based on the type of beans, the quality of the soil, the altitude, the growing conditions and many other factors.
So let’s take a look into the different types of coffee beans and how they are used, so that you can have an introduction to the complex and fascinating world of coffee.
Arabica vs Robusta
When it comes to coffee beans there are two main species – Arabica and Robusta. First let’s examine the differences between the two.
Robusta is a hardier coffee that is cheaper to grow and produces a stronger, earthier flavour with more caffeine. It is very strong and acidic on its own, so it is usually mixed with Arabica coffee to make a more pleasant flavour. Also, since this coffee is easier and cheaper to grow it will usually be mixed into a blend so that the coffee can be offered at a cheaper purchase price.
The world’s largest producer of Robusta is Vietnam, with Robusta accounting for 97% of the country’s coffee output.
This type of coffee produces a lower yield and has less caffeine than the Robusta varieties, but the flavour is much better. It is sweeter, more subtle and combines the strong coffee taste with fruity flavours. Unlike Robusta, a 100% blend of Arabica beans will taste good. This type of bean is sought after for the taste, but it is more expensive because it is more difficult to grow.
Some examples of Arabica varieties of coffee include Arusha, Bourbon, Blue Mountain, Hawaiian Kona and Pacamara.
What About the Region?
Both Robusta and Arabica coffee beans are grown all over the world, but the region in which they are grown will have an impact on their flavour. Beans that are grown in Central America and Colombia tend to be light and well balanced, with pleasant fruity undertones. Brazilian beans are usually heavier with a chocolatey flavour and they are usually used in darker roasts.
Coffee plants originated in Ethiopia and the coffee here is usually described as syrupy, with strong overtones of blueberry and strawberry. The coffee that is grown in Kenya is very bold tasting, with an acidic tone that sometimes reminds people of tomato. Indonesian coffee usually has a smoky and dark taste that is somewhat reminiscent of cocoa.
These are just a few of the distinctions that are made between different types of coffee beans. High end coffee retailers will have a very close connection with the growers that they buy from and they will perform a “cupping” or tasting on the beans frequently to make sure that they are getting the best quality.