There are four main types of coffee beans: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. Each bean type has its own unique characteristics and general flavours.
But the coffee bean type used in a blend is just one factor that affects your coffee drink’s final taste.
Processes such as harvesting, roasting, grinding, etc. all contribute to your coffee’s flavour. So keep that in mind as we dive into this overview of the different types of coffee beans.
- The four different types of coffee beans are Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa.
- Arabica is the most popular type of coffee bean. It has a comparatively milder taste. It is mainly grown at high altitudes in parts of Africa and South America.
- Robusta coffee has almost double the caffeine content that Arabica has. It is also cheaper to buy and has a sharper taste and woody aroma.
- Liberica is typically described as having a sweet, fruity, and floral flavor. But it is not as readily available as either Arabica or Robusta.
- Excelsa offers a “hybrid” taste that naturally combines tarty flavors with woody and earthy ones. It was officially reclassified in 2006 as being a synonym for a variation of Liberica, but many in the coffee industry still view it as a distinct species.
What Defines the Different Types of Coffee Beans
All types of coffee beans are part of the Rubiaceae or “flowering plant” family. But each coffee bean type is a different species within this family. So you will notice that each bean has unique coloring and appearance when examined closely.
Another distinguishing factor between the different species is the taste and aromas produced by each bean type.
For example, a coffee bean can be sweet with fruity and floral aromas. Or it could be salty with caramel and chocolate aromas.
There are four main components that define coffee beans’ taste, namely: sweetness, saltiness, acidity, and bitterness.
These four components often serve as indicators regarding what bean is used, how it was cultivated, and which country it originated in.
But note that these components are still distinct from the aromas—or “scents”—produced.
The main aromas include: fruity, floral, earthy, woody, nutty, smoky, chocolatey, caramelly, carbon or spicy. It is the combination of an aroma with a taste component that we usually refer to as a coffee’s “flavor”.
The Four Types of Coffee Beans
This chart summarizes the distinguishing characteristics of each bean species. But keep reading to dive deeper into each bean type!
Arabica is the world’s most popular coffee. It makes up around 75% of the global coffee bean production.
Arabica beans tend to be milder and sweeter and are thus more palatable for the general public. This is likely one of the main reasons it is so popular.
Arabica coffee also tends to be more expensive because this bean type is relatively challenging to cultivate. They grow on delicate bushes that require high altitudes, consistently cold temperatures, and more time to grow.
Arabica thrives at high altitudes in the Tropic of Cancer at around 15-24°C (59-75°F).
It is usually grown in Africa and South America in countries such as Ethiopia—where it originated, Rwanda, Columbia, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Guatemala.
Depending on the location, method of cultivation, and country of origin, Arabica coffee ranges between being sweet or acidic.
It can be fragrant, tart, nutty, chocolatey or caramel. and it’s this variation and complexity of flavour that adds to the popularity.
Arabica is generally known for its berry-like quality that can be pleasantly acidic while also having hints of chocolate, nuts, and caramel.
The Arabica grown in African countries like Ethiopia tends to be full-bodied and sweet.
Instead of the lighter, more chocolatey notes found in South American countries like Guatemala. Other countries, like Colombia, are known for being in the middle. Their coffee beans tend to have a heavier, fruity aroma or a light chocolate/caramel one.
As the second most popular coffee in the world, Robusta makes up roughly 20% of global coffee production and consumption.
Naturally lower in acidity, Robusta lacks the sweetness and brightness of Arabica. It is instead characterized by a sharper taste with a woody, earthy aroma.
This flavor combination might not appeal to everyone. But many coffee drinkers may prefer Robusta’s stronger flavor and its higher caffeine content. Robusta has 2.7% caffeine content compared to Arabica’s 1.5% caffeine content.
You can also purchase a blend that has both Robusta and Arabica.
These mixed blends are especially common among Italian roasters, who often believe that Robusta adds the finishing touch and depth to a coffee blend.
Robusta is often associated with poor quality because it is easier to cultivate and is thus sold at lower prices. It is also often used for instant coffee.
But none of this means that Robusta is objectively worse than Arabica. This is mainly a matter of taste preference.
Compared to Arabica, Robusta can be grown on more varied terrain and can withstand hotter temperatures.
Unlike the Arabica bush, Robusta coffee beans are grown on trees that can reach up to almost 10 meters (32 feet) high.
Robusta coffee is produced in many countries across Asia, Africa, and South America. Vietnam is the biggest producer of Robusta, followed by Brazil, Indonesia, and Uganda.
As far as coffee stories go, the Liberica one is a little sad.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the plant disease ‘coffee rust’ killed off 90% of Arabica plants. The species was almost at risk of going totally extinct.
Coffee played a major role in the global economy at the time so halting its production and distribution would have dire consequences. So as the Arabica species was allowed time to bounce back, global cultivation focused on Liberica.
This species originated in Liberia, Africa—hence its name.
But Liberica was quickly introduced to various countries in Southeast Asia to better facilitate its mass production. For a short period, Liberica enjoyed worldwide popularity in its role as a substitute for Arabica.
We can trace Liberica’s downfall and Arabica’s comeback all the way back to political disputes between the Philippines and the United States of America.
During the coffee rust outbreak, the Philippines became one of the largest Liberica coffee suppliers to the rest of the world.
But when the Philippines declared that it wanted independence instead of being a U.S. territory, the U.S. responded with harsh trading sanctions and restrictions.
This effectively dethroned the Philippines as the world’s coffee supplier. In the meantime, the Arabica species was already recovered and well on its way to regaining its former popularity.
And today Liberica accounts for only 2-3% of globally produced and consumed coffee. But even so, Liberica is generally enjoyed, and like Arabica, it offers a variety of flavours.
Liberica is known to be fruity and floral. And is even often described as being sweeter than Arabica. Alternatively, Liberica can also have a woody and smoky flavour that some have even compared to tobacco.
Although it may no longer be supplied worldwide today, Liberica is still around and consumed in the countries in Asia that cultivate it. So it may be challenging to get a hold of a bag of Liberica coffee beans, but it isn’t impossible.
If there was little known about Liberica, there’s even less known about its cousin Excelsa. This coffee bean species was discovered in Central Africa in the early 1900s.
Once recognized as a species in its own right, Excelsa was officially reclassified as a synonym for Liberica in 2006. This reclassification has led to quite the confusion among manufacturers and consumers alike.
Many use Excelsa and Liberica interchangeably, which has resulted in a lack of clarity regarding Excelsa’s data and statistics.
So it is estimated that Excelsa comprises roughly 2% or less of the world’s coffee bean production and consumption.
We have decided to discuss Excelsa separately in this article because it still has several features that distinguish it from Liberica.
Excelsa coffee beans deliver a “hybrid” taste. They are notorious for combining light roast traits (like tart notes and fruity flavors) with aromas and tastes typically associated with dark roasts (such as a woodier taste).
With such a rich depth of flavor within one coffee bean, it is a shame they’re not more readily available. However, you can still purchase Excelsa beans on global online platforms like eBay.
How to Choose a Coffee Bean Type You’ll Love
With four coffee bean types and countless coffee drink variations, you’re bound to find a flavour you’ll love regardless of how niche your taste preference may be.
Coffee manufacturers often clearly describe a coffee or a blend’s taste and aromas on the packaging. So you can know exactly what to expect and what notes you’re going to be able to pick up within the coffee beans before purchasing them.
While reading the packaging, look out for these four factors that contribute to the beans’ flavor:
Coffee bean type: You could refer to the in-depth descriptions of each bean in the previous section. In short, Arabica is lighter, sweeter, higher-priced, and more acidic. Robusta is heavier, bitter and more earthy. And Liberica and Excelsa are somewhat more difficult to come by, but are worth trying out for their floral and fruity aromas.
Taste: Decide which of the four components of taste—sweetness, acidity, saltiness, and bitterness—you would like to be more prominent in your coffee.
With salty and bitter tastes’ are typically paired with nutty, smoky aromas. Sweetness and acidity will be mild to tart and have aromas including florals, citrus, berries, chocolate, vanillas and caramels.
Note that excessive saltiness in your coffee is usually a bad sign. It typically means that something went wrong during the preparation process.
For more clarification on the four components of a coffee’s taste, check out our What Are the Different Coffee Flavors? article.
Aroma: Refers to the fragrances or scents present within the coffee. Common aromas include: nutty, herby, carbon, spicy, smoky, floral fragrances, citrus, berries, chocolate, vanilla, candy, and caramel.
Roast Levels: The lighter the roast, the more likely you are to taste the original flavours in the green bean.
Lighter roasts have higher acidity and more delicately nuanced notes.
As the beans roast for longer, they become darker and caramelized. So darker roasts are more smoky, charred, and earthy. They are heavy-bodied with a bitter taste and nutty aroma.
- If you like sweetness, go for 100% Arabica that’s light to medium roasted and specify light fruitiness and caramelizes. Chocolate and fruity notes will be sweet but with a depth of flavor.
- If you want a light, sweet taste, choose Arabica but look for fruity and floral coffee beans. These may be more fragrant but will be lighter than a chocolate taste.
- If you prefer your coffee heavier and more bitter, try a mixed blend of Arabica and Robusta. Look for blends that contain nutty, smoky, woody, or earthy aromas. Start with medium to dark roasted blends.
Here are some of the common flavor combinations that you’re likely to find within coffee blends:
- Fruity and floral
- Fruity and nutty
- Fruit and chocolate
- Chocolate and nuttiness
- Chocolate and caramel
- Chocolate, nuttiness and vanilla
- Caramel and nuttiness
- Spicy, smokey and nutty
- Earthy, nutty and woody
- Nutty, liquorice or tobacco (less common but occurs within darker roasts)
Grinding and Roasting Your Own Coffee Beans
Roasting at home allows more opportunity for you to experiment with flavors and to create a blend just the way you want.
Roasting is not difficult to do, but it requires practice in finding the right temperature and time to create the right taste for you.
Once opened, store-bought roasted coffee beans begin to lose their flavor and freshness within two weeks. This leaves a small window for you to use up all the coffee beans in the bag.
But when you roast green beans at home, you can schedule your roasts as you need. Thus ensuring you can have delicious, freshly-roasted beans whenever you want.
Unroasted green coffee beans are also significantly cheaper and stay fresher for much longer.
So if none of the store-bought beans and blends are working for your taste buds, then it might be time to start roasting your own beans!
To get started, you’ll need a coffee roaster and a coffee grinder. Ground coffee loses its freshness faster than whole coffee beans. So owning your own grinder to use as you need will ensure maximum freshness in every cup you make.
Step 1: Purchase your green coffee beans—Arabica, Robusta, or both—and your coffee roaster.
When purchasing a coffee roaster, remember to select a model that will meet your personal consumption needs.
Larger coffee roaster models may be tempting. But remember that if you roast too many beans at once, they’ll end up going stale before you can use them up.
Step 2: Fill up your coffee roaster and begin roasting the beans. The time it takes to get your desired color will be different for every roaster due to each model’s power and capacity.
Remember that beans continue to roast when they’re out of the roaster so consider removing them from the roaster just before your desired color.
Step 3: After around 5 minutes, your beans will go from green to a light yellow color. At this stage you will hear the first crack of the beans and see the release of steam. This is a light roast, and you can take them out at this point if you want to try a very light roast.
Step 4: If you continue to roast, you will notice the bean’s oils rising to the surface and the size expanding, and the color turning darker.
It’s recommended to stop roasting around this point, especially when you hear a second crack.
Step 5: Once your beans have completely cooled, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
The beans can keep for up to six weeks, but we recommend consuming them within two weeks to avoid any loss of flavor.
And if you’re not interested in roasting your own beans, there are plenty of amazing roasted coffee beans out there to try out.
Whether you use store-bought or home-roasted beans, you can learn more about how water quality affects your coffee’s taste to see whether you’re really getting the most out of each cup.
Or if you’re feeling adventurous, find out how you can safely eat roasted coffee beans as they are!
Dan is a former competition barista and has been honing his knowledge of coffee for over two decades.
He has worked in coffee farms in Peru, as well as roasters in Australia. He now trains new baristas and hosts cupping experiences in Austin.