Coffee bean varieties
There are numerous types of coffee beans that tend to look similar once they’ve gone through the roasting process. Despite there being different varieties, there are really only two that are commercially viable.
A coffee bean begins its existence as actually being a seed tucked inside the red, cherry-like fruit of the Coffea tree.
The Coffea tree blooms producing white flowers three times a year. Once the bloom has ended the cherry-like fruit grows ripening from green to red.
There are two green seeds inside each cherry and these are what become coffee beans after processing.
Take a look at the coffee bean family tree to get a better idea of just how many different species there are.
Best coffee beans
No one knows for certain just how many different species of coffea there are, but we do know there is well over 100.
These species grow in tropical temperatures between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.
Despite the growing number of coffea species being identified, the coffee trade is primarily only interested in two types of coffee beans: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, which you will recognize as arabica and robusta.
Some useful terminology
Variety: a taxonomy class which describes members of a species, such as Arabica and identifies differences in plant structure, leaves, and the fruit.
Varietal: a botanical term referring to the many forms of coffee plant derived through either selective breeding or natural selection.
Cultivar: used interchangeably with variety; specifically bred for consumption so it’s a cultivated variety.
Types of coffee beans
Arabica vs Robusta
Do you wonder what the difference is in coffee when you compare the labels on the packets, when one says 100% arabica and the other says 70% arabica & 30% robusta?
Well here’s the lowdown on the types of coffee beans you need to know about:
Arabica coffee beans
- Needs to grow in climates with temperatures between 60-80ºF (15-25ºC).
- Sugar content of the arabica is typically 6-9%, but this is subject to change during the roasting process which affects acidity and texture.
- Caffeine content is low at between 0.8-1.4%.
- Arabica beans command the highest coffee prices due to their superior taste and smoothness.
- Most widely cultivated producing a massive 75% of the world’s coffee bean production, and it’s mostly from Brazil…which you can read about in the history of coffee.
- Discovered in Ethiopia thanks to a young goat herder and his energetic goats (or so legend has it).
Arabica’s two common varieties are:
Typica: was the first variation of the species to be discovered, so it is fondly thought of as the New World’s original coffee.
Typica is also a generalized name for ordinary coffee.
Related to: n/a.
Bourbon: is a natural mutation of Typica and is known for its outstanding balance of aromas and sweetness.
Related to: Heirloom.
The well known Blue Mountain varieties are the result of Bourbon cultivars, cultivated to suit its surroundings.
Less common varieties
There are less common coffee bean varieties that have their own unique characteristics:
Pacamara: these coffee beans are a hybrid between pacas, an El Salvador natural Bourbon mutation and maragogype, a natural typica mutation from Brazil.
Susceptible to disease and pests and is classed as genetically unstable.
Related to: Typica & Bourbon.
Ethiopian Heirloom: most of the world’s coffee are the offspring of a single coffee plant owned by King Louis XIV (see history of coffee), and is still grown in Ethiopia.
Each village has its own variety characterized by the soil, elevation, and weather and has been cross-bred with different varieties and species. These are what make it some of the most desired coffee in the world.
Related to: Typica.
Gesha/Geisha: discovered back in the 1930s in the mountains near the town of Gesha, Ethiopia, but today it is associated more with Panama.
Gesha is highly regarded in the world of coffee and commands some of the highest prices on the market.
But why? Well it’s not easy to grow which makes it pretty rare; it also has a floral sweetness and aroma elevating it to goddess status among coffee varieties.
Related to: n/a.
Caturra: a Bourbon mutation hailing from Brazil known as a dwarf or semi-dwarf variety due to its small shrubs. Caturra can be found growing in Colombia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
It produces well in most environments but best at higher elevations. Its typical cup characteristics are a bright acidity, low body and have less sweetness than Bourbon.
Related to: Red Bourbon.
SL-28 and SL-34: if a variety doesn’t mutate and has characteristics that are wanted then it might need a helping hand.
That helping hand came in the form of Scott Laboratories(SL) in Kenya in the 1930s, when the government wanted more drought resistant and stronger varieties of coffee beans.
It produced SL-28 and SL-34. SL28 had the required drought resistance but didn’t create a high yielding plant.
It is considered superior to SL-34 and has a fruity, balanced and complex flavor which is highly regarded.
SL-34, on the other hand, thrives in the heavy rain and at medium-high altitudes.
Its flavor characteristics are described as a heavy mouthful, clean and with a sweet finish.
Related to: Bourbon.
Villa Sarchi: a natural mutation of Bourbon developed in the town of Sarchi in Costa Rica.
Villa Sarchi grows best at high altitudes and is a high yielding variety.
It doesn’t need a lot in the way of chemicals or fertilizers to help it grow or keep it healthy, and because of this it’s often chosen for organic farming.
Flavors are characterized by an elegant acidity with intense fruity and sweet tones.
Related to: Bourbon, Typica & Pacas.
Robusta coffee beans
- Robusta is a varietal of Coffea canephora and is not a coffee species like arabica.
- Often used in espresso blends as it produces a much better crema.
- Vietnam is the largest producer of Robusta, but Africa and Indonesia also grow it.
- Caffeine content is higher than arabica at about 1.7-4%, making the coffee tree less susceptible to disease.
- Grows well at lower altitudes and in high humidity conditions.
- There are numerous sub types that each have their own unique characteristics.
- Robusta is used for lower grades of coffee
- More resistant to pests, so overall the robusta is more hardy and robust than its cousin the arabica bean.
- Nearly all instant coffee is made from robusta coffee beans.
- Consumers want and expect instant coffee to be cheaper, so manufacturers use robusta as it’s less expensive than arabica.
Other types of coffee beans
Liberica coffee beans
- This species is much less well known than the other two but represents the third most common commercial varietal.
- It’s similar to robusta in that it can grow at lower altitudes.
- Due to the bean’s inferior quality, it is of low demand so makes up only 1% of coffee production worldwide.
- Liberica are somewhat bitter tasting, so this type of coffee bean are sometimes used as a filler blend with higher quality coffee beans.
So just selecting any old arabica bean and expecting a highly flavorful quality cup of coffee isn’t going to happen unless you know what you’re looking for.
Hopefully, this little guide will help you understand your arabica from your robusta.
But it’s important to keep experimenting with different coffee beans to find the taste and body that suits you. Your local coffee roaster will be a great source of information.
Now you’ve got a better idea why not become a barista in your own home and learn how to roast your own coffee beans?
Coffee bean family tree courtesy of www.cafeimports.com/coffee-varieties
Liberica coffee beans image courtesy of: HaztechGuy at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Arabica coffee beans image courtesy of: By Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons