All coffee beans come from the Coffea coffee plant. The plant produces fruit-like coffee cherries which each contain two coffee beans. The Coffea genus branches into different varietals that are part of the same species but differ in characteristics such as the colour of the coffee cherry, height, density and how resistant they are to plagues.
Most coffee beans are grown and produced inside the “coffee bean belt”. The belt is located between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn (23.5 degrees north and south of the equator), includes 70 countries, and has the ideal combination of tropical climates and altitudes for coffee plants to grow.
Of the four main types of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta are the most common, followed by Liberica and Excelsa. In this article, we discuss the key characteristics of these four main varieties.
Arabica coffee is by far the most popular coffee bean. If you drink coffee, you’ve almost certainly had a cup of coffee that contains arabica beans, since they make up almost 60% of the world’s coffee production.
Despite their popularity, Arabica beans are harder to grow since they need special conditions to develop properly such as an altitude of around 2,000 meters above sea level.
Brazil alone is responsible for producing 40% of the world’s Arabica beans.
Arabica beans are also considered to be of higher quality than the other main variety, Robusta. Due to their low level of bitterness, smooth body and complex flavour, they are favoured by coffee producers and drinkers alike. This makes them widely available at local coffee shops, roasters, or anywhere else that sells coffee.
Arabica beans come in a variety of roasts, however, medium-light roasts are favoured. If you want to buy single origin Arabica beans, make sure to read the label of your coffee bag because some brands make blends that contain Arabica beans amongst others.
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Robusta coffee beans are the second most popular and tend to be used for instant coffee. This is because they are a less expensive variety and tends to be lower in terms of quality.
Robusta beans also appear in many blends since their strong aroma and slightly more bitter flavour balances other less favourable notes. These beans are favoured by some coffee producers as they tend to resist diseases better than other beans and grow well in less favourable climate conditions. Brazil is one of the countries that has started growing Robusta amongst other varieties.
One of the advantages that Robusta beans have over Arabica is that they contain slightly more caffeine, which is something many coffee drinkers look for in their cup of coffee.
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This type of coffee bean is easy to find in supermarkets as they appear in most blends and tend to have a higher roast than other beans which makes them perfect for milk-based drinks.
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Liberica coffee is native to central and western Africa but has also gained popularity in Southeast Asia due to its resilience against most coffee diseases. Most of the cherries that the Liberica produces come in irregular shapes and colours.
The bean has a characteristic floral aroma that is very different from Robusta. This can add a smoky flavour to espresso. Liberica beans tend to have a nuttier and wood-like taste and the beans tend to vary inconsistency.
The Philippines is a good place to try some coffee from the Liberica family, where they tend to serve their coffee dark and with sugar, a great combination for this type of coffee bean.
Even though Liberica coffee represents only 2% of the world’s entire coffee production, it represents almost 95% of the coffee grown in Malaysia.
Grown in Southeast Asia, Excelsa coffee beans are now considered to be part of the Liberica family.
What makes them different from the rest of the Coffeaa family is that the bean tends to be roasted very light, showcasing the fruit-like flavours in the coffee.
Excelsa beans are lighter on both aroma and caffeine, making them a perfect choice for people that enjoy a really smooth and mellow espresso.
These beans tend to come in a blend as they balance other notes and aromas while adding complexity. Excelsa coffee beans are harder to find but you can always ask your specialty coffee roaster in case they might have some available.
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Which Type of coffee bean is Right for me?
With four different types of coffee beans out there it can be tricky to know which one to choose.
One thing to keep in mind is availability. Coffee beans from the Liberica and Excelsa family are much harder to get your hands on, so you may struggle to find these available for purchase. On the other hand, Arabica and Robusta are very popular and can be found almost everywhere.
Another thing to take into consideration is the profile of the coffee you like to drink. Do you prefer beans that have low acidity? Do you favour espresso-based drinks that have milk? Are your taste preferences more inclined to chocolate and nutty flavours or floral and fruit-like? Once you know exactly what you like, your local coffee shop or roaster should be able to point you in the right direction.