Coffee Comes In Many Varieties
Coffee is a fruit, and like any other fruit it comes in different varieties and each variety has its own distinct characteristics. You’ve probably heard of Arabica beans-you’ve seen them mentioned in TV commercials and advertised on bags of coffee at the store.
But if you’re like most people you don’t really know what that means, other than that it seems to be a sign of high-quality coffee. But it also seems like nearly every brand of coffee, every coffee shop and every fast-food restaurant is selling 100% arabica coffee now, so are there any other types of coffee?’
There are 4 major types of coffee bean: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. Each has different flavors, different history, and even different caffeine content.
What are the Different Types of Coffee Beans?
The 4 major types of coffee beans represent 4 different species of coffee. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to coffee diversity, because domesticated coffee plants are not only divided by species, but by specific cultivars.
We’ll start with the big one: arabica beans. These beans come from the Coffee arabica plant. About 60% of all the coffee we drink is made with arabica beans. That’s because arabica beans tend to have a sweeter, fruitier flavor than other species of coffee, and so they make a more pleasing beverage overall.
This is why so many brands advertise their coffee as being 100% arabica. Most people think of arabica beans as superior. That isn’t necessarily true, as we’ll see below. And it’s also not the full story- arabica is a species, but there are different varieties of arabica.
Bourbon, caturra, kona, catuai, and mundo novo are all varieties of arabica coffee. Each has its own characteristics.
Arabica trees are usually planted at altitude, between 2,000 and 6,500 feet. This species of coffee is believed to derive from the wild coffee trees of Ethiopia, which naturally grow at high altitude, and so they thrive at higher elevations where the temperature is a bit cooler.
That’s why mountainous places like Colombia, Guatemala, and Hawaii produce some of the highest quality coffees in the world. They have the ideal geography and climate to produce arabica beans.
Almost all of the remaining 40% of the coffee we consume consists of robusta. Robusta has a reputation for being lower-quality. This is because robusta used to be ubiquitous in instant coffee before the advent of Starbucks and the specialty coffee boom. The quality of the instant coffee available then was terrible, and people associated that flavor with all robusta coffee.
What they didn’t realize was that before the specialty coffee boom, robusta was used in a lot of very popular grocery store coffee brands. Millions of people drank robusta and liked it, without realizing it.
It is true that robusta tends to be earthier and more bitter than arabica, but it also has about twice the caffeine content. Robusta is also easier to grow, more tolerant of different climates, and more resistant to pests and disease. When grown, harvested, and processed with the same care given to arabica beans, robusta can produce excellent coffee. In fact, most of the coffee produced and consumed in Vietnam is robusta!
You’ve probably had robusta without realizing it. Lots of coffee roasters use robusta in their blends, both for the added caffeine kick and the smoky, earthy flavor it can contribute. They simply don’t advertise that they’re using robusta.
In addition, robusta is very common in espresso, a brewing style that’s well-suited to robusta’s flavor profile and caffeine content.
Unlike arabica, robusta is usually grown at low altitude, less than 2,000 feet. These plants originated in western and sub-Saharan Africa, so they are well suited to hotter climates and lower elevation.
Since robusta produces higher yields, is easier to grow, and resistant to pests, it’s also cheaper (which has contributed to the perception of robusta being lower quality than arabica.) But Italians have been using high quality robusta in their espresso blends for as long as anyone can remember.
Liberian coffee, or liberica coffee, is an uncommon varietal. Arabica and Robusta, as we’ve already mentioned, make up nearly 100% of the coffee production world-wide, leaving less than 1% for liberica.
Liberica beans have a fascinating history. For a brief time in the 19th century, they rivaled arabica in market share, largely because a disease called coffee rust devastated arabica plantations while the Liberica plants were largely untouched by it.
But liberica has its challenges. The fruits are much larger than arabica, and that makes them more difficult to harvest and process properly. In addition, the beans themselves are more unevenly shaped and that resulted in lots of over dried and under dried beans in each batch. As a result, the quality of the coffee suffered, and it developed a reputation for an unpleasant vegetal taste.
The odd shape of the beans causes another problem. They tend to have a thin, narrow, hook-shaped point on one side. That pointy bit has a tendency to burn when roasting the coffee, which gives it a strong and bitter flavor.
So, when coffee plantations began popping up all over Brazil, they all chose to grow arabica beans, because it was easier to make quality coffee with that species. As Brazil grew to become the biggest coffee producer in the world, other growing regions followed suit and switched to arabica.
However, liberica is beginning to experience a comeback, albeit a slow one. The trees themselves are more resilient than either arabica or robusta. They handle changes in climate better and they resist disease better.
The challenge remains processing the beans in such a way that they can produce quality coffee. But modern processing techniques can make up for this, and producers are now deliberately working to process Liberica beans in such a way as to yield the best possible coffee. The burnt flavor can be avoided by sticking to lighter roasts which bring out the more delicate, fruity notes of the coffee.
Liberica is still widely grown and consumed in the Philippines, although it’s largely unheard of in the rest of the world.
Excelsa is actually a variety of liberica, but it’s special enough to merit a mention. That’s because excelsa is the variety that has the most potential to rival or even replace arabica beans in the future.
As a variety of Liberica, it handles changing climates well and has a high resistance to disease. But its fruit is much smaller than most liberica plants, close to arabica and robusta in size. That makes it much easier to harvest the fruit and to separate the beans from the pulp of the fruit, which eliminates one of the biggest difficulties that liberica presents.
Since arabica trees are relatively delicate, there is some concern that climate change will make growing arabica very difficult in the coming years. Liberica and excelsa may just be the ideal solution to that problem, as they can yield very high-quality coffee and the trees are more resilient.
While the majority of the world’s coffee is arabica, arabica does not automatically mean quality coffee. Plenty of 100% arabica coffees are relatively mediocre products, although virtually all of the specialty, premium coffee in the world is also arabica.
More importantly, robusta coffee is not inherently bad coffee. It has an unfair reputation for poor quality, but the reality is that robusta can produce very good coffee when treated right, and many people around the world consider it an essential ingredient in espresso blends.
Liberica and excelsa make up 1% or less of the global coffee supply, but that could change in the coming years. While these varieties can be more challenging to process and roast properly, they can also yield coffee that’s just as good as, if not better than, arabica when treated well. And since these two varieties are resistant to diseases, pests, and climate change, they may well represent the future of coffee.
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