Coffee connoisseurs who want to broaden their palates and learn to appreciate different blends should understand the different types of coffee beans. Knowing which kinds of beans your favorite brands use and how they’re roasted will help you identify a broader range of options. Instead of buying the same type every week, you may want to consider different types of coffee beans or grades of roast.
Whether you just grab and go or mull over labels, you may have noticed that some coffee makers put the types of coffee beans used in your favorite blends right on the packaging. Coffee plants belong to the Rubiaceae family of plants, which include over 6,500 different distinguishable species. Only about four of these result in a coffee bean you can brew.
Different Types of Coffee Beans Species
The main difference between these thousands of species is how big they grow and the conditions under which they thrive. All coffee plants are evergreens, but some grow up to 30 feet tall. Others grow as shorter, woody shrubs. They all produce white flowers and then fruit. Growers refer to the fruit as “coffee cherries.” Inside these are the seeds, from which coffee comes.
Arabica (Coffea arabica) is the most commonly used coffee bean and comprises over 60 percent of the coffee supply across the plant. These plants prefer high altitudes, regular rainfall, and some shade. Arabica is one of the shorter varieties, which growers can prune down to only 6 feet tall at maturity. That makes them easier to harvest and tend.
Arabica is also one of the fussier varieties, as it doesn’t thrive well under less than optimal conditions. They’re prone to disease, and the weather conditions can easily alter the harvest and its flavor. Arabica grows in large, commercial-size plantations, which means that if one plant becomes diseased, it can negatively impact the others because of their close proximity,
One benefit for coffee growers is that Arabica self-pollinates. This means that the resulting seeds will grow to be genetically similar to the parent plant with few mutations or deviations. This results in a consistent plant with a dependable cherry and bean quality.
Arabica coffee bean varieties
There are even several different types of coffee beans developed from the Arabica bean.
Typica: Typica is the base coffee bean that has been used to create other varieties. Although it doesn’t produce a lot of beans, the quality of coffee it yields is quite good.
Bourbon: Bourbon arabica is a more productive version of its Typica roots, and results in an equally good cup of coffee.
Caturra: Caturra mutated from the Bourbon variety in Brazil but requires more fertilizer. The benefit of this variety is that it's more adaptable to different elevations than its more fundamental family members.
Catuai: Catuai is a high-yielding variant of the Caturra that also needs more fertilizer than the base variety.
Blue Mountain: Blue mountain Arabica is sweet with an excellent balance of acidity and a full-bodied mouthfeel.
Coffee from Arabica beans has been the favorite of most coffee drinkers for many decades. The coffee produced is bright and slightly acidic. It tastes best when brewed with drip percolation. You’ll normally find it roasted to medium darkness, which tends to offset its acidity.
Robusta (Coffea canephora) is another common coffee variety, comprising about 37 percent of the world’s coffee. The name accurately reflects both the adaptability of the plant as well as the flavor of its beans.
Unlike Arabica, Robusto can grow at low elevations and tolerates more rainfall and higher temperatures than its more delicate cousin. Robusto beans also contain a lot more caffeine than Arabica –- nearly double the amount. This caffeine content also makes it more resistant to disease.
It’s a heavier bodied coffee with hints of chocolate, and its bold flavor stands up well to the addition of flavorings and milk or cream. Robusta beans also have lower sugar and fat content than Arabica beans, which can make it somewhat bitter. However, it’s less acidic than Arabica coffee and has a flavor profile well suited to espresso and other strong-brewed coffee drinks.
There are two varieties of the Robusta coffee bean plant: Coffea canephora robusta and Coffea canephora nganda.
Liberica (Coffea liberica) is less common in modern times but once became a popular variety when the majority of the Arabica crops were destroyed by disease in 1890. The Philippines stepped in and planted the originally African Liberica coffee plant. It then fell into disuse until the mid-1990s but is still a unique variety that’s hard to find.
The Coffea liberica grows as high as 30 feet and produces large, irregularly shaped beans. And its fruity and floral flavor distinguishes it from other types of coffee beans. Many people say it has a smoky flavor and that it tastes woody instead of like real coffee. Some coffee aficionados find that a small percentage of Liberica beans used in a blend of other beans results in a rich and aromatic cup of coffee.
Excelsa (Coffea excelsa or Coffea liberica var. dewevrei) was once labled as its own variety, but researchers have determined that it's related to the Liberica, as it also grows up to 30 feet. Even reclassified, however, the coffee beans it produces offers a very complex flavor profile compared to the Liberica. Along with the tart, fruity tones, it also hits some dark notes, a fact that intrigues many coffee connoisseurs.
How Manufacturers Roast the Different Types of Coffee Beans
No matter what types of coffee beans the manufacturer uses, they’ll need to roast it to produce the rich flavor we expect from our favorite brands. Growers store coffee beans when they’re green, and it’s the roasting that gives our morning Joe that dark brown coloring and distinctive flavor.
Roasting removes the moisture and caramelizes the sugar in the coffee beans. It also brings out the aromatic oils to varying degrees, depending on the type of roast. Many manufacturers use their own proprietary terms for the degree of roast, but most fall into four separate types: light, medium, medium-dark, and dark.
For those who prefer a lighter coffee, this roast is often called “light city,” “half city,” or “cinnamon.” In these roasts, the beans are cooked just until right before they reach “first crack.” This is when the beans reach an internal temperature of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit and crack open when they expand from the heat. In “New England Roast,” the beans are roasted until they pass the first crack.
The beans are a matte finish because they haven’t roasted long enough to draw the oils to the surface. They have a grain-like, fruity flavor. And the lighter the coffee, the fruitier the aroma.
With light roast beans, the origins of the coffee become more distinctive. That is because much of the original flavor of the beans remains after roasting. And almost counter to intuition, light roasted coffees retain much of their caffeine. Many who prefer drinking their coffee black prefer a light roast.
Sometimes called “American,” where this roast is most popular, a medium roast results in a stronger flavor than light roast and with no oil on the beans’ surface. You may see it also called “breakfast” or “city” roast. However, you won’t get that “grain-like” flavor, and you’ll get a lower dose of caffeine in your coffee.
Roasted to around 428 degrees Fahrenheit, a medium roast means the beans have been roasted just until right before the second crack. Medium roast produces a sweeter flavor from the caramelizing of the sugar in the beans. It also produces an even balance between flavor and acidity, too.
With a bittersweet aftertaste, medium-dark roast results in a rich and dark-colored coffee with a heavy body. You may even see an oily film on the beans or on top of your coffee. Medium-dark roasts have less acidity than lighter roasts and less caffeine as well.
The coffee beans are roasted to the middle of the second crack, up to about 446 degrees Fahrenheit. The roasting gives it a distinctive flavor with a bit of spice.
You may see it listed as “full city,” and it produces a heavy-bodied cup of coffee. Some manufacturers use the term “Vienna roast” for the darker end of medium-dark roasted coffee.
Dark roasted beans have a noticeable bitterness, although these have the least acidity. The dark roasting results in a sweeter flavor and an oily bean. You’ll notice a sheen of volatile oil at the top of your cup, too.
To reach this depth of flavor and color, the beans are roasted beyond the second crack, to an internal temperature of about 464 degrees Fahrenheit. Much higher than that, and the beans will char.
You’ll often see these labeled “New Orleans,” “continental,” “French roast,” “Italian roast,” or even “European.” The manufacturers may label them as “espresso” roasted.
The original flavor becomes overwhelmed with dark roasts, which is why many coffee manufacturers choose this roast for lower quality beans. You’ll also find that these coffees have much less caffeine. Dark roasts work best with accompaniments like cream, milk, or flavorings. They also make a superior espresso.
Types of Coffee Beans by Region
In single origin coffee beans, the flavor produced can vary widely, depending on where they grow. Many popular commercial brands contain a blend of different coffee beans from different regions. However, with single origin coffee, the consumer can have a more predictable result based on its origin.
If there are particular notes of flavor or profiles you prefer, you know you can expect similar results from any brand if their beans come from the same region. Take Columbian coffee, for example. Columbia produces a reliably sweet and medium bodied coffee bean. For this reason, it’s very popular with average coffee drinkers around the world.
By understanding the growing regions and how they affect the coffee you buy, you’ll have a better idea of what types you may prefer in the future.
Popular coffees from this region include Costa Rican coffee, which has a nutty, citrus flavor that feels clean. Guatemalan coffee is smoky and spicy, with floral hints. Nicaraguan coffee is full bodied with a hazelnut undertone.
Coffee grown in South America is notably sweet, like the Columbian grown coffee referenced above. Columbia is the world’s second top coffee producer, and quality measures ensure a consistent product.
Brazilian coffee is nutty and sweet with a heavy body, and the country is the world’s top producer. Focusing on both Arabica and Robusto types of coffee beans, most have low acidity and full body.
Mexican coffee is lighter, with fruit and spice notes. You’ll taste that it can be sharper than others, too. Jamaican coffee is mellow and rich, with balanced acidity. Hawaiian coffee is medium-bodied and aromatic. Puerto Rican coffee offers a balance of body and acidity with fruity notes.
African coffees are fruity and floral and do best with a light to medium roast, so their regional flavor can shine. Kenyan coffee produces a coffee with citrus or spicy notes, and some say it has a dried fruit undertone.
Washed Ethiopian coffees combine lemony notes with some floral tones, almost like a tea. Dry-processed Ethiopian coffee has a distinct blueberry flavor and aroma. It may even give hints of grape or strawberry flavor.
Burundi coffee delivers hints of chocolate and vanilla, which make it an excellent choice for coffee drinks or drinking with desserts.
The Ivory Coast produces most of the world’s Robusta types of coffee beans, which has low acidity and bold aroma, it makes an excellent espresso.
Asian coffee is earthy and sometimes bitter, making it a good choice for darker roasts. It makes a full-bodied cup of coffee. Yemen produced the first commercial coffee and even today, the arid conditions produce a rich flavor with a lot of depth.
Coffee from Java has woody notes. Sumatran coffee is earthy, with smoky tones. Coffee grown in India is spicy with a heavy body and low acidity. Vietnam has recently entered the market with its Robusta beans, which manufacturers frequently use in blended coffees.
Which Types of Coffee Beans Are Best
Like wines, there are no best coffee beans. Each type of bean and each type of roast is up to your personal preferences. Even different regions produce coffee with subtle differences, and your choices may vary from occasion or even time of day. For example, you may prefer a light roasted coffee for mornings when you want a higher caffeine coffee. After supper, you may prefer a small cup of French roast with dessert.
Now that you understand a bit more about the different types of coffee beans, however, you’re in a position to make an informed buying decision about which coffees you might prefer. Feel free to try different types of coffee beans and different roasts. Hopefully, you also find a wealth of sample-size packages to try them out. This makes it much easier to find the types of coffee beans that are best for you and your palate.