By Erin Marissa Russell
Ready to learn all about the four main types of coffee beans? It seems like the more you delve into the world of coffee, the more there is to learn. From different levels of roast to different preparation methods, there’s a whole world of information that can get you closer to the perfect cup. Here’s a guide to the four main types of coffee beans out there to help you choose the coffee you’re going to enjoy drinking the most.
Arabica Coffee Beans (Coffea arabica)
Arabica coffee beans are the most common variety and likely the one you’re most used to drinking. An estimated 60 percent of the coffee production in the world is devoted to Arabica beans.
This coffee bean variety has an ancient history. Arabica coffee beans originated centuries ago in Ethiopia’s highlands, but experts believe they first became popular during the seventh century in Arabia—which is where they got their name.
Despite being so common, Arabica coffee beans aren’t the easiest variety to grow. This variety of coffee bean tree is especially susceptible to plant diseases. Because they can be complicated to cultivate, although they’re widespread, Arabica coffee beans aren’t always the cheapest option out there. This is because when lots of the trees are grown close together (as is the case with commercial coffee growing operations), disease can sweep through the field and result in outbreaks that put a major dent in the expected harvest.
Arabica coffee bean trees rely a lot on their environment being just right to grow healthy and strong. They must be grown in regions of high altitude that receive a steady amount of rain, where there’s plenty of shade to protect the plants. Attempting to grow Arabica coffee bean trees outside of these regions can mean the gardener must put in double the amount of work it would take to raise Arabica coffee bean trees in a more hospitable region.
The trees that produce Arabica coffee beans are smaller than other varieties, normally topping out at around six feet high. This more compact size makes Arabica coffee bean trees less of a hassle to prune than others, and it’s also easier to harvest the beans from these smaller trees.
You’ll often see Arabica coffee beans being sold by premium coffee companies. A good Arabica coffee should be easy to drink, without a lot of the bitterness that’s distasteful to some consumers. The flavor of Arabica coffee is noticeably smooth, with a complex blend of nuanced flavors and aromas layered one on top of the other. Arabica coffee beans are known for having a particularly bright body balanced with just the right amount of acidity. The taste of Arabica coffee beans is best experienced on the front palate so you get the most out of this bean’s salinity and sweetness.
If you’re choosing an Arabica blend, look for one that’s described as having low acidity and a full-bodied flavor. The recommended method for serving an Arabica coffee is hot and black. Chilling or icing the coffee will reduce the flavor of Arabica coffee beans, as will adding creamer to the coffee. A pour-over or drip preparation is the best way to enjoy Arabica coffee beans.
Excelsa Coffee Beans (Coffea liberica var. Dewevrei or Coffea excelsa)
The classification of Excelsa coffee beans has recently changed, bringing them under the same family as Liberica beans. However, these two varieties have substantial differences—so much so that many coffee drinkers out there still consider Excelsa a completely separate species. Excelsa coffee bean trees were re-categorized under the Liberica genus because, like the Liberica variety, Excelsa coffee bean trees are large (20 to 30 feet tall). They also flourish at altitudes similar to Liberica coffee bean trees and share the same shape, which resembles an almond.
Excelsa does not make up a substantial portion of the world’s coffee consumption. In fact, only seven percent of the coffee produced on a global scale is an Excelsa variety. Excelsa coffee beans are most frequently put to use in a blend, paired with beans from other varieties. The Excelsa beans spark stronger flavor and add more complexity and nuance to the blends they’re included in.
Excelsa coffee is best experienced at the middle and back of the palate. Like a light roast in many ways, Excelsa coffee beans have a fruity, tart body. Simultaneously (though it may seem incongruent), Excelsa also provides the depth and well-roasted flavor we associate with a dark roast. This complex and seemingly contradictory flavor encourages coffee aficionados to seek out the hard-to-find Excelsa coffee beans so they can experience the taste for themselves.
Liberica Coffee Beans (Coffea liberica)
Liberica coffee beans aren’t as commonly consumed in North America and Europe as the other varieties. However, it’s worth pointing out that these markets make up just two percent of all the coffee sold worldwide.
Liberica coffee beans are especially popular and common in the Philippines. However, almost all the Liberica coffee beans on the market come from Malaysia. In the year 1890, a huge portion of the world’s Arabica beans (more than 90 percent) fell victim to the plant disease coffee rust. The Liberica coffee bean came to the rescue as farmers searched for an alternative crop.
Because coffee growers in the Philippines were the first to start producing Liberica beans, for a while the Philippines benefited from being the sole coffee supplier worldwide, boosting the country’s economy. This came to an end when the Philippines declared independence from their American colonizers, which led to the U.S. cutting off supplies from the newly independent country.
Liberica coffee beans fell off the map somewhat until 1995. Coffee conservationists rounded up the few remaining Liberica coffee bean trees out there and moved them back to the Philippines, where the environment was more conducive to their growth. However, by this time Arabica beans had secured their spot as the world’s number one coffee bean. That’s why even to this day, it can be something of a challenge to find coffee made up solely of Liberica beans.
The beans from Liberica coffee trees have an asymmetrical shape and larger size than other coffee bean varieties. The irregular shape and size of these beans makes them quite different from others on the market. Liberica beans are also noted for their individual aroma, which has a full body paired with floral, smoky, and fruity flavors.
The taste of Liberica coffee beans is so different from other varieties that some coffee drinkers don’t think Liberica coffee tastes like coffee at all, especially due to the woody flavors Liberica beans can create. The taste of Liberica coffee can vary somewhat from brew to brew. You won’t get the exact same experience from one batch of Liberica coffee to another. At times the flavor of Liberica coffee can be floral, while on other occasions it tastes woody or contains smoky notes. Liberica can sometimes have a harshness to its taste, more so than other varieties.
Robusta Coffee Beans (Coffea caniphora)
Robusta is the second most common variety of coffee bean, only bypassed by Arabica beans in popularity. These beans were named for how healthy and resistant to diseases the plants are, in contrast to the more delicate Arabica coffee bean plants. Because they’re easier to grow, Robusta coffee beans tend to be an affordable choice.
An especially warm climate with irregular levels of rainfall is required to grow Robusta coffee bean trees. However, this variety of coffee bean tree isn’t particular about the altitude it’s grown at and can flourish at just about any height. Robusta coffee beans come from sub-Saharan Africa. This part of the world is still where most of our Robusta coffee beans are grown, as well as Indonesia.
Robusta coffee is known for being high in caffeine. This coffee bean variety contains almost twice as much caffeine as the popular Arabica coffee bean. In fact, it’s the high level of caffeine that makes Robusta coffee bean trees so healthy and easy to grow. In addition to perking us up, the caffeine content serves as the plant’s first line of defense against illness.
When choosing a Robusta coffee bean, select a variety with packaging that provides information about where and how the coffee beans were grown. Equipped with the information you now have about the best environments for growing Robusta beans, you’ll be able to spot when this variety has been shoehorned into a region that isn’t the best place for the plants.
Farmers encouraged by the wide appeal and popularity of Robusta coffee beans sometimes try to grow Robusta coffee bean trees in places that aren’t really conducive to producing the best possible product. When this happens, Robusta coffee beans can end up having a rubbery flavor (never what one wants in their morning cup of coffee) or a flatness to their aroma. That’s why you should steer clear of Robusta coffee beans that are grown outside their comfort zone.
In juxtaposition to the smoother Arabica bean, the flavor of Robusta coffee beans can be a bit harsher, with a touch of bitterness. Perhaps that’s the reason this bean is often used in combination with other varieties as part of a blend, especially in Vietnamese coffee. As a rule, most instant coffee preparations are made up solely of Robusta coffee beans.
The best place to experience the taste of Robusta coffee beans is on the back palate, which brings out the complexity of this variety’s bitter notes and pulls the bitterness to the forefront. Robusta beans are appreciated for their full-bodied flavor, which can contain notes of chocolate and has low levels of acidity. Robusta makes an excellent choice for coffee drinkers who enjoy adding cream or sugar to their beverage. Unlike some other coffee bean varieties, the taste of Robusta coffee beans does not suffer when these elements are added to the cup.
Now you’ve learned just about everything a coffee enthusiast needs to know about the four major coffee bean varieties. Next time you’re browsing the coffee aisle, try putting what you’ve learned here into practice. Seek out the more elusive Excelsa or Liberica varieties, or look for a blend that contains these less common types of coffee beans, so you can compare their flavors to the Arabica and Robusta beans you’re likely more familiar with. You may just find a whole new type of coffee to seek out as your favorite brew.