Behind coffee’s several origins and roasts are distinct types of coffee beans. There are particular kinds of coffee beans that have special origins. Today, there are three main coffee types that make up the global production. At least one of these impressive beans gives us the coffee we enjoy everyday!
A Brief History
So, how exactly did different types of coffee beans develop? This all has to do with the coffee plant and its evolution!
Legend has it that the first coffee plant was discovered in Ethiopia. A herder named Kaldi noticed his goats eating bright red berries from a unique bush. Suddenly, his goats were full of energy. Clearly, something special was hidden within these berries!
It all starts with coffea. Coffea is the genus or ‘mother’ to specific species of bushes and small trees that possess these red berries. In fact, these red berries are actually coffee cherries. Inside, you will find a seed, which is what we know as the coffee bean.
While coffea has roughly 100 species, only a few produce the coffee beans consumed today. Each has its own unique origins and growing conditions. And, you have definitely enjoyed at least two of them in your coffee before.
This is the world’s most popular coffee bean variety. Currently, Arabica beans make up the majority of world coffee bean production, at 60 to 70 percent. That means, if you are a coffee lover, you definitely consume Arabica coffee beans on a daily basis!
Arabica coffee species gained its name from its origins in Arabia. While Arabica most likely first appeared in Ethiopia, it was not until it reached Arabia that it became roasted and enjoyed as we know today. Arab scholars used arabica coffee beans to enhance and extend their workdays.
How Arabica Grows
Arabica coffee plants grow pretty tall, from 10 to 15 feet. Yet domesticated arabica plants only grow to about 6 feet tall. These plants can take up to 7 years to mature.
When it comes to growing Arabica beans, altitude is key. Arabica beans do best in higher altitudes, ranging anywhere between 3500 feet (1000 meters) to 6000 feet (1800 meters) high. This is ideal too because Arabica coffee plants love moderate climates. They cannot tolerate frost or extreme heat.
High altitude coffee farms tend to produce superiorly flavorful coffee beans. The cooler climate provides for a slower ripening process. This develops more complex flavors in the coffee cherry. Also, the arabica variety prefers well-drained soil. With less water in the soil, flavors in the cherry can concentrate even more.
Where Arabica Grows
Arabica coffee grows all over the world. With in the species, there are multiple arabica varieties that grow in specific countries.
Today, Brazil is the largest producer of Arabica coffee beans across the board. Yet, there are other smaller coffee-producing countries known particularly for their high altitude arabica beans. The best and most popular examples would be Ethiopia and Colombia.
Arabica Coffee Flavor
The Arabica coffee bean individually has a naturally smooth acidity and mild flavors. It lacks the most bitterness, as compared to other varieties. Its natural flavors do depend on a few key factors: location, altitude, and processing. The location’s altitude will of course influence the character of the bean. Arabica grows at lower altitudes too, which will change its flavor. These factors will typically produce a bean with brighter and fruiter notes. This results in beans that burst with flavor following a proper roasting process.
With this knowledge in mind, you can now grasp why some of your coffee bags are 100% arabica.
Robusta is the second most commonly cultivated coffee plants in the world. Scientifically speaking, its name is coffea canephora. It also originated in Ethiopia, although it has its own evolution.
The robusta coffee plant grows western and central Africa, where it has been grown for centuries. That is because this coffee plant thrives in a much different environment than its arabica counterpart. Robusta can tolerate much higher temperatures and flatter growing areas. These facets make robusta much more affordable to produce. It also can make the coffee bean’s quality lower.
How Robusta Grows
The robusta bean is admired for its resiliency and bounty. The plant itself matures very fast. Robusta matures in just about two years, much faster than the arabica species.
When growing this coffee plant, the cultivation location is very flexible. The robusta coffee plant survives in more places than one. It grows in a variety of conditions. That is why robusta can grow in arid parts of Central Africa – it can sustain itself through hot and harsh temperatures. Also, its increased caffeine content increases its resistance to pests and disease. This makes for a consistent crop.
The robusta coffee crop also produces a much smaller bean that arabica coffee cherries. This is makes robusta a little less desirable, as larger coffee beans often achieve higher quality statuses.
Where Robusta Grows
Currently, robusta comprises 30 to 40 percent of global coffee production. Not all coffee producing countries grow robusta. Robusta actually only grows in the Eastern hemisphere!
Vietnam is the largest producer of robusta coffee beans today. The country accounts for 40 percent of the total world production. Just behind is Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer period. Uganda is only the 5th largest producer, but it is home to indigenous coffea canephora plants. Just around Lake Victoria, there are several robusta plants said to be discovered in the 1800s. This coffee species makes up around 90 percent of Uganda’s coffee exports.
Robusta Coffee Flavor
Robusta naturally has a more bitter flavor and a higher caffeine content. Its flavors truly vary by the cultivation methods. Nonetheless, robusta beans tend to always have a very peanut-like taste.
Naturally, robusta contains nearly double the caffeine of arabica beans. Robusta contains up to 2.7 percent caffeine, while arabica beans have anywhere between 1.2 to 1.5 percent.
Robusta beans are often blended with Arabica beans to achieve a certain flavor profile. In this case, Arabica is almost always the majority of the blend. For a long time, some Italian espresso producers would incorporate some robusta into their blends. This resulted in a deeper and more bitter espresso brew with more caffeine!
You can still find 100 percent robusta coffees. While less common, they can be quite interesting to try.
This is the rarest coffee species. Liberica coffee cherries produce the largest coffee beans. This makes the plant very unique and desirable. It makes up barely 2 percent of worldwide coffee production.
Like the other coffee types, the Liberica coffee plant finds its origins in Africa. But, history brought Liberica to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In the 1800s, a devastating disease called ‘coffee rust’ destroyed the arabica crop is multiple coffee-producing countries. Liberica was the answer.
While most countries were resilient and resumed arabica production, some continued to produce Liberica beans. In particular, Malaysia produces mostly Liberica beans today. Nearly 95 percent of their coffee production is Liberica.
When it comes to how Liberica is grown, the plant’s history already hinted at the nature of this plant. Liberica can withstand pests and fungus. It also can handle hot temperatures. Both these elements make Liberica a very adaptable crop. In this manner, Liberica is clearly very resilient like its cousin robusta. The difference between the two, though, is that Liberica yields more large and fragrant beans.
Where Liberica Grows
Liberica coffee plants exist mostly in Borneo, parts of Indonesia, and Guyana. The quantities are very limited. Finding Liberica coffee can be quite challenging and pricey. However, it is well worth the investment, especially since wild Liberica coffee plants are in danger of extinction!
Liberica Coffee Flavor
The Liberica coffee plant’s rareness matches its bounty of flavor. Liberica is full-bodied and juicy. Its flavors are almost always on the sweeter side of the spectrum, with floral notes and even a bit of smokiness.
Also, Liberica coffee plants produce much larger seeds. These are known to reveal a higher quality roast and depth of flavor.
A Note on Coffee Varieties
While there are a concise number of coffee species, there are numerous coffee varietals out there as well. Varietals are a subcategory of the coffee species. Each varietal can tell you a little more about the character of the coffee bean.
Certain countries have their own unique varietals. For example, Colombia has the Variedad Colombia, which is a hybrid varietal specifically created in Colombia to improve coffee flavors. This gives Colombian coffee its own flair in a totally natural way.