Welcome to Coffee Beans 101

Steve GSeptember 4th, 2007
By: Steve G

Most people think coffee beans are all one and the same. The average coffee consumer does not have the time to question the quality of the beans used in their newly brewed cup of steaming coffee. However, what many people dont know is that the quality of the coffee mostly depends on the bean. The distinctive taste and aroma of the beans are affected by factors such as region, and the type of roasting.

There are two main species of coffee that are mainly used for the production of coffee: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephorea/robusta. Arabica beans come from three main regions: Africa, Asia and Central America. Beans of this species are susceptible to extremely hot and humid weather. They are best grown in environments that are warm, but not terribly hot or cold. These beans are usually grown at between 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.

It is widely believed that Coffea arabica is the species from which coffee was first created. As far as taste goes, Arabica beans have more flavor and aroma compared to Robusta beans. Most premium coffee shops carry Arabica beans. The other species, Coffea canephorea/robusta, does not have the long exalted history that Arabica carries. It was discovered only in the last 100 years and is cultivated mainly for its low production costs and hardier survivability. This species of coffee is grown in Africa, Brazil and Asia.

As for flavor, many people can attest to the wet cardboard taste of the Robusta bean. Because of its inferior flavor, Robusta is used in most of the instant coffees. The upside of the robusta bean is its use in espresso blends to help create crema (the foam overlaying the espresso shot), and the larger amount of caffeine in its content. Robusta beans have about double the amount of caffeine contained in Arabica beans.

Be wary of the type of beans that you purchase at the store or online. Both types of beans have their advantages and disadvantages. Which you select is really a matter of your particular preference.

Beans from different regions

Kenya

Most arabica beans from Africa are washed and are higher in sparkling acidity than any other beans in the world, except those from Costa Rica and Guatemala. Kenya beans have a blackberry or wine flavor but are sharply acidic with a sweet berry taste. Kenya beans incorporate the wet process, which is used by most in the world today. Kenya produces most of its beans through co-ops, rather than large coffee estates. Kenyan beans are noted as some of the best washed beans to hail from Africa, and are clearly defined by a very bright acidity and strong sweetness. The blackberry flavor of the beans from Kenya is only matched by that of the Ethiopian Harrar beans. Because of government support, Kenya has some of the highest standards in producing coffee.

Yemen and Ethiopia

Widely known for their Mocha blends, the beans from this region typically have a strong body and a fruity, winelike aromatic quality. The four beans from this region are the Harrar and Dijimmah from Ethiopia, and the Mattari and Sanani from Yemen. By far, the Harrar is the most sought-after bean of this region because of its blueberry flavor.

Incidentally, one of the fastest ways to identify these Mochas is by their extremely high prices. The reason for the high price is because these beans are extremely rare, and the process used in that region does not yield a large amount of beans. The beans are placed in thin layers and dried in the sun for about 10 to 14 days, before the excess parts of the cherries are removed. In other regions of the world, this process is considered an archaic way of producing coffee beans, but many believe that the process is the reason behind some the most intriguing coffee flavors in the world.

Indonesia

While African coffee has a wine-like and fruity taste, Indonesian coffee is very different. Most of the beans from Indonesia are dry-processed rather than washed. Similar to African beans, Indonesian beans have a wild raw flavor. But thats where the similarities end. Indonesian beans are characterized by an earthy mushroom type of flavor. The three types of Indonesian beans are Java, Sulawesi, and Sumatra (all are named after the region that they hail from). The Sulawesi bean is the rarest of the three, due to the scarcity of beans because of their type of processing.

India

Many people consider the beans grown in India as a poor mans Sumatra. While these beans are more plentiful and lower priced than Indonesia beans, they have yet to gain any notoriety with the roaster companies. This type is best described as very mellow with a bit of spiciness, and is probably the best alternative to the higher priced beans found in Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Costa Rica

People rave about the beans in Costa Rica as too perfect. Along with Guatemala, Costa Rica produces the best balance of coffee. Not overly acidic and with a body that is not overpowering, this coffee has been described as chocolate and smoky. In Europe, Costa Rican and Guatemalan beans are in very high demand. Usually hailing from Tres Rios, Dota or Tarrazu, the beans are packaged under one name (Tarrazu produces most of the beans). Costa Rican coffee beans undergo a more streamlined processing technique, so for those looking for a little adventure with some imperfections, Guatemalan beans are the way to go.

New Guinea

Many people characterize Papua New Guinea beans as similar to Indonesian beans, but they are mistaken because the type of processes used to produce the two different beans are completely different. Unlike Indonesian beans, the Papua beans are carefully washed in the wet process. They possess much of the body that is characteristic of Indonesian beans, but these beans have a sweet taste. Many people favor its strong body, which also makes it a great addition for espresso blends.

A sample of roasted coffee beans.
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