The Ultimate Guide to Coffee Beans

Without the humble coffee bean there wouldn’t be a lot for me to write about on Viva Flavor!

The story of how we got to this point is a fascinating one though, and I wanted to put together a comprehensive article that covers the subject in detail.

Where did they come from? How are they grown? What are the different types of bean?

The answers are all contained in this article. I’ve also included some essential tips on how to store your beans to keep them as fresh as the day they were picked.

The Origins of the Coffee Bean

There’s a lot of folklore that lies behind just how we came to drink coffee. The most popular legend relates to a humble 15th century Ethiopian goat herder called Kaldi.

According to the myth, Kaldi noticed that his goats became rather excitable after eating the berries from a particular tree. We now know this tree to be the coffea flowering plant from the Rubiaceae family.

After reporting his findings, the abbot of a local monastery tried brewing the drink. He quickly discovered its beneficial effects on humans, and from this the humble cup of coffee was born.

By the 16th century, coffee was being drunk across the Middle East. As pilgrims made their way to Mecca, they returned home with news of this delicious drink.

Slowly, the popularity of the coffee bean spread throughout Europ. Eventually it made its first appearance in New York towards the middle of the 17th century.

The rest is history. As more and more people came in contact with coffee, its popularity grew exponentially.

We might consider the global dominance of Starbucks – along with artisan coffee houses – to be the “end-game” of the coffee bean.

History suggests we’ll see some more twists and turns before the bean’s finished its journey though!

A sack of coffee beans

The Different Types of Coffee Bean

There are actually four different types of coffee bean: Aribica, Robusta, Liberica and Excelsa.

The first two of these are by far the most popular, although the latter still have their fans.

Here are a few quick facts about each type:

Arabica

  • The most popular bean, accounting for around 60% of all consumption.
  • Grown at high altitudes.
  • More acidic than Robusta beans.
  • Very commonly used in your local coffee shop.

Robusta

  • The next most popular coffee bean, frequently found in instant coffee
  • Often used in coffee blends too.
  • Hardy, as the name suggests, making it easier to farm.
  • A more bitter flavour overall.

Liberica

  • Produced exclusively in the Phillippines.
  • Creates coffee with a smoky taste.
  • Became an essential Arabica replacement in the late 1800s due to a fast-spreading Arabica disease.

Excelso

  • Represents less than 10% of coffee bean production.
  • Grown in Southeast Asia.
  • Closely related to Liberica beans, but still having a distinct taste of their own.
  • Commonly used in blends to increase the complexity of the flavor.

Robusta v Arabica

What separates the two most popular beans from each other, then?

Appearance

You’ll be able to tell a Robusta bean from an Arabica bean simply enough.

Arabica beans take an oval shape, whereas Robusta beans are closer to a round shape.

If you’ve the good fortune to visit an equatorial coffee farm in the wild, the Robusta bean plant grows to nearly twice the height of the Arabica plant. That high yield makes them very popular with farmers.

Taste

As a general rule, most people prefer the taste of Arabica beans.

The resulting cup is a little sweeter and softer. They have high acidity too, which hits your taste buds with a wallop.

There’s more caffeine in Robusta, which is great for those of you who need a massive injection of caffeine first thing.

In fact, you can expect to find around twice as much caffeine in Robusta than in Arabica, so you can see what a difference that makes!

The flipside? It makes the flavor much more bitter. Overall it’s a harsher experience although by no means not without its pleasures.

Aroma

According to Coffee Chemistry, Arabica beans contain around 60% more lipids than Robusta beans.

Why does this matter? Well, lipids ensure that the aroma of the coffee is better maintained after brewing.

Given the strong connection between our taste and our smell senses, it’s no surprise that an Arabica brew results in a more flavorful cup of coffee.

Cost

As a general rule of thumb, Robusta beans are cheaper to buy than Arabica.

The reason for this is that they cost less to produce, as the increased caffeine in the bean acts as a natural deterrent to pests. That means the farmers get a higher yield, from a taller tree that’s generally easier to grow.

Some of that saving is, in turn, trickles down to you as the consumer.

So, which is better?

If flavor is your main consideration, Arabica beans tend to produce a more intense experience – albeit at a more intense hit to your wallet.

If you want a comparable Robusta brew, you’ll need to pay a premium for the experience.

If instant coffee is a part of your daily drinking habit, you’re most likely enjoying Robusta beans. With that said, some blends do include the Robusta bean to help balance the flavor out.

As with all things, it’s a question of taste. I recommend you start exploring Arabica beans, as you’re guaranteed to find something that knocks your socks off. Don’t be afraid to experiment with Robusta once you’ve developed your palette though.

A wide shot of a coffee roasting machine

How are coffee beans grown and roasted?

The world’s coffee is grown in something that’s known as the bean belt.

This tropical region lies between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. As a result it provides the optimal growing conditions for the plants.

The plants themselves can grow up to 20 feet tall and have a white flower that leads to the emergence of those juicy beans.

Once ready for harvesting, the beans are typically picked by hand due to their delicate nature. It’s also difficult to get the kind of machinery required for this job to the growing location!

After this, they are dried out using one of two different methods.

Either the best of the beans are separated from the rest using water, or they’re left to dry naturally in the sun.

The latter is considered more ecologically-friendly, as the wet process creates a huge amount of waste.

Once dried, the coffee beans are then milled to ensure the bean is fully separated from the rest of the flower.

Finally, the beans are separated into categories of size and color, then exported to suppliers for roasting.

How is coffee roasted?

Before the coffee gets to your cup, it needs to be roasted. As it’s heated to high temperatures, the full flavor and aroma of the bean is released, resulting in that unique taste.

First the heating process turns the bean from its natural green color to varying degrees of brown. This is where the concept of medium or dark roasts comes in.

It’s a careful balancing act though, as a bean that’s roasted too much will essentially turn to ash. A lightly roasted bean, on the other hand, doesn’t pack as much of a punch.

Once roasted, the beans are then either cooled in a vacuum or quenched with water. Next, they’re packaged as quickly as possible to ensure no flavor is lost.

Who produces the most coffee?

According to Investopedia, the following five countries produce the bulk of the world’s coffee.

Here’s how the numbers look based on the latest figures from 2018. All measurements are in Metric Tons [MT]:

  • Brazil: 3.05 million MT
  • Vietnam: 1.76 million MT
  • Colombia: 864,000 MT
  • Indonesia: 636,000 MT
  • Honduras: 450,000 MT

Interesting side note: Hawaii and California are the only states in the United States that produce coffee plants for commercial use. The US territory of Puerto Rico also has a thriving coffee industry.

How are coffee beans decaffeinated?

Caffeine is a naturally occurring component of the coffee bean, and it’s extremely difficult to get every last scrap of the compound out.

In that way it’s a little like the average “alcohol-free” beer.

In the case of the coffee bean, the USDA requires the brew to be 97% caffeine-free to qualify for the label.

In Europe things are tougher. Roasted coffee beans require 99.9% caffeine removal, while instant coffee gets off the hook – comparatively – at 99.7%.

Decaffeination starts while the coffee bean is in its raw state. It’s then subjected to the following process:

  • The green beans are swollen using water or steam.
  • Either water, a solvent, or activated carbon is then applied to the mix to extract the caffeine from the beans
  • The caffeine that’s released is drained from the container.
  • The process is then repeated as many times as is necessary to “fully” decaffeinate the coffee beans.
  • Once the decaffeination process has finished, the beans are then dried until they have the same moisture levels as they started with.

The exact methods can be quite complicated and involve complex chemical interactions. That’s the simple answer though.

How to store coffee beans properly

Regardless of the bean type you prefer, it’s vital that you store them correctly.

As the National Coffee Association explains, it’s crucial that you protect your coffee beans from the four great coffee perils: air, moisture, heat and light.

All will affect the quality of the coffee bean over time, which will result in a sub-optimal cup of coffee.

Make sure you’re storing the beans in an airtight container, one that’s not exposed to direct sunlight, and can rest at room temperature.

That means avoiding any storage area that’s close to sources of heat, such as your kitchen oven or microwave! Steam will also contain moisture, so consider things like kettles and – yes – coffee brewers.

Wherever you buy your coffee from, chances are the supplier won’t have invested a great deal of money in the packaging.

As soon as you’ve purchased your beans, pop them in an airtight storage canister that’s been specially designed for the purpose.

They don’t cost a lot of money, and if you’re serious about your coffee I think it’s worth the extra investment. If you really want to take care of your beans, consider using a ceramic container. That way they won’t absorb any plastic chemicals.

Another way to maintain freshness is to reduce the amount of coffee you stock. As tempting as it is to stuff your larder with all your favourite beans, consider buying less of them at any given time.

Once a coffee bean has been roasted, it starts to lose flavour. You’re on a ticking clock in terms of freshness here.

If you buy just enough beans to last you a couple of weeks though, you’ll notice very little degradation in the quality of the coffee you brew.

To freeze or not to freeze?

Many people claim that freezing coffee beans is a good way to preserve them. Personally I would rather buy less, more often. That’s the best way to ensure your beans remain fresh.

If you are going to go down this route though, then you absolutely must invest in an airtight container.

Any moisture that gets into the container will damage the beans over time. I probably don’t need to tell you that there’s a lot of moisture in the average freezer! You should avoid storing them in the fridge too, as the beans will suck up all the other aromas over time.

Some coffee fanatics also recommend putting one or two plastic bags around the beans before putting them in the canister for freezing. That will act as a further barrier to any moisture working its way in.

When it comes to taking the beans out, only open the container for as long as it takes to grab a top-up. You might also consider storing them in daily or weekly portions so they only thaw once.

However you go about it, make sure you quickly reseal the container and put it back on ice. Check the lids on properly too!

Storing pre-ground coffee

A bean that’s been roasted loses flavour quite quickly. A bean that’s been roasted and ground down loses flavor even faster.

This is because the bean itself provides a protective shell, and once you’ve smashed it open it’s only a matter of time until the quality degrades.

Take extra care with your pre-ground coffee, in other words, and double down on the precautions covered in this guide.

How do I know if my coffee beans are stale?

Even with your best efforts, it’s likely that coffee beans stored for more than a month or two will lose a lot of their flavor.
Here are some tell-tale signs that your beans are well beyond their best:

  • Aroma: If your beans are less pungent than before, it’s time to get some fresh stock in
  • Gloss: Fresh beans have a glossy appearance thanks to the rich oils still in place. Once they’ve dulled, they’ve lost that richness.
  • Feel: For the same reason, stale beans will not leave any kind of oil residue after handling.
  • Taste: The worst way to find out! If you’ve brewed your beans and the flavor isn’t what it used to be, you’ve kept your beans too long.

As annoying as it can be to have a bunch of beans go bad, they still have their uses!

Consider using them for something like cold brew coffee instead, as they’ll still impart a tremendous flavor during this process.

Close up of green coffee beans

What’s the big deal about green beans?

In recent years the health world has been abuzz with talk about the benefits of green beans, and it’s a subject that’s not without its controversies.

I’m not a doctor – and Viva Flavor is not a site about health – so we’ll just cover the basics of how they (supposedly) work. We’ll leave the rest to your own judgement and further research.

In simple terms, raw coffee beans contain compounds called chlorogenic acids.

As the coffee beans are roasted, they gradually lose these acids. Hence, unroasted green beans are considered the best possible source of chlorogenic acid.

Many believe this acid is beneficial for a variety of issues including weight loss and blood pressure control.

Where things get tricky is in the quality and quantity of the research that backs up these benefits.

The hype kicked off around 2012, and since then only a small quantity of short-term research has been conducted to verify what are often far-reaching claims.

If you’re curious to find out more, I recommend reading the related article on WebMD. If you’re concerned about your health, please see your doctor before taking any supplements!

Wrapping Up

There you go! That’s everything you could possibly want to know about the humble coffee bean, from how its produced to how you should care for it when it arrives in your kitchen.

If I’ve missed anything, let me know your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out.

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