I’m always talking about coffee, but in this post I’m specifically talking about coffee beans, and what you need to know about them as a speciality coffee drinker.
Just to make the distinction, between a coffee drinker and a speciality coffee drinker: Liking or loving coffee is one thing, but being a lover of speciality coffee is something else.
This doesn’t mean coffee snob, by the way, I don’t like that term. The definition of a snob is someone who regards themselves as having a higher social position than someone else based on what they have or what they do. When someone says ‘I’m a coffee snob”, they’re actually saying that they think they occupy a higher rung of the social ladder due to their taste in coffee, and that’s ‘proper cringe’, in my opinion. Also people who would class themselves as coffee snobs aren’t necessarily drinking speciality coffee. I’ve heard of people refer themselves as coffee snobs because they buy the most expensive instant coffee, or because they drink freshly brewed pre-ground supermarket coffee beans.
Being a speciality coffee enthusiast doesn’t mean being a snob, it simply means thinking of coffee as being more than simply a drink which provides caffeine, and enjoying the very best that coffee has to offer; specially grown and processed, specially selected, specially roasted and specially brewed ground coffee beans.
Once you start enjoying freshly roasted, freshly ground and freshly brewed high quality coffee, most people will find that it becomes less of a means to an end, and more of a hobby. Speciality coffee drinkers tend to be enthusiasts, in a similar way to people who’re into fine wine as opposed to people who just drink it in order to feel merry.
If you were to say to a fine wine buff ‘wine is just wine, it’s made from grapes’, they would emphatically disagree with you, and probably walk away in disgust ;-). There are so many different grapes, so many different regions, so many different blends, and vintages and so on – none of which would have meant much to me in my late teens when I thought wine and all other alcoholic drinks were supposed to taste either like crap, or like fizzy pop, and were just a means to an end, to become as inebriated as possible.
It’s the same with coffee, and this is what I wanted to really get across in this post. If you think coffee beans are just coffee beans, then you have so much to discover about coffee! 🙂
Often when I tell people I blog about coffee, and the person I’m talking to is either not a coffee drinker, or hasn’t yet been introduced to the world of speciality coffee, they will look at me expressionless, and reply – what is there to blog about? Well, there’s a heck of a lot to blog about, as there is a heck of a lot to speciality coffee.
As usual with my posts, if you’re a coffee expert you’re going to be way ahead of me here, as I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’m someone who is very much enjoying learning more about coffee and sharing what I’ve discovered. If you’re also on the voyage of improving your coffee experience and knowledge from the beginner / novice level, then hopefully you’ll find this useful.
They’re Not Actually Coffee Beans.
The first thing to say about coffee beans, is that they’re not actually beans. I know I say this in quite a few of my posts, so apologies if I’m getting repetitive, but it’s something which comes as a surprise to many people, and it’s a good bit of useless knowledge to annoy your friends with.
They’re seeds, from the fruit of coffee plants, and while all beans are seeds, only seeds which are a member of a particular family (Fabaceae, AKA Leguminosae) are actually beans. So while we call them beans, that’s technically incorrect – not that it actually matters.
This isn’t as shocking as the fact that Cashews aren’t nuts! Cashews are also seeds, of the cashew apple! That’s just bizarre, especially when you consider just how many cashew fruits are used to make a bag of cashew nuts. It explains why they’re so expensive I suppose.
Coffee Trees / Plants
Coffee cherries grow on small trees / shrubs of the Coffea Genus.
If you’re in to botanical stuff, you might be interested to discover that there are 124 species of the “Coffea” genus, which is a member of the Rubiacea family. Other plants in the Rubiacea family include shrubs, trees and herbs, and there are loads of them!
See Rubiaceae the plant list if you want to know more.
There is also Liberica which grows on huge trees (up to 20 metres tall) and there is Excelsa which is now classed as a variety of Liberca, but most of the coffee beans that you’ll come across will be Arabica or Robusta, or a blend of the two.
Arabica & Robusta
The two main species of coffee you will usually have available to you, are Arabica and Robusta. The majority of coffee beans used for speciality coffee are Arabica, and Robusta is often included in espresso blends along with Arabica.
Instant coffee is more often than not a blend of Arabica and Robusta. Good luck if you want to know what the % is, I’ve contacted most instant coffee companies as I wanted to know, none would share that info, and one of the big brands admitted that they can’t tell me as they don’t know.
There are some brands of instant which are 100% Arabica, but unless you’re buying a coffee which is specifically advertised as so, it’s likely to be a blend.
Robusta is more hardy, less susceptible to disease such as leaf rust, it can be grown at much lower elevations, and it is generally cheaper to produce. In terms of taste, Robusta is known generally speaking as having a very strong taste that is too much on it’s own for most palates, but when blended with Arabica it can give a nice kick & helps to produce a good espresso crema. Robusta is generally higher in caffeine than Arabica, up to double.
Watch this space though when it comes to Robusta, as there is a push to develop the fine Robusta market. The UCDA (Uganda Coffee Development Authority) have created CORE (Center of Robusta Excellence), a training and research institute for fine Robusta. The plan is to bring together key coffee folk from Africa and the rest of the world, to work together to increase the quality and value of Robusta and improve its image within the world of speciality coffee.
Arabica grows at much higher elevations, especially the trees which grow the higher quality beans. It’s a far more varied thanks to the many different coffee tree varieties, and depending on the bean, where it’s grown and how it’s processed, you can get a very wide range of different taste profiles from Arabica.
When it comes to Arabica, there are lots of different plants that are known in the industry as varietals. These are different breeds of Arabica, just as there are different breeds of dogs and cats, some of which are natural, and some of which have been cultivated (which technically speaking are known as cultivars). The range of varietals is one of the things I love about coffee, as it means there is so much variety, especially since varietals are also blended.
Bourbon, Typica, Catimor, Beisha, Catuai… there are lots of them, all with different characteristics. I’m not an expert though, so if you want to learn more about varietals I’d recommend Has Bean’s list & description of varietals.
The origin is of course where the coffee beans have come from, and they come from dozens of countries which fall within what is regarded as the “coffee belt” or “bean belt”, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Coffee origins include Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Columbia, Vietnam, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua,Bolivia, Zambia, Indonesia … for a full list see my post where is coffee from.
When you read the word ‘single origin’ on coffee beans, it means that the beans have all come from the same coffee growing origin as opposed to beans which have come from all over the place and lumped together.
Careful though, as this is a trick retailers can use to increase the perceived value. Just because you see ‘single origin’ on a bag of whole or ground beans in a supermarket doesn’t necessarily mean it’s decent coffee.
Coffee growing regions are usually pretty huge, and single origin doesn’t mean it’s come from the same farm or cooperative, and it doesn’t mean they’re high quality beans either. You can get very high quality single origin beans of course, and you can also source a more commodity grade of coffee bean from within one region, put it in a fancy package, be clever with branding, and sell it like hot cakes via supermarket shelves.
The altitude that the coffee is grown at, makes a big difference to the resulting coffee. Arabica is usually grown at over 1000 metres above sea level. Higher altitudes tend to develop characterful exciting tasting coffee, whereas lower altitudes tend to produce less interesting more bland tasting coffee.
This is mainly true with Arabica, while Robusta is usually grown at much lower altitudes.
Coffee Cherry Anatomy
The outer skin of the coffee cherry is known as the exocarp, and then within this is the flesh, which is known as mesocarp or mucilage, then and then parchment, also known as the hull or endocarp.
Coffee Seed Anatomy
Seeds are more complex than most people realise, and have a lot in common with the seeds of animals. Seeds are, after all, for growing a new plant, and they work in a similar way to a hens egg for example.
After the parchment, there is the silverskin, the correct name for which is ‘spermoderm’, I know, it doesn’t sound great! ;-), lets call it silverskin! This surrounds the seed, and is what we tend to call chaff, the papery bits that usually end up to some degree in our ground coffee.
Then there is the main bean part, the correct name for which is endosperm, which again doesn’t sound great, so lets just call this the bean…
This makes up the bulk of what we know as the coffee bean, and is there to provide nutrition for the plant embryo in the same way that egg yolk provides nutrition to the developing chick embryo. Finally, the we have the tiny plant embryo, which is surrounded by the nutritious endosperm.
The reason I wanted to say a bit about anatomy of the coffee cherry first, is I think the processing methods make a bit more sense when you know a bit about how a coffee cherry is made up.
Once the cherries are picked, they need processing in order to separate the coffee beans from the outer skin, mucilage, silverskin and parchment.
Processing involves getting rid of anything you don’t want so you’re left only with ripe coffee cherries, and then going from ripe cherry, to dry coffee beans (seeds), parchment removed ready to bag up.
There are three main processes for doing this, washed, pulped natural / honey processed, and natural – and the way the coffee is processed makes a difference to the resulting cup of coffee.
Pulp Natural or Honey Processed. This process originated in Brazil in the late 80s / early 90s, and is also known as the peeled cherry process. After separating the picked coffee cherries so they’re left with just ripe cherries, they’re de-pulped via machinery, to remove the flesh. The honey process refers to this process while leaving more of the flesh on the seed. They’re then dried in the sun, either on coffee drying patios, or on raised beds, before being hulled, which means going though a hulling machine to remove the parchment layer.
Natural / Dry Process. The majority of the coffee from Brazil, Indonesia and Ethiopia is processed this way, and nearly all Robusta is also dry processed. As with the above process, they’re sorted first to remove anything other than ripe coffee cherries. This is usually done by hand, with big sieve / colander type things. They’re then dried in the sun with the flesh left on the seed, which can take up to a month. With this process, the final hulling step removes not just the parchment, but the dried cherry flesh too.
Washed process. The sorting is done with this process by floating the cherries in water, and removing the stuff which floats, which tends to be anything unwanted, including unripe cherries. They’re then de-pulped as with pulp natural, and are moved into large tanks of water, and are left for between one to two days usually. It’s then dried either on drying patios or raised beds as with the other processes, and then hulled to remove the parchment layer. In some cases this process is done using machinery to scrub the mucilage from the seed instead of leaving them in water, particularly in areas where water is scarce, although it has been adopted in many areas due to the other benefits of this method which include the reduced chance of contamination.
Coffee beans are imported in their green state, and then when it comes to speciality coffee, they’re roasted in small batches, by what are known as small batch roasters, Micro roasters or artisan coffee roasters. I don’t use the word artisan usually as I don’t personally think it’s quite the right term for roasters, but they’re often referred to as artisan or micro roasters. Similar to micro breweries they’re often very small businesses or at least start that way, and are usually roaster owned businesses, some are even home based roasters.
The difference between a specialist small batch roaster by the way and a bulk roaster, is that roasting coffee beans in huge bulk is an activity that is associated with the first and second wave of coffee, industries which put more emphasis on price than quality. The third wave of coffee which is known as speciality coffee, is about getting the very best that coffee has to offer, and having huge roasters and roasting beans in large volumes isn’t conducive to getting the very best from the coffee beans.
Buying coffee beans
The very best way to buy coffee beans in my opinion, is directly from the roaster. See the list of coffee roasters in UK and Ireland, and take your pick, there are around 350 to choose from!
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