If you’re reading this, you’ll no doubt have a love of coffee like me and look forward to your first steaming aromatic cup of the day. But how much do you know about coffee? What do you know about the different types of beans and the history behind them?
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Types of coffee beans
While there are thought to be around 100 species of the ‘Coffea’, there are only two main types of coffee beans that make up almost all of today’s coffee market, namely the Arabica bean and the Robusta bean.
No matter what the type of coffee bean is, the growth process remains the same. The ‘Coffea’ tree bears fruit after around 3-5 years of maturing. Every season, a white flower blooms with a delicious scent of jasmine, then after a few weeks, the flowers fall and green coffee cherries appear, growing bigger and turning red. The actual bean sits inside the cherry, with layers of pulp and skin protection. When the cherries reach a rich ruby-red colour they are ready for harvesting and processing, where the beans are extracted from the fruit using different methods and are prepared for roasting.
The Arabica bean is by far the most popular type of bean and contributes to three quarters of the world’s coffee economy. This type of bean is most commonly cultivated in Central and South America (widely in Brazil) although good quality beans are also found in parts of Asia and Africa. Arabica beans are grown at high altitudes in cooler temperatures, and the higher they are grown, the better the taste. They take a bit longer to mature than other bean types which cause them to have a higher sugar content and this is one of the reasons why Arabica beans are so popular around the world.
Arabica beans are not restricted to one taste, as there are many varietals including Typica, Bourbon, Cattura, Gesha, Catimor and Ethiopian Heirloom. When I think of Arabica beans, I think of a range of flavours, from sharp and tangy, to sweet and soft. Some varietals are even fruity or give a chocolate taste. They are richly aromatic with a lighter body and a higher level of acidity compared to other beans. The diversity of flavours reflect the multiple varieties and countries of origin. Generally all of the best tasting coffees and the coffee you find at your local café will be from Arabica beans.
If you are drinking instant coffee right now while reading this, it is most likely made from Robusta beans. Taking up less than a quarter of the global coffee trade, Robusta beans grow faster and easier, and are more resilient to pests and disease. They are grown exclusively in the East, in the warmer temperatures and lower altitudes of Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia.
In my opinion Robusta beans have harsher and deeper earthy flavours, which may not be to everyone’s liking but are generally fine for those who are not too fussy about their coffee taste. Robusta beans have more than twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica beans, which gives a more bitter taste. They also have only half the amount of sucrose and I certainly notice the difference when changing between the two.
While Robusta is known for being of a lower quality than Arabica, the high end Robusta beans can taste just as good as lower end Arabica, but are generally used for cheaper supermarket coffee and instant coffee. Also used as a filler, back in the day roasters would add Robusta to their Arabica coffee in order to increase their profits at a reduced cost.
Current Coffee Trends
Most coffee aficionados will turn their nose up at the very thought of having a coffee produced from Robusta but now research has shown that it can taste just as good as an Arabica bean if the same time and care is spent on cultivating the beans as is done with the Arabica. Coffee giant Starbucks is now the world’s largest Robusta coffee bean purchaser and they are able to hide the undesirable characteristics of this type of bean by a process of over-roasting. Mass purchasing of a lower quality bean means more profits, whereas smaller roasters work with higher quality beans to bring out their full flavor, even if it does cost more. Big brand franchise cafes have built a following around offering specialty coffees, but they don’t always live up to expectations so more and more people are demanding quality brews and are giving their money to boutique roasters.
As hybrid plants of Arabica and Robusta have been developed which will carry the varietals of Arabica and the disease combatting agents of the Robusta, I think it will be interesting to see what happens with coffee, the market and people’s tastes over the next decade or two.
Whatever your coffee tastes and preferences, I hope this has given you an insight into the background of coffee and the types of beans that are used. Something to think about when you are enjoying your next cup.
History of Coffee
We can owe our coffee addictions to an Ethiopian goat herder called Kaldi back in the 11th century. After eating berries from a tree, which we now know as the ‘Coffea’, Kaldi’s goats had surges of energy and were unable to sleep through the night as they normally did. Kaldi shared his observations with the monks at a local monastery who used the berries to make a drink and discovered that they too were kept awake late at night. News of this energising drink got around and made it east to the Arabian Peninsula where coffee cultivation and trade really took off.
By the 16th century, coffee was being grown in Yemen, Turkey, Persia, Syria and Egypt. Public coffee houses began to appear in cities around the Peninsula and were a place for people to come together to socialize, listen to music, play games, share information, and of course, drink coffee. Pilgrims that came to Mecca got their first taste of the ‘wine of Araby’ and word got out even further.
Coffee made its way to Europe by the 17th century and with it came the buildout of coffee houses across the continent, which were also used as communication and social activity centres. Before the discovery of coffee, beer and wine were the common breakfast beverages in Europe but were soon replaced. After drinking coffee in the morning, workers found that they felt more awake and ready for the day and therefore their productivity increased. I believe they thought that coffee was a blessing.
With the new found love of coffee spreading around the world, many countries wanted to get in on cultivating their own coffee. The Dutch failed in their attempts to grow the beans in India, but later found success on islands in Indonesia. The Mayor of Amsterdam presented a coffee plant to the King of France in 1714 who planted it in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. A naval officer took a seedling from this plant and transported it to the island of Martinique, where more than 18 million coffee trees were grown over the next 50 years. Little did anyone know, that this seedling would be the parent for all coffee trees planted in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Brazilians had tried to get their hands on their own seedlings from the French, but were refused. A very handsome Portuguese man had traveled to French Guiana to obtain the seeds, and luckily his good looks won the heart of a French Governor’s wife who secretly passed some coffee seeds onto him to take back to Brazil. Brazil now has a billion dollar industry and is responsible for a third of the world’s coffee production.
Coffee trees continued to be planted around the world, with traders, colonists and travelers carrying seeds with them to all corners of the globe. While some crops were short lived due to climate and environment conditions, many crops flourished high in mountain terrains or in tropical forests and the coffee economy was responsible for establishing new nations. Coffee is now the second most sort after commodity in the world.