Coffee purchasing for your daily needs
Everybody loves the delight of their daily dose of coffee, but with the exception of the specialty coffee community, generally speaking, the average consumer rarely talks about coffee varieties and the origin or the quality of their drink; which is quite normal.
Whether it’s a cup as soon as you wake up, a quick cappuccino through the drive-through after work or even a nice relaxing mocha at the end of the day, lots of people appeal to coffee purchasing and consuming, not only as a stimulant but a part of life. If you’re an avid fresh coffee drinker, you’ve probably wondered just how many types of coffee there are and what makes them unique. But don’t worry, because we’re here to clear the air. If you want answers, we got them!
To begin, let’s first clear up any misunderstandings concerning the terms variety and varietal. If you’ve been a long-time coffee drinker, you’ve probably come across the terms before, but you might not know what they mean.
The variation of coffee is a classification phrase that refers to a unique subspecies or genetic composition of the coffee plant. The term varietal refers to the brew or product that results from a single coffee cultivar. There are original (naturally occurring) varieties, sub-varieties, mutations, interspecific hybrids, and infraspecific hybrids among coffee varieties.
Going deeper may certainly be intriguing if you’re interested in botany, but it may just look like nonsense to the average coffee consumer. Just keep in mind that you don’t need to be an expert on every single type of coffee to buy decent coffee.
They differ mostly in terms of growth capacity and needs, as well as appearance (bean and leaf form), which is more relevant to farmers than to you. The brand you’re buying from should be able to tell you how well they function with the variety they’re growing.
Let’s have a look at some of the more well-known kinds for those of you who are interested.
There are four different kinds of coffee beans
The journey of arabica starts around 1000 BC in the Kingdom of Keffa which is now present-day Ethiopia. Historians believe that coffee seeds were first taken from the coffee forests of Southwestern Ethiopia to Yemen. There, it was cultivated as a crop. In Keffa, the Oromo tribe ate the bean, crushed it and mixed it with fat to make spheres the size of ping-pong balls. The plant species Coffea arabica got its name around the 7th century. That’s when the bean crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia to present-day Yemen, and then to lower Arabia, hence the term “arabica.”
It has become so popular that it accounts for over 60% of the world’s coffee production now. Arabica beans are grown at high altitudes in areas that receive steady rainfall and have a plentiful amount of shade. Typically used for black coffee, arabica beans have a sweeter, milder taste that you can drink straight.
There are two types of arabica coffee beans, Typica and Bourbon.
Typica is one of the oldest and most important varieties of arabica.
After being spread from Ethiopia to Yemen, India and Indonesia, Typica is now grown in many places around the world including Colombia, Java, Yemen and France. It is a tall variety of coffee that is susceptible to major diseases and has a low yield, but it produces an excellent cup quality with clear sweetness and cleanliness.
There are a handful of notable coffee varieties in the Typica family:
- Maragogype has unusually large beans and the height of the plant makes it stand out. Maragogype is sometimes called the ‘elephant bean’. It typically adopts the flavour characteristics of the soil in which it is grown.
- Pache Comum is a smaller coffee plant in stature. This allows it to be planted more densely to achieve higher yields. Pache Comum can be described as having a smooth or flat character.
- SL34 was selected in Kenya in the late 1930s at the Scott Agricultural Laboratories. SL34 has a complex citric acidity, heavy mouthfeel and clean, sweet finish.
Bourbon is the second-largest coffee variety in the world (and a much more productive plant than Typica).
French missionaries introduced Bourbon from Yemen to Bourbon Island (now called La Reunion) in the Indian Ocean, in the early 1700s. It didn’t leave the island until the mid-1800s when it spread to Africa and the Americas. Like Typica, it is also susceptible to disease, but it produces a similarly excellent cup quality, often described as complex, delicate and lush.
The Bourbon family has a lineage of natural mutations:
- Caturra was discovered in Brazil. It has become one of the most economically important coffees in Central America. It has less clarity and sweetness than Bourbon but has bright acidity and a low-to-medium body.
- Villa Sarchi is a mutation of Caturra. It is a more direct descendent of Bourbon. It was originally found in Costa Rica in the 1950s. It has an elegant acidity, intense fruit tones and excellent sweetness.
- Gesha originates from the Gesha village in Ethiopia. It is a wildly flavourful cup that can produce stone and melon fruit sweetness with floral notes. It is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, fetching up to $600 per pound at auction, and is often sourced for use in barista competitions.
Robusta originated in central and western sub-Saharan Africa and it’s the second most popular coffee in the world, making up 40% of the world’s coffee production.
While arabica is the most popular, robusta is cheaper and stronger. Because of its bitter flavour, you’ll typically see robusta used for espresso drinks and instant coffee mixes. If your Monday morning is lagging, reach for a cup of coffee that uses robusta beans. Their high caffeine content will wake you right up!
Robusta plants are easier to grow because they tolerate less favourable soil, and climate conditions – and grow at lower elevations. When growing in the wild, it can rise to heights of 30 feet or more under prime growing conditions. It can withstand myriad altitudes but particularly requires a hot climate where rainfall is irregular. The beans have almost double the amount of caffeine compared to arabica beans. In fact, caffeine is what makes robusta plants so robust! Caffeine is the plant’s self-defence against disease.
With less sugar and fewer lipids, when compared to arabica coffee, it may be challenging to try drinking robusta coffee for some people. If you can get past that initial flavour hit, you will find this robust coffee to be an excellent addition to your daily routine.
The main varieties of Coffea canephora, which we colloquially call robusta, are Erecta and Nganda. They have a tall-standing coffee shrub and a wide-spreading shrub, respectively. More interestingly may be robusta’s descendants. Besides spawning arabica itself, robusta and arabica coffee plants have spontaneously cross-bred in the wild. This led to the Timor hybrid’s emergence in the first half of the 20th century.
Some of today’s hybrid coffee varieties which are still considered arabica, like Catimor and Sarchimor, incorporate genetic material from robusta coffees, thus allowing the plants to be more disease-resistant, at least for some period of time. With the threat of coffee leaf rust and other environmental concerns jeopardizing the future of coffee, it will be important to continue research into hybrids like these to ensure coffee production is able to survive.
Native to central and western Africa – specifically Liberia, hence its name – Coffea liberica is prized for its piquant floral aroma and bold, smoky flavour profile. Unheard of in Western civilization before the late 1800s, liberica gained a foothold with Southeast Asian coffee producers after a fungal disease (“coffee rust”) wiped out much of the region’s arabica crops.
Liberica trees begin to bear cherries up to five years after being planted. They grow tall, with some trees boasting heights of up to 17 meters – which can make picking cherries difficult.
The leaves and cherries are also noticeably larger than those of arabica and robusta plants. Liberica leaves can grow as wide as 30 centimetres, and the species’ cherries can be almost double the size of the other two when ripe.
Furthermore, the pulp-to-parchment ratio for liberica is about 60:40, compared to a 40:60 ratio for both arabica and robusta. This not only increases the drying time for liberica cherries but also affects the flavour. Because liberica has a lot of pulp and ferments when it dries naturally, it has a fruity flavour.
Naturally processed liberica tends to produce these delicate jackfruit notes, whereas washed processing results in more citrus and floral flavours, or even more “traditional” flavour notes like chocolate.
Beyond this, liberica’s other notable flavour characteristics include a lingering mouthfeel and a consistent sweetness. Liberica is often described as being sweeter than arabica. This may be because liberica seeds are more porous, which means that the beans ultimately absorb more sugars from the mucilage.
Liberica’s unique cup profile, high resilience, and storied background make it an intriguing new option for producers and consumers alike. In an age of problems and concerns, it could be a rare opportunity, whether or not it will serve as a solution, however, remains to be seen.
The final type of coffee bean we introduce today is excelsa. It was considered an individual coffee type until 2006 when it was re-classified as a type of liberica by Aaron P. Davis, a British botanist.
Like the liberica coffee described above, excelsa is grown primarily in Southeast Asia and represents only a small fraction of the world’s coffee production. It grows on large, vigorous trees at medium altitudes. Many beans have a distinctive “teardrop” shape, which gives them a familiar resemblance to liberica, but their average size is much smaller.
In terms of flavour, excelsa beans are pretty unique. They combine light roast traits like tart notes and fruity flavours with flavours that are more reminiscent of dark roasts. They’re also lighter on aroma and caffeine — while maintaining an unusual depth of flavour. You can sometimes find these unusual beans in blends because they add complexity.
Excelsa coffee grows best at altitudes of between 1,000 and 1,300 m.a.s.l., and unlike arabica and robusta, it is an arboreal (tree-like) plant, rather than a shrub. This means it requires vertical space to grow, rather than growing into the area around it on the ground. And while it is productive and resilient, excelsa is difficult to manage and requires extensive care.
The leaves of the excelsa plant are large (on average, 26cm long by 13cm wide) and leathery. Its flowers bloom multiple times throughout the harvest season, despite the fact that fruit maturation takes around a full year. These flowers are bigger than those on arabica and canephora plants.
Excelsa also produces asymmetrical beans that are, on average, around 9mm long and 6mm wide. Excelsa beans are lower in caffeine than both canephora and arabica. They range from 0.86 to 1.13g per 100g, compared to 1.2 to 1.5g for arabica and 2.2 to 2.7g for canephora.
However, despite everything, excelsa trees are resistant to many of the common diseases and pests that other plants are not. These include coffee leaf rust, nematodes, and the coffee leaf miner moth. Excelsa is, however, susceptible to trichomycosis, a fungal disease.
Despite its insignificant presence across the global coffee market, excelsa’s lower optimum altitude may be an indirect solution for farmers who are affected by climate change. In theory, cultivating excelsa could prevent them from continually moving to higher altitudes to achieve target growing temperatures.
However, without any kind of commodity market and the current minuscule levels of demand, a full switch is highly unlikely and an unrealistic proposition.
These are the most popular coffee varieties on the planet. We bet you didn’t know all of them, but if you did, congratulations! You’re a real coffee connoisseur. Even though there are clear differences between them, most people tell one type of coffee apart from another, by taste or even brewing methods.
Here, we can talk about cold brewing, percolated coffee, or vacuum coffee among many others. But that is a subject for another article.