For many of us, the idea of starting our day without a cup of coffee to help us wake up is … well, unthinkable. Sweet, light or black; hot or iced; freshly brewed or instant; coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world, and is consumed by people across the globe both because it tastes good and for its caffeine content. Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant in coffee that helps many of us jump-start our mornings and keeps us going throughout the course of the day.
Although currently one the most widely consumed drinks across the planet (in some countries it ranks second only to water), coffee is a relative newcomer in the historical scheme of things. While there is some evidence that it was drunk in Ethiopia and Yemen as early as the mid-1400s, coffee didn’t achieve any real popularity until the middle of the 17th century when it made its way through India and much of Asia before finally coming to Europe via the Dutch East India Company as a commercial product. It was quickly introduced to the New World, and commercial production (and the drink’s popularity) began in earnest.
Today, almost 10 million tons of coffee beans are commercially produced worldwide each year, with almost half of that production accounted for by South America; Brazil alone produces about one-third of that total. Other major coffee bean producing countries include Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia and its probable country of origin, Ethiopia. Leading the pack of coffee importing and consuming countries is the USA; by some estimates, over 400 million cups of coffee are consumed in the United States every day.
While there are many different types of coffee beans (including some wild varieties), they will usually fall into two broad categories: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica coffee beans tend to produce a milder and smoother drink while Robusta beans, as their name indicates, are stronger with a higher caffeine content. Generally speaking, Arabica beans are considered to be the higher quality, and what you will find at your local market.
What most of us refer to as coffee ‘beans’ are actually the seeds or pits of the inedible fruit of coffee plants (often called trees, but actually a type of shrub), which are sometimes called cherries because of their close resemblance to the edible fruit of the same name. The beans are normally green or yellowish when the fruit is ripe, but will turn various shades of brown after they are roasted.
Although involving a somewhat complicated process, essentially once the cherries are picked from the tree by growers the beans are extracted, dried, and then shipped to processors who will usually roast and then either grind them, or ship the whole roasted beans for grinding by the end consumer. The length and method of the roasting process will usually determine the overall strength and taste of the drink produced from the bean.
So let’s take a look at some of the most popular coffee beans on the market today.
Accounting for over 60% of commercial coffee bean cultivation in the world today, Arabica coffee beans are the type that is found in most of the pre-ground and packaged coffee available at your local supermarket, as well as the most commonly found whole bean. Put simply, if you are drinking a cup of coffee, it is probably Arabica. Often, blends of different closely related cultivars of Arabica beans will be used to produce a commercially offered brand of coffee (Folgers, Maxwell House, etc.). Arabica coffee beans are the milder of the two main types, and will usually have a caffeine content of between 1 and 1.5 percent.
General Arabica Types
Though third in the overall production of coffee beans (behind Brazil and Vietnam), Columbia leads the world in the cultivation of Arabica beans, and produces some of the most flavorful beans in the world. While Columbia produces many cultivars and varieties of Arabica beans (several of which are discussed below) and not a single type of ‘Columbian coffee bean’ we are putting them in a category of their own because … well, they are in a category of their own.
The coffee plant was first introduced to Columbia in the late 18th century, and by 1810 beans was already being commercially exported. Due to a combination of the climatic conditions, topography, the overall composition of the soil, and attention to detail by Columbian growers, the coffee plants adapted well and spread quickly. Today, Columbia exports around 10 million bags (each bag weighing about 150 pounds / 70 kilograms) per year to the United States (their largest customer), Western Europe and Japan.
Regardless of the type or cultivar, Columbian coffee beans tend to be milder than even the same types of beans grown in other parts of the world. They will also generally have lower overall acidity, as well as lower caffeine content. Columbian coffee beans will usually be able to stand up to all types of roasting (light, medium, and dark) well, and several different beans are often blended together to produce the ground coffee you will usually find on supermarket shelves.
For over 60 years, the claim of ‘100% Columbian coffee’ has been the gold standard in the US and European markets – although in the last decade or so, with the increase in the ‘gourmet’ coffee market, this has lessened somewhat. However, when you hit the local Starbucks or other specialty coffee outlet for that ultra-fancy, an expensive cup of coffee the odds are quite good you will be drinking an Arabica product from Columbia.
Having absolutely nothing to do with the American whiskey of the same name, the Bourbon coffee bean probably originated in Southern Yemen. It was first commercially produced in the latter part of the 18th century in what was then known as Ill Bourbon – a French island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar now called Reunion – after which it was named. The plant was later taken by French plantation owners to Northern Africa (where it is still grown as a cash crop) and later to Latin America.
Widely cultivated in Columbia, parts of Brazil and El Salvador, as well as Northern Africa, the Bourbon coffee plant produces a bean with a rich, buttery, almost chocolate-like taste that is often used in gourmet-type coffees. The beans will most often be reddish brown after roasting. The caffeine content is relatively low, while the acidity level is about average for Arabica beans.
The ‘true’ Bourbon plant itself grows best in higher elevations and does not produce as many beans per plant as many other types, making the Bourbon a relatively expensive bean. However, over the years, the Bourbon has been widely crossbred with other plants and is the ‘base’ for many other coffee plant cultivars and hybrids. Many of the coffees sold today as Bourbon are, in reality, one of these hybrids.
Much like the Bourbon, most of the Typica coffee beans sold throughout the world are actually hybrid cultivars of the original Typica plant. In fact, the vast majority of Arabica coffee beans commercially cultivated today are the offspring of hybrids originating from either the Bourbon or the Typica plant. In many cases, blended coffees will contain both Typica and Bourbon beans.
Coffee historians (yes, they are a thing) disagree as to whether the Typica coffee plant originated in Ethiopia or Yemen, but most agree that it was first commercially cultivated by the Dutch and French, and made its way first through the Caribbean and then to the New World in the 1720s. Today, Typica coffee beans are still cultivated throughout the Caribbean, as well as South and Central America, Africa and Asia.
Most varieties of Typica coffee beans are a rich chocolaty brown color after roasting, slightly more elongated than Bourbons, and will have a smoother, slightly nuttier flavor when brewed. Unfortunately, Typica plants are also more highly susceptible to disease and parasites, which in turn makes them more expensive to grow. In recent years many major Arabica producing nations – particularly in South America – have cut back on their cultivation of Typica variants in favor of the more profitable Bourbons.
Specific Arabica Types
Translating from the Portuguese as ‘New World’, the Mundo Novo is one of the most widely grown coffee beans in the world today. Originating in Brazil and first introduced to the marketplace in the early 1940s, the Mundo Novo is a Bourbon variant that is widely cultivated in its home nation of Brazil, Columbia, and other parts of South America.
The Mundo Novo plant tends to be taller than many other coffee plants. It produces a very high yield of beans per plant, and has superior resistance to diseases. The Mundo Novo bean is typically reddish-brown in color, and stands up well to all types of roasting. The caffeine content is about average for Arabica beans, and it has a lower than average acidity, resulting in a smooth cup of coffee with nutty flavor and just a hint of chocolaty taste. Mundo Novo beans are widely used in the blended coffees popular in the United States and Western Europe.
A very adaptable and high yielding coffee plant, the Caturra is another cultivar of the Bourbon plant. While the plant was first discovered by growers in Brazil in the early part of the 20th century, widespread commercial cultivation didn’t start until the mid-1970s. Although native to Brazil, the Caturra plant does not perform well there, and today is most widely cultivated in Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica. By some estimates, over 40% of the coffee beans grown in Columbia are Caturra beans.
One of the smaller and shorter coffee plants, the Caturra is considered a ‘dwarf’ plant and produces a bean that is that is fairly acidic and at the low end when it comes to caffeine content. Another bean that is most often used in coffee ‘blends’, the Caturra produces a drink with a sweeter flavor that is less robust than many other South American coffees, which helps to offset the bitterness of other beans used in blends.
A manmade hybrid of the Caturra and Mundo Novo plants, and thus a descendent of the Bourbon, the Catuai was developed at the Campinas Agronomic Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1949. Still widely grown in Brazil (where it currently accounts for almost half of that nation’s Arabica coffee production) the Catuai is also widely cultivated throughout Central America. Like the Caturra, the Catuai is a short, dwarf coffee plant with a very high yield both per plant and per acre planted. The cherries are also quite securely attached to the plant, making this variety particularly favored in high wind and rain areas.
Also cultivated commercially in Indonesia, the Catuai bean is fairly durable and stands up particularly well to dark roasting, and is therefore used as the base bean for many commercially marketed ‘dark’ blend coffees. Like the Caturra, the Catuai has a fairly sweet flavor, while like the Mundo Novo it has a low acidity and relatively low caffeine content.
Another manmade coffee hybrid, the Pacamara coffee plant is a descendant of both the Bourbon and Typica plants. Developed at the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research in El Salvador in 1958, Pacamara coffee is widely grown today throughout Central America – particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. The Pacamara was bred to be a short, high yielding Typica coffee plant that was resistant to disease, and which would thrive in higher elevations.
The Pacamara bean is one of the largest coffee beans produced in Central and South America – which was another purpose behind its development. The bean produces a full-bodied, highly aromatic drink with a chocolaty, fruity and somewhat acidic taste – particularly when lightly roasted. Because of its distinctive flavor and relatively high price, these beans are not usually used in commercial coffee blends.
Dating back to the 1720s, Blue Mountain coffee originated in (not surprisingly) the Blue Mountain region of the Island of Jamaica, where it is still grown today. A type of Typica Arabica coffee, the Blue Mountain plant is also commercially cultivated in Kenya, Haiti, New Guinea, Cameroon and the US State of Hawaii – although only beans grown on or near Blue Mountain are ‘certified’ by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica (CIBJ).
The Blue Mountain coffee plant is naturally resistant to a number of the diseases that most commonly attack Typica plants, and thrives in higher elevations with a greater concentration of volcanic soil, which gives the bean its unique flavor. Rounder than most other coffee beans, the flavor is nutty and smooth with relatively high acidity and average caffeine content. CIBJ Certified Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is very expensive and about 80% of the annual crop is exported to Japan. What most US and European consumers will find available is a lower quality (but still quite delicious) Blue Mountain ‘style’ coffee bean grown in the other areas listed above.
Harar is a type of Arabica coffee almost exclusively grown in its region and country of origin, Harar in Ethiopia. Probably the oldest of all still commercially cultivated coffee beans (dating back to the mid-1600s) the Harar plant is typically grown at a very high elevation (over 5,000 feet). The beans are handpicked and roasted – usually light to medium – in very small batches using a unique process that is centuries old. The drink produced from the beans has a distinctive fruity, mocha taste, medium acidity and relatively high caffeine content. Much of the annual production of Harar is consumed within Ethiopia itself as part of their ‘coffee culture’. Harar coffee is also one of Ethiopia’s major exports with its largest customers including the US, the EU, and Japan.
Kona coffee grows on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai, volcanoes located in the Kona district on the Big Island of Hawaii. Exclusively commercially cultivated in Hawaii (the only US coffee producing state), Kona is an Arabica coffee plant that naturally evolved from Brazilian coffee strains first introduced to Hawaii in the early 1820s by Christian missionaries. Highly valued for both their aroma and their delicate, fruity flavor, Kona coffee beans produce a smooth drink that is low in acidity. Due to their relative rarity, Kona beans are quite expensive and are very often used in higher-priced blends that are marketed as Kona coffee. Under Hawaiian law, a ‘Kona blend’ only needs to have 10% pure Kona beans to use the name.
Gesha (also often referred to as Geisha) coffee beans are among the most (if not the most) expensive coffee beans in the world. Originating near the village of Gesha in Southeastern Ethiopia, the Gesha is a fairly delicate, labor-intensive plant to grow, and is cultivated on a limited basis in its native Ethiopia, Columbia, Brazil, Panama, and Costa Rica. The Geisha bean is usually a reddish brown after roasting and produces an intense honey-sweet, fruity drink with high, biting acidity and caramel-like aroma. Only achieving its current popularity (and remarkably high price) in 2004, Gesha coffee is considered by many coffee connoisseurs to be the best coffee on the planet. Buying a pound of these beans is likely to cost you anywhere between $150 and $250, depending on the country of origin and other factors.
The other major types of commercially cultivated coffee beans, accounting for over 35 percent of world coffee bean production, Robusta beans originated in Central Africa and currently are widely cultivated in Vietnam (accounting for over 40% of production), Indonesia, India, Brazil, and Uganda. Robusta plants are generally hardier, easier to cultivate, higher yielding, and more resistant to disease than their Arabica cousins. Unfortunately, the beans also produce a vastly inferior drink – in many cases virtually undrinkable by itself for most people – which is extremely bitter and has almost three times the caffeine content (which accounts for the bitterness) of most Arabica varieties.
Although you will usually not find Robusta beans at your local market, they are widely used in espresso blends (usually accounting for 10 to 15% of the blend) to give the drink an added bite, as well as in a variety of instant coffees (usually at around the same percentage). Ground Robusta beans are also frequently used in the production of inferior, inexpensive coffee blends as a way to keep costs (and, unfortunately, flavor) down.
In recent years, some strains of Arabica plants have been crossbred with Robusta plants (with some success) in the hopes of creating new strains of Arabica that are more resistant to common coffee plant diseases – particularly Coffee Leaf Rust.
Accounting for less than 1% of worldwide coffee production, the Liberica coffee plant is native to Central and Western Africa (where it still grows in the wild) and is commercially cultivated on a small scale in Indonesia and the Philippines. The beans from this plant are used to make kapeng barako or barako coffee, which is a fairly strong, bitter drink quite popular in the Philippines. Liberica coffee beans are also used as a body scrub in some spa treatments.