The world of coffee is a delicious yet often confusing one. With so many different terms, tasting notes, origins and roasts, it’s hard to know which is the best. Let’s take a deep look into coffee— from origin to variety, and benefits of coffee to how to grind it. In this article, you’ll learn what to look for and what to avoid when choosing your next coffee.
What Are Coffee Beans
All coffee beans begin their life as the seed within a fruit. These cherry-like fruits grow on small flowering trees known as Coffea— and are part of the Rubiaceae family. Once the fruit has ripened, the cherries are picked, then processed before being dried. The seeds are left to dry until they have reached a moisture content of around 10 percent— after which, these dry, green coffee beans are ready to be roasted.
The green coffee beans are transferred to a purpose-built roasting machine where they are roasted for anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes. The amount of time the beans spend in the roaster determines the level of the roast— a longer 16-minute roast will produce beans much darker than a 10-minute roast. The coffee beans are then ready to be ground, brewed, and served as the delicious caffeinated beverage we all know and love.
Benefits of Coffee Beans
Let’s just get the first and most obvious benefit of coffee out of the way— it is delicious. It is the best way to start any day, period. Moving on!
Full of Antioxidants
Coffee is packed full of antioxidants, containing more of the good stuff than both green tea and cocoa. Scientists have identified over 1000 antioxidants in raw coffee, with another couple of hundred more that develop during roasting.
Contains Glorious Caffeine
Coffee contains caffeine, and caffeine will give you a nice energy boost. It can aid you during a tough workout or help you focus on a hard day of work ahead.
May Lead to a Longer Life
Studies have shown that drinking 1-2 cups of black coffee per day can reduce your risk of developing various cardiovascular diseases, including stroke. Considering that 1 in every 4 deaths in the United States is related to cardiovascular diseases, drinking black coffee may have big health benefits. Note: this is black coffee with no milk or sugar.
How Do Coffee Beans Work
Once the coffee seeds have been picked from the trees, they are processed and dried, and then they are roasted. They are now what we call coffee beans, and are ready to be brewed. Coffee beans can be brewed in a variety of different ways. All brewing methods work slightly differently, but all achieve a similar goal— to dissolve a percentage of the ground coffee, using hot water.
Types of Coffee Beans
While there are somewhere around 100 different species of coffee, we as humans consume, for the most part, only two. Arabica and Robusta. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, you’ve no doubt heard of these species.
At a glance, Arabica and Robusta coffee look quite similar— both on the tree and post-roast they look very much the same. But when we take a closer look— and more importantly, when we taste them— we see that the two are very far apart from one another.
Arabica coffee is the species of coffee that we produce, by far, the most. Some might consider this a little strange given the fact that Arabica coffee is much harder to grow, and much more prone to plant disease than Robusta is. The favourability of Arabica comes down to one main factor— flavor.
While being harder to produce, Arabica coffee is of higher quality and displays far more flavor than its distant family member, Robusta. The flavor profile of Arabica coffee can run the entire spectrum— from chocolates and caramels to delicate floral jasmine, and from big jammy berry notes to sometimes even ripe tomatoes with crisp, bright acidity. Most of all, Arabica coffee can be incredibly sweet.
Robusta, on the other hand, is used largely for its caffeine content. With little flavor and around twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica, Robusta is often added to Arabica blends to give them a strength boost. Because of Robusta’s high caffeine content, when consumed on it’s own, without milk or sugar and not as part of a blend, it is bitter.
Without other flavors to cover up this bitterness, without the fruity or floral notes as with Arabica, we’re left with a quite harsh, earthy, bitter and spicy coffee with very little sweetness.
The flavors in any particular coffee are the result of numerous different factors. The way a coffee tree is grown and the amount of shade and sun it receives, the soil, the amount of rain and the altitude can all affect the way the fruit grows on the tree, and therefore how the coffee will taste. One more extremely important factor is the variety.
There are too many varieties to mention here— hundreds— so let’s go over a few of the more well-known ones. We’ll look at where they are typically grown, and the flavor notes commonly associated with each variety.
Bourbon coffee is a high-quality variety well known for its sweetness. It is difficult to grow and is susceptible to diseases and pests. Because of this, Bourbon is one of the more expensive and prized coffees. Many other coffee varieties mutated from the Bourbon variety.
Commonly grown in South and Central America, Caturra is a mutation of the Bourbon variety. It is characterized by its bright acidity and medium body, with less sweetness than it’s parent variety, Bourbon.
Ethiopia Heirloom isn’t the name of a single variety, but rather a wild mix of varieties passed down from the natural coffee forests of Ethiopia. Each area of Ethiopia has its own’ heirloom variety’ that has been shaped by the geographical location, soil, and weather. Ethiopian coffees are typically fruity and floral, often with notes of bergamot, jasmine, and blueberry, with an almost lemonade type acidity.
Believed to have originated in Ethiopia, the Gesha variety can be considered the holy grail for coffee lovers. Gesha is currently one of the rarest and most expensive varieties of coffee on the planet, fetching almost $1030 for one pound at auction.
The Gesha variety offers intense floral aromas with notes of peach, mango, and bergamot. The most delicious and well known Gesha is said to be grown in Panama— but we can pinpoint this coffee even further to a specific estate— the legendary coffee estate known as Hacienda la Esmeralda.
One could think of the Typica variety as one of the delicious parents of almost all other varieties of coffee. Typica has been grown for a long, long time— and for very good reason. Typica coffee is generally very sweet and incredibly clean in the cup.
Types of Coffee Beans Origins
Aside from coffee variety, the origin of a coffee— the area in which the coffee was grown— plays a huge role in the flavor possibilities of any given coffee. The climate, altitude and soil of an origin are just a few of the many factors that work together to grow the fruit on a coffee tree, and each contributes to a coffee’s unique flavor characteristics.
Coffee generally grows best at high altitudes, along a strip of land that wraps around the globe, known as the ‘World Coffee Belt’. This equator hugging, the mountainous strip provides coffee with the perfect nutrient-rich soil, high altitudes and correct climate that coffee plants need to grow.
Tropical Brazil produces around 25% of the world’s coffee supply, making it a literal coffee giant. Coffees from Brazil are often described as sweet and nutty with low acidity levels. Many Brazillian coffees are processed using the natural method, giving the coffee in the cup a heavy body and big fruity vibes. Minas Gerais, the largest coffee-growing region in the country, grows around 50% of the country’s annual production and includes the Catuaí, Mundo Novo and Bourbon varieties.
Colombia is synonymous with good coffee. Thanks to its mountainous terrain and proximity to the equator, coffee growers in Colombia are able to produce some excellent quality coffees. Most of the country’s coffee is Arabica, with varieties ranging from Caturra to Maragogype, Tabi to Typica, and Bourbon to Castillo being grown. Generally speaking, Colombian coffees are known for being balanced, with a medium body and pronounced aroma and acidity.
It is said that the forests of Ethiopia are the birthplace of coffee— that’s right; it all started here. Ethiopian coffees are some of the best, tastiest and most desired coffees in the world— almost always packed with floral, bergamot and ripe fruit notes, with the most vibrant of acidity.
Unlike most other coffee-growing countries around the world, the coffee coming out of Ethiopia is of unknown variety. Instead, each growing region or town in the country has its own wild mix of coffees, known as ‘Heirloom Varieties’. When combined with the area’s geography and climate, these Heirloom varieties create incredibly unique coffee experiences.
Costa Rica is famous in the coffee world, not only for having delicious coffee but for developing the honey processing method we all know and love (if you don’t yet know and love it, check out the section below on honey processed coffee).
Up until 1890, Costa Rica’s only international export was coffee. The cultivation and selling of coffee have been a huge part of the country’s economy. Costa Rican coffees are often sweet, bright and super fruity (especially if they were processed using the honey method!).
Vietnam— the land of rolling hills, delicious soup and coffee with condensed milk. Vietnam produces a huge amount of coffee— around 30 million bags this year— a number that is significantly smaller than in previous years. Almost all of the coffee grown in Vietnam is Robusta, often ending up in blends, instant coffee, or part of the tasty local coffee drink, Cafe Sua Da (strong thick black coffee with sweet condensed milk and ice).
Kenya is well known for big, juicy tasting coffees— so much so that Kenyan coffees are frequently referred to as a ‘berry bomb’. It is because of these incredibly fruity notes and vibrant acidity that makes Kenyan coffees considered some of the best on the planet. Common varieties in Kenya include SL-28, Sl-34 and Kent— all varieties of the Arabica coffee species.
Coffee Beans Processing Methods
Before coffee beans can be packed and shipped off to all corners of the globe, roasted and brewed into a cup of coffee, they need to have their fruit removed, and they need to be dried (not necessarily in this order). The method of which this is done— the removal of fruit and the drying of the bean— is known as the processing method.
Both a coffee’s origin, and it’s variety have a large impact on the flavors that are locked within the coffee bean, waiting to be brought out by roasting. What many people don’t know, is that the processing method can also be a deciding factor, and is often the ‘make or break’ moment in the life of a coffee bean.
There are mainly three processing methods used worldwide— Natural, Washed and Honey processing.
Common in countries or growing regions that don’t have ready access to plenty of water, the Natural processing method is somewhat how it sounds— natural. The coffee cherries are picked from the trees before being laid out on either raised drying beds (think of a bed made of mesh) or concrete patios and left to sundry. The drying processes can take between 3 and 6 weeks, after which the fruit is removed and the coffee is left to dry further until the producer’s desired moisture content is reached.
The fruit, being left in contact with the coffee seed, imparts its fruity flavors and sugars on the coffee seed— resulting in sweet, tropical fruit and often boozy tasting coffee with notes of pineapple, grapes and jackfruit.
Honey processing accommodates the middle ground between natural and washed processing. Once the fruit is removed from the coffee seed, a sticky substance known as mucilage, also known as honey, remains. While the washed processing method removes all of this sticky sweet ‘honey’ from the seeds, the honey method leaves a certain percentage of it intact. The presence of this ‘honey’ imparts much sweetness on the coffee.
There are four levels of honey, known as white, yellow, red and black honey. These levels refer to what percentage of the mucilage is left on the seeds. White honey processing removes 80-90% of the mucilage; yellow removes 50%, red removes 10-20% and black removes as little as possible.
This means that the white honey process is closest to a washed coffee, while black is closest to a natural.
Washed coffees are on the opposite end of the spectrum to coffees that are naturally processed. Unlike both natural and honey processing, washed coffee seeds have all of their fruit removed before being soaked in water. Soaking the seeds in water helps remove any traces of mucilage, leaving the seed clean and ready to be dried.
Because washed coffees are separated from the fruit and the mucilage, they rely solely on the seeds for their flavor. This generally makes them a much cleaner and more transparent tasting coffee.
How to Choose the Best Coffee Beans
You might have noticed when browsing coffee that some bags read ‘espresso’, while others say ‘filter’. This often relates to how dark or light coffee is roasted. Espresso roasts are usually darker than coffees roasted for the filter. So if you’re going to brew delicious coffee in a stainless steel coffee maker, be sure to choose coffee that has been roasted for that style of coffee. Many professionals who make coffee in a pour-over machine use very light roasted.
Single-Origin vs Coffee Blends
A bag of coffee beans will either be a single origin or a blend. Single-origin refers to coffee that was all grown in the same place. A blend, on the other hand, refers to a bag of coffee that has beans that are from two or more origins. A roaster might design a blend to create custom flavors that aren’t common with a coffee from one single origin.
For example, a blend might contain a mix of beans from Latin America and East Africa. The Latin America part of the blend might provide a rich chocolatey flavor, while the East African portion may give the blend a fruity punch.
Blends can work well with all types of brewing but are generally more suited to an espresso machine, stovetop espresso maker or Mokka pot.
Type of Roast
Most bags of coffee, even ones bought from the local supermarket, will mention how they were roasted. Whether it be dark, medium or light, having this information will help us make a more informed decision and will improve the chances that we’ll choose something that we’re going to love. So let’s go through the flavors we might expect at each roast level.
Light roasted coffees have spent the least amount of time in the roasting machine. They will be a light brown color with no oily look to them. The idea behind light roasts is to bring out the flavor of the coffee beans themselves, without adding any ‘roast’ type flavors. Light roasts have become increasingly popular in specialty coffee. A light roasted coffee will taste lighter, more fruity and have higher and more pronounced acidity than other roasts, making them perfect for filter coffee of any kind.
It serves a nice middle ground between light and dark roasted coffees. A medium roast will be visually darker than a light roast, but still with no oily look to it. Medium roasted coffee is generally roasted to help bring out all the sweetness lying within the coffee beans while adding as a little roast flavor as possible. Their lower levels of acidity and rich sweetness make them perfect for any brew method. Use an espresso machine, brew using a V60, or make coffee in two different ways with a dual coffee maker.
Dark roasted coffees have spent the most amount of time in the roaster, and as such, end up being the darkest in color with a slight (or sometimes not so slight) oily sheen to them. They are generally used for espresso coffee. Many dark roasted coffees can be quite bitter with many ‘roasty’ flavors— smokey, charred and earthy.
Coffees that were roasted dark have often been made so because they have been produced poorly— the dark roast covers up the many imperfections and defects within the coffee seeds themselves.
An unopened bag of whole coffee beans, as long as they were stored correctly, will taste really good for around 2 months after the date of the roast.
Having the roast date printed on the bag is important for this reason— we need to be sure that it was roasted recently. Ideally, try to choose coffee that has been roasted a week or two ago. If you are looking for a coffee of which the roast date doesn’t matter so much, check out a specialty instant coffee with rich flavor and texture— they will last an incredibly long time and taste leagues better than a stiff old jar of Nescafe!
From chocolate, floral, blueberries and bergamot to dark chocolate, spicy, earthy and tobacco— each coffee has its own flavors. These flavors are more often than not written on a bag of coffee— known as tasting notes. While some tasting notes go as far as to tell you the exact kind of apple that this coffee tastes like— “tastes like granny smith apple”— tasting notes are more of a guideline to help you choose something you might like.
Decaffeinated vs Caffeinated
If you love a cup of coffee in the afternoon but can’t handle the caffeine, decaf is here to help! Decaffeinated coffee is almost the same as regular coffee, just minus the caffeine. The method used to remove the caffeine from the green coffee is rather complicated. If you are interested, check out this video by a company called swiss water decaf— the creators of this particular swiss water decaf method.
Some coffee roasters mention the acidity level of their coffee in the tasting notes. If you like a good dose of acidity, look for words like bright, sparkling and fruity or winey. If you’re not such a huge fan and prefer lower acidity levels, look for words like mild, gentle and mellow.
Bitterness is a funny thing— some people love it and some people hate it. While a coffee roaster will rarely describe their coffee as bitter, there is usually information written on the bag that can act as clues as to whether or not the coffee inside will be bitter.
If the coffee is a light roasted, 100% Arabica coffee, you can be certain that it will be far less bitter than a dark roasted Robusta. Robusta coffees are almost always bitter, as are dark roasted coffees of any species. If you find yourself with a bag of coffee that is too bitter to drink hot, try using it for cold brew. Cold brew coffee is less bitter and is fresh tasting.
Need an extra boost in the morning cup? Certain coffees, such as Robusta, have higher caffeine levels than others. This is often made a selling point in the bag, as it is with Death Wish Coffee Company— labeled as the world’s strongest coffee.
Fairtrade is essentially an arrangement that ensures farmers and producers in developing countries are paid fairly for their work and goods. Companies can apply for the certification via fair trade international, who will ensure their business is in line with the fair trade guidelines.
USDA organic is a certification process that producers can undergo that certifies that farmers are producing goods that, among other things, use no pesticides or chemicals. Much of the best coffee on Amazon is USDA Organic certified— just look for the USDA label to be sure.
Methods to Grind Coffee Beans
Now that we’ve chosen our perfect, delicious coffee, we can get onto brewing it! But first, we need to grind it.
Grinding is ideally done using a purpose-made coffee grinder. Real coffee grinders produce quality, even grinds that will help our coffee taste as delicious as possible. But if you don’t have a grinder, never fear— there are a couple of ways you can make do with household objects.
Electric Coffee Grinder
Electric grinders come in two main varieties— burr grinders and blade grinders.
Blade grinders utilize a fast-moving metal blade that cuts the coffee as it quickly spins. This method gives very little control over the grind size, so it is really only usable if brewing with a french press.
Burr grinders use either a metal or ceramic burr set to cut the coffee. The grind size that a burr grinder can produce is adjustable, making them ideal for any kind of brewing, from espresso to pour-over. Burr grinders will also produce a far more even grind size, which in coffee terms, is a very good thing!
Hand Coffee Grinder
Hand coffee grinders are 100% manual— meaning there is no motor or electricity involved. They are completely human-powered, adjustable burr coffee grinders.
Hand coffee grinders are very popular at the moment— and this is for a few good reasons. They are inexpensive; they are lightweight, making them excellent for traveling, and last but certainly not least, they are capable of producing fantastic quality grinds for their relatively small price tag.
For example, a premium manual coffee grinder can compete with an electric coffee grinder well over 5x its price. This is because a hand coffee grinder uses no motor and no electronics— largely the most expensive parts of any grinder.
Alternative Grinding Methods
Need to grind some coffee but have no coffee grinder!? No problem. While a real coffee grinder is by far the best option, any one of these, what we’ll call ‘alternative grinding methods’ will get you out of a jam, if you find yourself needing caffeination without a grinder.
- Meat grinder. A meat grinder is similar to a hand coffee grinder. Just make sure the meat grinder is completely clean before you start grinding— otherwise, you might end up with some beefy tasting coffee!
- Hammer. Place your coffee into a ziplock bag and squeeze the air out. Then place that ziplock bag into another bag and again, squeeze the air out. Place the bagged coffee on a wooden cutting board, lay a tea towel over the coffee and begin to gently hammer. Continue until the coffee has reached your desired size.
- Mortar and pestle. First things first: make sure that both your mortar and pestle are clean and free of any spices or herbs! Next, place the coffee into the mortar and crush using the pestle. Grind the coffee down until your desired size is reached.
How to Grind Coffee Beans
Grinding coffee using an electric or hand coffee grinder is super simple. Follow along with the steps below to make sure you get the perfect grind every time.
- Coffee grinder
- Scales (optional but highly recommended)
Step 1 — Choose your grind setting
First, choose how fine you want the coffee ground. If you are brewing using a V60 or something similar, go for a grind on the finer end of medium, around the same texture as white sugar. If you are using a flat bottom brewer, like the Kalita Wave, go for a grind slightly courser, closer to kosher salt.
Step 2 — Weight the coffee
Next, weight out the number of coffee beans that you want to grind. If you want to make 600ml of coffee, perfect for two people, and you are using a French press to brew, try 40g of coffee. This is a 1:15 ratio, meaning 1 part coffee to 15 parts water. If this is too strong, or not strong enough, add or subtract a few grams of coffee. If you are not using a scale, you can use a tablespoon. 40g of whole coffee beans is around 8 level tablespoons.
Step 3 — Transfer the coffee to the grinder
Ensure the coffee grinder is clean, then transfer the 40g of coffee into the coffee grinder. Place on the lid.
Step 4 — Grind
If you are using an electric grinder, press start on your grinder. If you are using a hand grinder, start cranking on the handle!
Step 5 — Brew
Now that your beautiful coffee is ground nice and evenly, all that is left to do is to brew and to pour the coffee in your favorite mug. Enjoy!
Does More Spending Mean More Quality
In the case of coffee, spending more almost always equates to a higher quality coffee. While this may not be the case 100% of the time, a higher price tag can mean many things: it might mean that all the coffee cherries were picked from the tree at the same time when they were all perfectly ripe.
It might mean that those cherries were kept and processed separately, with more attention given to them during drying to ensure uniform drying. This is just to name a few. All of these extra steps cost the producer of the coffee both time and money, and all of these steps will also produce a far better-tasting coffee in almost every way.
Do’s and Don’ts With Coffee Beans
- Do try different origins and varieties. It is possible to taste the world through coffee. Each origin tastes unique, and one can learn the nuances of each origin.
- Do store your coffee correctly. In an airtight container, away from intense heat, moisture and too much sunlight.
- Do buy coffee that is fair or direct trade. If we want to have incredible coffee for a long time to come, we need to look after the farmers producing the coffee and make sure they are being paid what they deserve.
- Don’t store an opened bag of coffee in the fridge or freezer. While it is true that a cold environment will slow the rate at which coffee goes bad, both the fridge and the freezer are very moist environments— and moisture is one of the 4 mortal enemies of coffee beans.
FAQ About Coffee Beans
Where do you buy the best coffee beans?
When it comes to buying good coffee— really good coffee— you have two options. Speak with your local roaster and ask them what they would recommend. The chances are you will have a passionate coffee roaster local to you that will be more than happy to share their passion with you. The next option is the internet! Many of the best coffee roasters in the world offer very reasonably, if not free, international shipping!
What country has the best coffee beans?
The best coffee is entirely up to what you enjoy drinking. Having said that, the most prized, expensive and rare coffee in the world is currently Esmeralda Gesha from Panama.
Is it safe to eat coffee beans?
Yes! They are absolutely safe to eat— in fact, they provide a decent little caffeine and antioxidant boost. Coffee beans, especially ones coated in chocolate, are delicious!
Can old coffee beans make you sick?
Old coffee beans are completely safe to consume as long as there is no mold present. If there is mold, the coffee should be thrown away or composed.
What is the best way to store coffee beans?
This is a hotly debated topic among coffee geeks everywhere. While some swear the bag it came in is fine, others think protecting the coffee from moisture in a canister is the way to go. A few things that are thoroughly agreed upon are: keep your coffee in an airtight container, away from excessive heat, sunlight and moisture.
Is coffee a bean or a nut?
What we know as a coffee bean is actually a seed! It is a seed that grows within the fruit of a coffee plant. We pick the fruit from the tree, remove the seed from the fruit, dry out the seed, roast it and call it a bean!
One of the many beautiful things about coffee is how varied it is— a coffee from Kenya tastes completely different than one from Colombia or Brazil. So many origins and varieties to explore, so many brew methods and tasting notes to uncover. The best coffee is whatever tastes the best to you— so get out there and taste everything you can! Armed with these tips, you might just find that perfect coffee you didn’t even know existed.
Photos from: kbuntu / depositphotos.com, DmitryPoch / depositphotos.com, lightkeeper / depositphotos.com, mavoimages / depositphotos.com, Valentyn_Volkov / depositphotos.com and EdZbarzhyvetsky / depositphotos.com.