Once you learn the important aspects of coffee beans, roasting levels and brewing equipment, you’ll have the knowledge to make your perfect cup of coffee.
Whether you’re completely new to coffee drinking or are tired of what you’ve been drinking, this guide will help you understand your choices.
Coffee, as we know it, comes from a family of flowering plants called Coffea. The plants are small trees or shrubs, and they’re native to tropical Asia and Southern Africa.
They also exist in Central and South America today. Some have consumable seeds, which we know as coffee beans, and these are the main species of such.
Robusta beans are the most popular in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. As the name implies, this type of bean provides a robust flavor. It’s often described as strong or a little harsh. If you prefer a bitter flavor, this may be the right choice for you.
Robusta beans also have more caffeine than some other types, making them excellent if you like a coffee that makes you noticeably more alert.
One of the reasons why Robusta trees are so resilient is because their high caffeine content naturally repels insects. Most of the coffee roasters that use Robusta beans are cheaper brands, and it’s a common filler in some darker blends that also include Arabica beans.
This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find a high-quality Robusta product. The key is to look for single-origin Robusta that’s made in small batches. You’ll probably find something like that from a craft roaster.
We’ll discuss what single-origin is later in the guide. If budget is a factor, you can always cut some of the harshness of cheap Robusta coffee by adding flavored creamer, milk or sugar.
In the United States, Arabica is the most common type of bean that you’ll see in stores. The flavor of Arabica beans is sweeter and milder than Robusta. Also, the coffee they brew is less acidic.
One of the biggest exporters of Arabica beans is Brazil, where they’re cultivated in the rainforests.
Unlike the hardy Robusta variety, Arabica plants are more prone to diseases and need a lot of care. They require a specific environment to thrive. Because of these factors, they tend to cost more.
However, there are enough people who savor the delicate and smooth flavor of Arabica beans that they don’t mind paying a little extra per bag.
Arabica coffees tend to have a fuller taste when they’re hot. When they’re iced or cold-brewed, it can diminish the taste a little. However, some people deliberately make them a little milder this way.
If you’re planning to add cream, flavored syrup or sugar, you’re less likely to notice it.
These beans represent well under 5% of the world’s commercial coffee production. They require specific cultivation factors and climates, and most farmers who cultivate them can’t mass-produce them.
Although their name and history are tied to Liberia, many of the beans once came from the Philippines, which used to be an American territory. At one time, it was a popular variety there.
However, when the United States cut off resources to the Philippines years ago, the cultivation and export of Liberica coffee suffered. Also, a devastating plant disease called coffee rust spread globally, killing off many coffee plants.
The more delicate Arabica coffee plants recovered after the coffee rust outbreak, but the Liberica plant is still not widely cultivated. Naturally, the price of Liberica reflects its scarcity.
If you’re looking for a type of coffee to enjoy for a special treat, you’ll probably love this variety. Truly a surprising coffee bean, it has a slightly woody taste and an aroma that borders between floral and fruity.
This is actually a variant of a Liberica plant, but it has its own distinct properties. Excelsa thrives in the same type of climate as Liberica.
However, its aroma is fruitier, and its flavor has a tart kick to it. It has attributes of both light and dark roasts. This is another great coffee to enjoy on your treat days.
Coffee’s flavor characteristics vary depending on where it comes from. If you lay out a flat map of the world, you can pinpoint the most popular coffee cultivation points across the world in what’s called the “Bean Belt.”
The regions look like a belt across the middle of the map near the equator. These are the regions, countries and coffee bean attributes to know.
This region includes part of Africa and one area in Western Asia, which is part of the Arabian Peninsula that’s close to Africa. These are the major cultivation countries in this region:
Coffee beans from this region produce medium-bodied flavor. They’re bright and acidic with fruity or floral aromas.
This region encompasses Central America and part of South America, including these main countries:
- El Salvador
- Costa Rica
The coffee beans from this region produce a balanced flavor. They’re mildly acidic and are nutty or spicy.
This region comprises parts of South Asia, including the following countries:
- Papua New Guinea
Coffee beans from this region produce heavier-bodied flavors. Earthy and bold, they tend to be slightly sweet and less acidic. Many have chocolate and caramel aromas.
Single-Origin or Blend?
When it comes to flavor profile, this is the most important debate. A single-origin coffee means that the beans are all one specific type. For example, they may all be Arabica beans from Sumatra.
A blend is a mixture of different beans that complement one another.
For example, a dark blend may contain mostly Arabica beans and a small ratio of Robusta beans for a bolder flavor without the strength of Robusta-only beans. Single-origin coffee tends to have a more exotic and bolder flavor.
Blends tend to taste more balanced and milder.
In terms of purity, single-origin beans brew a crisper and purer coffee. If you’re someone who doesn’t add anything to your coffee, you may appreciate single-origin’s purity more. Blends can still be delicious when they’re plain, but they’re better for milk-based coffee drinks since they’re more balanced.
Blends also tend to be more consistent in flavor. As the seasons change, the flavors of coffee beans can vary slightly. You’re more likely to notice these variations in a single-origin coffee. This is especially true if you drink it without any cream or sugar.
Taste and Aroma
Sensory experts created a visual wheel of coffee flavors and aromas with categories and subcategories. If you’re after a specific sensory experience, these points can help you pick the perfect type of coffee.
Tastes can differ from aromas with some coffee beans. These are the main categories.
This category comprises regular sour tastes and winey sour tastes. They include acrid, hard, tart and tangy.
This includes mellow and acidic flavors. The mellow ones are mild or delicate, and the acidic ones are nippy or piquant.
This category includes bland flavors, which may be soft or neutral. It also includes sharp flavors, which may be astringent or rough.
Coffees in this category are harsh or pungent. Harsh beans are alkaline or caustic, and pungent beans have a phenolic or creosol-like taste.
The smell that the coffee beans produce is the aroma. These are the three categories and what they include.
Enzymatic coffee aromas may be one of these types:
- Floral aromas are flowery or fragrant.
- Fruity aromas include berry or citrus hints.
- Herby aromas are alliaceous or leguminous.
This category includes these three types:
- Nutty aromas may be either nut-like or malt-like.
- Caramelly aromas may be candy-like or syrup-like.
- Chocolatey aromas may be either chocolate-like or vanilla-like.
This category includes the following types:
- Resinous aromas may be turpeny or medicine-like.
- Spicy aromas may be pungent or warming.
- Carbony aromas may be smoky or ashy.
Once you’re familiar with the aromas, tastes and regions, it’s easier to pick a coffee based on the roast level. Roasting brings out the flavors and aromas of raw coffee beans, which are naturally green. These are the main levels, their attributes and the common roast names that you’ll see associated with them.
As the name implies, a light roast means that the beans are lighter in color since they aren’t roasted for a long time. When you examine or touch them, you’ll notice there isn’t any oil since they aren’t roasted long enough for it to break through. Light roasting is better for milder beans. It produces a brighter result that’s less bitter, and it helps retain flavor characteristics. These are some common types of light roasts:
- Half City
- Light City
Medium roasts yield medium-brown beans. Like light-roasted beans, they don’t have an oily surface. However, they’re noticeably darker. A medium roast has a stronger flavor than a light roast, but it’s still smoother and more balanced than a dark roast. These are some common medium roast types:
You may also see a medium-dark variety. It’s a little darker and has a small amount of oil on the surface. It’ll leave a slightly bitter aftertaste with a hint of sweetness. If you see a roast labeled “Full City,” it’s a medium-dark roast.
Dark-roasted beans are dark brown or almost black in color. The beans look shiny because they’re roasted long enough that their oil breaks through. Dark roasts are less acidic with a stronger flavor that includes a distinct bitterness. These are some common types of dark roasts:
- New Orleans
The last piece of the coffee perfection puzzle is how you brew those magic beans. There are several methods, and each one has its pros and cons, depending on what your desired outcome is.
The key idea to remember is to use high-quality coffee for that perfect result. If you pick a low-quality coffee or one that doesn’t suit your preferences, you’ll be disappointed with any brewing technique.
Let’s look at the most popular ones and the grind level you should use. You’ll want to look at a chart to visualize what your beans should look like for fine, medium and coarse grinding levels.
This involves a glass, plastic or ceramic apparatus that’s shaped like a coffee filter, which sits on a coffee cup. It has a hole in the bottom, and you place a filter filled with ground coffee inside it.
You pour the hot water directly over the grounds yourself, or you may have a hot water reservoir that sits over the top of it.
This method adds a lot of clarity. If you like a cup of coffee that’s somewhere between juicy and tea-like, this is a great method. It still holds a strong flavor with a dark roast, but it also creates a smooth and fresh-tasting flavor.
The pour-over method is ideal for one to two cups of coffee. It’s also quick, and the apparatus is easy to clean. Aim for a medium grind with this method.
A French press looks like a small pitcher, and it may be made from glass with wood, metal or another support material. Using a French press involves immersing the coffee grounds completely in water and straining them by pressing them. This retains more of the boldness of the coffee beans.
If you’re accustomed to strong coffee, this is a great brewing method. It creates a heavier and darker liquid. Although its darkness is excellent if you like plain coffee from high-quality beans, this also makes it a good choice if you like to add milk or cream without sacrificing any boldness.
For a full-bodied cup of coffee, use beans that are ground medium to coarse. A French press is fairly easy to clean, quick and simple. If you want more than a single cup of coffee, it’s a great choice since the carafes come in a variety of serving sizes.
Today, there are a few types of machines to consider. The K-cup machines use pods or cups to brew single cups of coffee. There are standard brewing machines that drip the brewed coffee into a pot, which may be between four and 12 cups or more.
There are also brewing machines that store the coffee in an internal reservoir, and you push a button or pull a lever to pour it. An espresso machine works differently and produces stronger coffee.
It’s great if you want to drink espresso shots or make milk-based drinks. Some even come with steaming arms.
If you prefer a standard brewing machine, it helps to read reviews. A good machine can produce a great cup of coffee, and a low-quality machine may produce one that isn’t as crisp.
A machine may not be right for you if you only like that first fresh cup and don’t want your coffee sitting on a warming burner for a while. However, some have programming and automated features that are beneficial.
Use a medium grind for beans if you’re grinding your own for a standard machine. If you’re using an espresso machine, use fine grinding.
Cold brewing involves putting ground coffee into cold water, letting it sit for up to 12 hours and straining it. It’s very refreshing on a hot day and has a silky and smooth mouthfeel.
While you can use any type of bean for hot coffee, fruity or tart beans work well for this method. Light or medium roasts with chocolate and caramel notes are also great.
If you don’t mind making your coffee ahead of time, this method is a good choice. It’s easy to do, and many cold brew pitchers are easy to clean. Use a medium or fine grind for the beans.
Now that you know how to find the right beans and brew them, what type of coffee and brewing method do you think suits you best? Let us know!