Coffee beans may all look curiously similar to one another, as if one bean had been cloned a million times over. Yet, the surprising truth is that there are distinctly different types of beans—more than a hundred, in fact. Not to worry, though! Only a handful of these beans are essential to know and commit to memory when shopping for a favorite type of coffee!
Some varieties are brighter on the palate, some ripe for milk and sugar, and others smoky and even woodsy. And all types of coffee beans have their own quirks and characteristics. Let’s explore some of the more popular types of coffee beans — and a few you might not have heard of before but may want to try!
Approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the world’s commercial variety of coffee bean is made from Arabica coffee beans, making it the popular kid in class—and for good reason.
Arabica beans grown in high altitudes with lots of shade and a Goldilocks amount of rain — not too little and not too much rainfall. The plants are easy to harvest and typically hand-picked. In short: a lot of care goes into cultivating these beans.
Yet, growing them for high yield is particularly problematic for farmers, as they are disease prone with a likelihood of even one contamination spreading to surrounding plants, potentially ruining a year’s crops.
Arabica coffee is known to be of a top quality and is often served in specialty shop. It also has a lengthy history. Arabica is the first known coffee to be brewed, originally in Yemen, as written by Arab scholars.
In flavor, this coffee variety is brighter and more acidic, making it more conducive to light roasting and infinitely more drinkable on its own. Preferably, it’s served hot to retain the desirable characteristics of the bean. Arabica beans are harvested in regions of Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, and Colombia. In appearance, they are more oblong.
The Robusta bean is aptly named, as it’s recognizable for its intensely sharp and slightly bitter flavor, largely thanks to the amount of caffeine—practically double that of Arabica—in its circular form factor.
It accounts for anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of the world’s coffee production, often used in instant coffees or as a sort of filler in certain blends—though the right Robusta, with its more chocolate-leaning flavor profile, can blend well with milk and is suitable in an espresso blend.
Robusta beans are harvested in Indonesia and West Africa, but primarily in Vietnam.
Known for a more earthy, sometimes floral or smoky flavor profile, Liberica coffee beans are native to regions of Liberia and Uganda, but were notably cultivated in the Philippines in the late 19th century as a response to a shortage of Arabica beans.
Liberica beans eventually fell out of fashion once Arabica reclaimed its throne as the dominant bean type on the world market. As a result, it makes up a small percentage of the world’s coffee today, but is still produced in the Philippines, along with Malaysia and Liberia. (It’s sometimes referred to simply as “Liberian coffee.”) In shape, the beans are asymmetrical and of varying shapes and sizes.
Excelsa, Bourbon and Other Varieties of Coffee Beans
Another noteworthy bean of significance is the Excelsa bean, a type grown in Southeast Asia that also makes up a tiny percentage of the world’s coffee market. It’s similar to a Liberica in its makeup but with more of a tart flavor profile.
Beyond Excelsa and some of the better-known beans, there are a stunning number of different coffee bean cultivations of the Arabica bean, some of which have become increasingly more mainstream among craft roasters, like the Bourbon.
The Bourbon is, admittedly one of the confusing coffee bean names and named because of its growing region in the Bourbon island east of Madagascar—and the Blue Mountain coffee that is farmed in Jamaica, Hawaii, and Kenya. It doesn’t taste anything like the alcoholic spirit. Rather, Bourbon coffee beans from Kenya are notably bright with a nutty flavor.
Another coffee variety to keep an eye out for is the Typica variety, a bean grown in Ethiopia—a growing region that’s a darling for specialty coffee roasters. Typica is an exceptionally old coffee bean type that is mostly raised in Latin America and is well-balanced in flavor profile and body.
Rounding out the bunch is Caturra, a sub-variety of Arabica. This bean is relatively small and is a cousin of Bourbon and is gaining in popularity.
Pros will recognize the Geisha bean among the immense number of how many coffee bean types there are. This is an exceptional coffee with floral notes that was discovered in Panama in the early 2000s but later traced to Ethiopia. These coffee beans are often are priced at a premium because of the specific growing conditions needed to produce them.
In the end: No two types of coffee beans are alike, and will require a careful cupping to truly pick out the differences. No matter your preference, enjoy every cup!