To create a truly great cup of coffee or shot of espresso you need two things: high quality equipment and high quality coffee beans. The type of bean you use combined with your chosen equipment is the determining factor to the taste, flavor, and satisfaction you get out of your cup of coffee or shot of espresso. Maybe you are a little unclear when it comes to dark roasts, light roasts, Kenyan or Sumatran. No worries, my friend, we will explain it all and have you picking out the flavor nuances in your daily brew in no time!
There are 3 keys to unlocking the flavor of your chosen bean: first is knowing what type of bean species you are purchasing, second is understanding your beans origins and its effect on flavor, and third is learning about the different roasts and their effects on the overall taste of your brew.
Key #1: A Tale of Two Beans
First thing to know about coffee beans is that there are two of them. What I mean by this is that there are two distinct species of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. These two bean varieties are harvested differently, used differently, and taste differently. Where Robusta beans are more function over style, Arabica beans are all about style and substance. Knowing the differences between the two beans, will help you purchase coffee beans whose characteristics meet your taste expectations.
Arabica vs Robusta
In general, Arabica coffee beans are grown at high altitudes, cultivated with the care that a vintner may show his grapes. They carry twice the number of chromosomes that a Robusta bean carries and tend to even look different before roasting. Where Robusta beans are pale green with a brown tint, Arabica beans are deep green and slightly larger in size to boot.
While Robusta beans are definitely the hardier crop, Arabica beans produce a much superior brew whose flavors will be milder, more aromatic, and overall less bitter than those produced by Robusta beans. This is what makes Arabica blends richer in every sense of the word.
As I said earlier, Robusta beans are really all about function. Since they are a hearty and economical crop, the beans they produce are oftentimes used for blends. Sometimes the combination of Arabica and Robusta is just right for lighter roasts.
Key #2: Origin of the Bean
Like those who grow up in The Bronx may find themselves with a distinct accent the rest of their lives, where a coffee bean “grows up” will determine their flavor characteristics upon brewing no matter how darkly they are roasted or how they are brewed. Generally there are 3 world regions were the finest coffee beans originate and each region produces coffee with unique and distinct flavors.
Region 1: Latin America
You can expect beans originating from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Columbia, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico to posses the following flavor characteristics:
- Light body, sweet, balanced and with high acidity
- To preserve the brightness and downplay bitterness, these beans should have a mild to medium roast
- Beans from Latin America are easily enjoyed with all breakfast foods, toasts, and muffins
Region 2: Africa/Arabia
Coffee Beans grown on the continent of Africa, in the middle-east, and Arabia regions tend towards the below flavors:
- Medium body and acidity with an almost syrupy feel
- Recommended roast for coffee from this region is dark, to balance the complex flavors that can range from spicy to chocolaty, from wine-like to citrus-like
- Enjoy beans from Region 2 with milk chocolate or cheese tarts
Region 3: Indonesia and the Pacific Island Region
Beans from Asia, Indonesia, and surrounding Pacific Islands will have the following flavor characteristics:
- Heavy body with low acidity. Hearty and earthy flavors
- This robust blend should be roasted dark to very dark for a hearty brew that preserves the beans smooth and flowery undertones
- Brews of Region 3 beans are truly enjoyable with dark chocolate, caramel, and other rich deserts. Or enjoy a cup on its own; after all, it is an independent brew!
Key #3: What’s In a Roast?
Familiarizing yourself with the different types of roasts and their characteristics is the fastest and easiest way to predict the flavor of the coffee beans you are about to brew. Along with the bean species and bean origin, the roast is heavily responsible for determining the aroma, acidity, body, and flavor of your chosen bean. Familiarize yourself with the following Roasting Rules, and you will be on your way to becoming a true coffee connoisseur!
Rule 1: Light Roasts = light brown cinnamon color with low body and low acidity (usually low in flavor too)
Rule 2: Medium Roasts = medium brown color with medium acidity and increases body
Rule 3: Dark Roasts = Deep brownish/black color with oil. Flavor may decrease while body increases
Rule 4: Dark roasts do not produce a stronger cup, but rather produce a more consistent cup.
Rule 5: Any type of bean from any region can be roasted light, medium, or dark.
The roast you choose, will depend on both the flavors or the feel of the coffee you prefer and what kind of coffee you are brewing. For example, dark roasts work very well with espresso. Within the general light, medium, and dark categories there are sub-categories of roasting and the roast type is usually associated with the region.
More to the Bean than Meets the Eye
So who ever thought each little coffee bean could be so complicated? Hopefully this brief introduction clarified a few things about coffee for you and helped you understand what the terminology of the bean means or more importantly how it effects your cup of coffee. After all, the goal has been and always will be delicious home brewed coffee and espresso. Understanding all you can about your coffee beans is one of the most important keys to succeeding in your coffee quest.