Choosing Coffee Beans by Species, Origin, Roast, Blend & Flavouring
Once you have your coffee beans at home, you can influence the flavor of your cup by varying the grinder setting and the brewing technique; but it is what happens before you bring your beans home that has the most impact on coffee flavour and quality. The five things you will need to consider when buying are:
There are more than 50 species of coffee plant world wide, but only two species – Arabica and Robusta – are used in commercial coffee production.
Due to its preferred flavor, Arabica is the most sought after coffee. When buying single origin coffees, you will find that they are composed of 100% Arabica beans. In general, Robusta coffee beans are used only in blends. If you are looking to grind and brew your own coffee at home, look for either single-origin coffee, or blends of 100% Arabica coffee beans.
The following table compares the features of the two species:
|Caffeine Level||Low – about half that of Robusta||High – about twice that of Arabica|
|Flavor||Mild and aromatic||Sharp, bitter|
|Shape||Flat, elongated||Oval, rounded, convex|
|Color||Deep green with a silvery blue tinge||Pale green/yellow with a brown or grey tinge|
|Cultivation||High altitude. Requires careful cultivation||Low altitude (often at sea level). Hardy plant. Requires little rainfall|
|Region||Central America, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, Ethiopia,Thailand.||West and Central Africa, Brazil, South East Asia.|
|Usage||About 70% of world’s coffee production. Arabica is used in fine coffee, including estate and gourmet blends.||About 25% of the world’s coffee production. Robusta is used in instant coffee and espresso blends for it’s high caffeine level.|
|Botany||Coffea Arabica contains 44 chromosomes.||Coffea Canephoracontains 22 chromosomes.|
|Price||More expensive than Robusta.||Less expensive than Arabica.|
As you walk into a coffee market, you are confronted with numerous varieties and styles of coffee beans. Varieties include Kenyan, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Java and Ethiopian Mocha – just to name a few.
After species, the second biggest flavour determining factor of coffee is its region of origin. The altitude, soil type, climate and methods of harvesting for a particular region result in common flavors across coffee beans from that region. The easiest way to categorize the coffee regions is to divide them into these three locales: Asia-Indonesia-Pacific, Africa/Arabia and Central-and-South-America. Within these three locales, many different coffee beans are harvested. As a brief guide, the tables below will serve you well:
Region 1 – Latin America
Area Central and South America, Caribbean, Columbia, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico
Acidity medium to high
Flavor well-balanced, sweet, intense, tangy
Recommended Roast Mild to medium – to preserve the brightness of the bean without introducing bitterness
Accompaniment Breakfast, toast, muffins
Region 2 – Africa/Arabia
Area African continent, middle-east, Arabia
Body medium, syrupy
Flavor spicy, wine-like, cocoa, citrus fruits and berries, wild
Recommended Roast Dark
Accompaniment Milk chocolate, cheesecake
Region 3 – Asia-Indo-Pacific
Area Asia, Indonesia and surrounding pacific islands
Body bold, strong, heavy
Flavor powerful, robust, earthy, smooth, flowery, robust, hearty, bitter tones
Recommended Roast Dark to Very Dark
Accompaniment Dark Chocolate, Rich desserts, Caramel
As well as species and region, the degree of the roast plays a large part in determining the flavor of your favorite coffee. The roasting process caramelizes the bean sugars and releases the coffee oils, chemically changing coffee beans from green and unappetizing, to shiny, brown and fragrant.
Roasts and Brewing Methods – each of the levels of roast listed below can be used for any method of coffee making, with the exception of espresso, for which you should use only a dark, or very-dark roast.
Roast Flavor vs Bean Flavor – the light, or pale cinnamon roast should only be used with very high quality coffee. This is because the lighter the roast, the more of the coffee bean traits you will taste in the cup. A light roast will mask none of the coffee’s origin traits. A dark roast will take on the overall characteristic flavour of the roast, masking the flavour of the individual beans.
Milk? – High quality coffees, with their agreeable acidity, benefit from the light or medium roasts and generally taste good with milk. The darker roasts should be served black.
Levels / Degrees of Roast –
Other Names Color Lustre Taste
Light Cinnamon Roast Pale-brown None Sharp, acidic
Medium American Roast,
City roast Brown Mild Bittersweet tang
Dark Continental Roast,
Viennese Roast Dark-brown Shiny Smoky
Very Dark French Roast,
New Orleans Roast,
Full Roast Almost black Glossy Smoky, rich
Caffeine – Darker roasts contain slightly less caffeine than lighter roasts.
When to Roast?, When to Blend? – Some coffees are roasted first, in single-origin batches before being blended. Others are blended first before being roasted together. Each technique has its own advantages and disadvantages, with coffee buffs arguing the point either way. Some argue that since each variety of bean has an optimum level of roast, they should be roasted first and blended later. Others say that blending should occur before the roast to allow full integration of bean flavors during roasting. For convenience sake, many large coffee roasting factories will blend before roasting.
So far we have discussed species, region and roast. The next flavour factor – coffee blending – has a large impact on the flavour of your cup. Although the most common intention is to improve the flavour and quality of the cup by balancing the acidity, body and aroma of various beans.
Here are some tips when trying blends:
Choose 100% Arabica blends. These may be sourced from different regions, but will still be high quality.
Choose the correct blend for your brewing method. Espresso blends are quite different from drip/filter blends and one will not suit the other very well.
When selecting unblended, Estate or Single-Origin beans, be aware that you are entering aficionado-territory and may not appreciate some of the more ‘unique’ and intense characteristics that are highly prized by the critics.
Be wary of the terms “Gourmet Coffee” and “Specialty Coffee”. These terms are often used to describe coffees that have been flavoured. Check with the vendor to be sure of what you are buying.
For the purist, flavoured coffee is not an option. But, if the thought of vanilla, butterscotch or Irish cream flavoured coffee appeals to you, then you’re not alone. It seems flavoured coffees are becoming more and more popular as small cafes and coffee shops attempt to capture their market with speciality flavours.