When we talk about varieties of coffee, we’re not talking espresso, cappuccino or flat white, but about the different species of coffee plants and the different types of beans they produce, both of which can influence the flavour of your daily cup.
Four types of coffee beans
Put simply, there are four main types of coffee beans: Arabica, Excelsa, Liberica and Robusta. Other
varieties of coffee plant may well exist in the wild, but these four are the most commercially significant due to their characteristics such as resistance to disease and yield. All coffee beans are
grown in the fifty countries around the world that belong to the so-called Bean Belt, between the
tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The four varieties all have very different flavour profiles.
ARABICA is the most popular bean and accounts for about 60 per cent of the world’s coffee
production. It would be higher if Arabica were not as susceptible to disease. In terms of the coffee
Arabica beans produce, it is considered of the highest quality, making these beans the most expensive. They result in a coffee with a sweet and mild flavour lacking in bitterness.
Arabica beans originated back in the mists of time in the highlands of Ethiopia and are probably the first coffee beans to ever have been consumed. Unfortunately, or fortunately if you happen to be involved in their production, Arabica beans are expensive because they are not all that easy to grow due to their need for increased shade, water and high altitude, a minimum of 600 metres above sea level.
ROBUSTA is the second most popular type of bean. It is thought to have originated in sub-Saharan Africa and is now grown across Africa and Indonesia. Because it is less expensive, Robusta is often mixed into coffee blends with its more expensive cousin Arabica. Its flavour tends to be harsher and stronger than Arabica, with an almost burnt taste. Robusta is also significantly higher in caffeine.
These contrasts make these two varieties the perfect pair when it comes to blends, particularly for instant coffee and espresso.
LIBERICA can be one of the hardest types of coffee bean to come by. Larger than other varieties, they have a floral aroma and bold, smoky flavour. Native to Central and West Africa – especially Liberia, hence the name – these beans are often blended with others and make up about 2% of the international coffee supply, despite rarely making it onto the North American or European markets.
EXCELSA beans have recently been reclassified as a variant of Liberica and are grown almost entirely in Southeast Asia. Excelsa beans are often found in blends due to their ability to add complexity and fruity flavours.
Types of Coffee Blends
A coffee blend is a mixture of two or more different origin beans combined with the aim of taking the best qualities of each bean to create the desired flavour. By different origins, we don’t
necessarily mean different countries; this can be defined by as little as varying altitudes in the same area, micro differences that can affect bean flavour. Generally speaking, blends tend to be less overpowering than single origin coffees, so make the perfect foil for traditional espresso-based milky coffees, such as lattes and cappuccinos.
The need to create a coffee blend can also be financially motivated as some beans are more expensive than others, while some can be produced in larger quantities. Blended coffees are also
available all year round as they are not subject to seasonality in the way that single origin coffees can be.
When all is said and done, the most important thing is to find the blend that suits you, and that may not always be the same for every coffee you drink. The good news is that the flavour of coffee beans is at its best roughly one to three weeks after roasting, so regularly switching it up doesn’t have to be that tricky a prospect.
Different types of regional coffee
Despite what you might think, an espresso isn’t always just that. The Italian peninsula abounds with different takes on these tiny cups of dark, energy-boosting goodness. A classic Neapolitan coffee goes heavy on the Robusta, upping both the caffeine and full-bodied flavour. In contrast, further north, Turin is home to the indulgent “bicerin”, a traditional local drink made from espresso coffee, chocolate and cream. Perfect for keeping out the winter chills.
Come summer, a “caffè in ghiaccio” in the Puglian city of Lecce is the ideal way to stay cool. Thought to have been invented more than 70 years ago by local ice distributor Antonio Quarta, almondmilk is its key ingredient. Even more unusually, a “caffè padovano”, dreamt up in Padua’s iconic Caffè Pedrocchi, is flavoured with mint syrup whipped with cream and milk.
Finally, the Tuscan port city of Livorno traditionally fuelled local sailors with a “ponce”, thought to be a corruption of the English word “punch”, made from coffee enriched with rum, sugar and lemon peel.