Coffee is complex. If you’ve ever seen a bag from a high-end local café, you may have wondered about growing regions, collectives, harvesting processes, elevations, roasting temperatures, and more. And what’s the difference between washed, unwashed, and semi-washed? If you’re just beginning your coffee journey, it can be overwhelming. But perhaps the best place to start is by looking at the different types of coffee beans.
If you have some experience in the coffee world, you might already know the two main types: robusta and arabica. But have you heard of Excelsa and Liberica?
What Are Robusta Coffee Beans?
Native to Africa but commonly produced in Vietnam, Robusta beans come from the flowering plant coffea Canephora.
Robusta beans contain 2.5 to 2.7 percent more caffeine than Arabica beans, and about half the amount of sugar. They actually produce caffeine as a chemical defense against bugs.
While Arabica beans are typically used by most high-end cafés, Robusta has its shining moments. It’s like the dark chocolate of coffee: strong, harsh, bitter, and earthy. Unsurprisingly, many espresso blends are made from Robusta beans.
And because the Robusta plant yields far more than its counterparts, Robusta beans are far cheaper. As a result, many instant coffees use Robusta beans.
Due to its affordability and intense flavors, Robusta coffee is one of the most popular in the world. It makes up nearly half of the world’s coffee production — around fort percent, to be precise.
What Are Arabica Coffee Beans?
Arabica is like the quieter, more mature, older sister of Robusta, both in cultivation and flavor.
Native to Ethiopia, Arabica beans come from the flowering plant coffea Arabica.
Today, farmers grow Arabica plants in tropical climates with lots of shade and rainfall, like Guatemala and Costa Rica. And as the plant typically grows at a high elevation — where there’s less oxygen — it matures slowly, producing higher concentration of citric acid. This translates to richer flavors.
While Arabica crops are delicate — prone to pest infestations, diseases, and weather — Arabica is still the most common species of coffee bean. It has dozens of sub-types.
Arabica beans contain far more sugar and fat than Robusta beans, and about half the amount of caffeine.
During the roasting process these key flavors — sugar, fat, and alcohol… yes, there is alcohol in coffee — undergo the Maillard Reaction, a chemical reaction that gives browned food its rich flavor.
For coffee beans — especially Arabica beans — the Maillard Reaction produces the subtlety sweet and fruity flavors distinctive to Arabica coffee.
Sugar, fat, sweet and fruit. No wonder it’s the most consumed and produced coffee globally!
And thanks to the fact that Arabica plants self-pollinate (in contrast to Robusta plants, which cross-pollinate), Arabica beans and coffee are consistent in flavor and production.
What Are Liberica Coffee Beans?
You may not have heard of Liberica beans, which produce coffee that has a smoky, “liquid tobacco” taste. It only makes up one to two percent of coffee beans produced globally.
Native to Liberia, the plants that grow the almond-sized and shaped Liberica beans have flourished in Asia and South America. The Liberica bean was introduced to Southeast Asia as the solution to the 19th century ‘coffee rust’ disease, which swept out most of the Arabica plants.
Today, those South East Asian countries make up the majority of global Liberica production and consumption.
As Liberica beans are quite difficult to obtain due to low rates of cultivation, they aren’t as easy to find in the West.
But if you do come across one, don’t expect it to look like any other coffee bean you’ve seen before. Liberica beans are nearly double the size of Arabica beans, and have quite a unique taste.
What Are Excelsa Coffee Beans?
Last but not least is the Excelsa bean.
Classified as a member of the Liberica family, the Excelsa plant shares similar attributes with the former but is also different.
Today Excelsa grows mainly in Southeast Asia, cultivates at medium altitudes, and reaches high heights, and produces slightly smaller beans than Liberica.
Yet, Excelsa coffee is more widely circulated than its sister — — making up seven percent of coffee beans produced globally.
Due to Excelsa’s tart and ripe fruity flavor, most people prefer not to drink it alone. Rather, producers often blend it with other coffee types — especially Arabica — as its strong flavor packs a punch amidst soft aromatics.
The Bottom Line On Different Types Of Coffee Beans
Each coffee type brings something different to the table. Arabica dominates with delicate sweet flavors, Robusta strikes with a firm bite, and Liberica and Excelsa add unconventional zest. Try each type to figure out what makes sense for your pallet.