Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, but it comes in many types and varieties. Many of the key distinctions can be traced to the beans from which the beverage originates. Beans lend flavor based first on their type, and second on the soil conditions of where they were grown. How the beans are roasted also influences the end result, as does brewing and preparation technique. There are many different types of coffee beverage, as well, ranging from a standard drip brew to more exotic espresso or French press creations.
Types of Beans
Most of the world’s coffee comes from one of two types of bean: Arabica or Robusta. The vast majority of beans on the market are of the Arabica variety. These beans typically have a smooth, consistent flavor, and grow very well in a variety of climates.
Robusta beans are used less frequently, in large part because they tend to have a bitterer, more acidic taste. Much of this has to do with soil conditions, however. In the right climate and with the right terrain, robusta beans can produce brews of startling consistency and flavor. Hawaiian-grown Kona coffee is one example of Robusta beans at their best.
Significant Geographical Distinctions
Coffee’s flavor is usually determined more by the beans' growing region than their variety. The beans tend to take on flavor characteristics of both their geography and topography, and for this reason are often sold by place name. Ethiopian varieties tend to be smooth and sometimes floral, for instance, while beans from nearby Kenya typically have a stronger, more pungent taste. Beans grown in the rocky, volcanic soil common to islands in the Pacific yield similarly different results from those cultivated in Latin American rain forests and mountains. Much depends on sunlight, water, and overall soil nutrients.
Coffee beans are typically of little use to beverage brewers when raw. To release their flavors and aromas, they must be roasted. There are several different techniques and processes that can be used, each of which leads to a slightly different outcome.
When first picked, beans are sealed within a red berry. The exterior must be peeled away to reveal a green interior pod. Throughout several phases of roasting, that green pod turns light brown, caramelizes, then roasts to dark brown, becoming easily recognizable as a standard coffee bean.
Roasters can control the strength and overall flavor by adjusting both the beans’ nearness to heat and their duration of exposure. Method can also influence the final product. Most roasting happens in trays over an open flame, but there are many variations including roasting machines and specialized roasting ovens.
Bean Purchase Options
There are several different ways to buy beans. Some specialty shops and cafes will sell the beans whole, often just after roasting — this is often the most cost-effective purchase option, but the customer will usually have to grind the beans independently before using them. Ground coffee is easier to find commercially, but is not usually as fresh. Some roasters will also grind beans fresh to order, but this is usually a costlier option.
It is often possible to buy decaffeinated coffee, either in whole bean or ground form. Decaffeinated varieties are usually no different in flavor from their regular counterparts, but have undergone a chemical process to remove many of the caffeine compounds. These beans typically still contain trace amounts of the stimulant, but only in very low quantities.
Ways to Prepare
Just as there are different ways to grow and roast coffee beans, there are different ways to prepare those beans into a beverage. The simplest, most traditional method is to brew coffee grounds in hot water. This can be done on the stove, but is more commonly completed with the help of an appliance known as a drip coffee machine. The idea is to expose ground beans to hot water just long enough for the water to take on the coffee’s unique flavor. Grounds are typically filtered out before serving.
Brews made using a French press are often a bit stronger. This method requires boiling water to be poured over the grounds, then allowed to steep for some time. A “press,” usually a mesh filter, is used to isolate the grounds at the bottom of the brewing chamber when it is time to serve.
Espresso is also a popular style, particularly in Europe. Hot water and steam are forced very quickly through ground beans, typically a dark roast, using a dedicated espresso machine. The resulting brew is quite strong, and has a concentrated coffee taste.
So-called “instant coffee” is available in many markets, and requires no brewing to prepare. Most instant mixes are made from pre-brewed grounds, and are specially designed to dissolve in hot water. Instant mix is made from beans, but is usually much weaker and has a distinctively different flavor from that which is made fresh. Much is usually lost in processing, but the trade-off is often worth it for those who are on the go or who would rather not deal with the mechanics of brewing.
While many people enjoy coffee as a beverage all on its own, there are a lot of variations. Adding milk and sugar is common, as is icing the beverage and serving it cold. Espresso is often paired with foamed or frothed milk to create specialty drinks like lattes and macchiatos. Drip brews are also added to a number of commercially prepared drinks, usually as a means of boosting caffeine content or promoting energy.