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Introduction to Coffee Beans
It’s hard to imagine a world without coffee. There are so many different types of coffee beans available that it can be overwhelming for beginners to figure out where to start. To help with this, I’ve created a comprehensive guide to whole bean coffee that covers different varieties, roasts, origins and flavour notes.
History of Coffee
Coffee beans can be traced back to the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia. It is believed that coffee beans were first discovered by a goatherd named Kaldi, who noticed that his goats became more energetic after eating the red berries of a particular shrub. Intrigued, Kaldi tried the berries himself and experienced a similar burst of energy.
Word of this miraculous plant quickly spread, and soon people all over Ethiopia were consuming the roasted and ground berries as a beverage. From Ethiopia, the use of coffee beans spread to the countries of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where it became an integral part of their cultures and social customs.
In the 16th century, coffee beans were introduced to Europe, where they quickly gained popularity. By the 17th century, coffee had become a fashionable drink amongst the wealthy and was being served in coffee houses, which became important centres of social and political life.
Coffee Beans Today
Today, coffee beans are grown in over 50 countries around the world, with the largest producers being Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. The cultivation of coffee beans requires specific climatic conditions, and the beans are typically grown in regions located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
Types of Coffee Beans
Whilst there are many types of coffee beans, the 2 main ones are: Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica beans are known for their smooth, sweet flavour and are grown at high elevations in countries like Colombia, Ethiopia, and Brazil. These beans make up about 60% of the global coffee market and are often sold as Single Origin Coffee.
Robusta beans, are a popular choice for those who prefer a strong and bold coffee flavour. Grown at lower elevations in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, these beans are known for their earthy taste and high caffeine content. Despite being used mainly in instant coffees and as filler in espresso blends, robusta beans constitute a significant portion of the global coffee market, accounting for about 40% of it.
So, we have 3 typical coffee roast levels, these being: light, medium, and dark roast.
Light roast coffee beans are preferred by those who enjoy a brighter and more acidic cup of coffee. The roasting process for coffee beans can greatly affect their taste and aroma. Light roasts are perfect for those who want to taste the unique flavor notes of the coffee plant.
Additionally, whole bean coffee is recommended for those who want to grind their own beans for maximum freshness. Overall, roast level is a personal preference and can greatly impact the final taste of the coffee.
During the roasting process, coffee beans undergo chemical changes that alter their flavour and aroma. As the beans roast, the natural sugars in the beans caramelise and the beans begin to turn brown. The longer the beans roast, the darker their colour becomes. Light roast coffee beans are roasted until they reach an internal temperature of about 410°F (210°C).
Coffee beans that are roasted to a light degree are often preferred by those who enjoy a more complex and nuanced flavour profile. The roasting temperature used for light roast coffee is typically lower than for darker roasts, which allows the volatile compounds and aromatic compounds in the beans to remain more intact.
Additionally, the lipids and fatty acids in the beans are not as heavily broken down during the roasting process, which can contribute to a smoother mouthfeel and a less bitter taste. Overall, light roast coffee is a great choice for those who appreciate the subtleties of coffee flavours and want a cup that is bright and refreshing.
Medium roast coffee beans are known for their balanced flavour profile and smooth, medium-bodied mouthfeel. The flavours of medium roast coffee are more muted than those of light roast coffee, as the roasting process has partially caramelised the beans and caused some of the flavours to be lost. However, the acidity of medium roast coffee is still present, although it is less pronounced than in light roast coffee. Medium roast coffee beans are typically roasted until they reach an internal temperature of about 430°F (220°C).
Dark roast coffee beans are roasted for the longest amount of time. The coffee has a dark brown or almost black colour, a shiny and oily surface, and a strong, bold flavour.
The roasting process has fully caramelised the coffee beans, which gives dark roast coffee its signature deep, dark colour and flavours of chocolate, caramel, and sometimes even a hint of smokiness. The acidity of dark roast coffee is significantly reduced compared to lighter roasts, which can give it a smooth, mellow taste. Dark roast beans are typically roasted until they reach an internal temperature of about 460°F (240°C) or higher.
Coffee Growing Regions
Now, lets go on a journey to the coffee growing regions of the world starting with Africa.
Africa is the second largest continent in the world and is home to a diverse range of climates and landscapes. From the lush rain forests of West Africa to the dry savannas of East Africa, each region has its own unique conditions that impact the growth and production of coffee beans.
The majority of African coffee is grown in the eastern and central parts of the continent, in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. These countries have high elevations, fertile soils, and abundant rainfall, which are all ideal conditions for growing coffee.
Today, Ethiopia is still the largest producer of coffee in Africa, with many small-scale farmers relying on coffee as a major source of income.
Kenya & Tanzania
Kenya and Tanzania are known for their exceptional coffee, which is often described as having bright and fruity flavours. In fact, the Kenyan coffee auction is considered one of the best in the world and attracts buyers from all over the globe.
African Coffee Bean Production
African coffee is often produced using traditional methods. Many small-scale farmers in Africa use manual labour to harvest and process the coffee beans, which results in a slower and more labour-intensive process. However, this method of production also allows for a more hands-on approach to quality control and results in a more consistent and high-quality product.
African coffee beans are described as having fruity flavours, with hints of berries, nuts, chocolate, lemon and wine. These flavours are largely due to the specific growing conditions and processing methods used in Africa.
Central & South America
The majority of coffee in the region is grown in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Peru.
Coffee was first introduced to the region in the 18th century and has since become a major agricultural commodity. Brazil produces nearly 30% of the world’s coffee and has somewhere in the region of 220,000 active coffee farms. A large proportion of Brazilian coffee is of a low grade and used in instant coffee, though you can still get single origin coffees, such as Brazil Santos.
Colombian coffee is some of the most sought-after in the world. Unesco designated the country’s coffee landscape a World heritage site because it’s “an exceptional example of a sustainable and productive cultural landscape that is unique and representative of a tradition that is a strong symbol for coffee growing areas worldwide”.
Columbian coffee is extremely diverse with subtle flavours of chocolate, vanilla and even cola, this is accompanied by a low acidity and balanced sweetness.
Due to the sheer volume of coffee that is produced in this region, mechanical harvesting has become a must, there is simply no way this could effectively be done by hand.
First of all, it’s important to note that Asia is a huge continent with many different countries and regions, each with their own coffee-growing traditions. However, there are some generalisations that can be made about Asian coffee beans as a whole.
One thing that sets Asian coffee apart is its bold, full-bodied flavour. Asian countries generally have a humid and tropical climate, which is ideal for growing Robusta coffee beans. These beans tend to have a higher caffeine content and a more bitter, earthy flavour than the more delicate Arabica beans that are more commonly grown in Latin America and Africa.
When thinking about coffee growing countries Vietnam is not usually at the top of someone’s list. Yet Vietnam is the 2nd largest coffee producer in the world. Vietnam primarily grows Robusta beans for the instant coffee market. If you go to Vietnam mind, you may have the opportunity to drink coffee the way the Vietnamese do, very strong and served with sweetened condensed milk.
Indonesian also produces high quality coffee though they tend to appear under the regions within Indonesia that they come from, examples of this being Bali, Sumatra or Java. Flavours that can be tasted within Indonesian coffee are tobacco, cocoa, and woods such as cedar.
The Caribbean is home to a number of countries and territories that produce coffee, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.
Cuba often experiences heavy rainfall so their coffee production can be sporadic; the coffee tends to be picked by hand, is generally of a higher grade Arabica variety and have an earthy bitter taste.
Jamaica produces one of the most expensive and sought after coffees in the world: Jamaican Blue Mountain. This coffee enjoys having a certification from the Coffee Industry Regulation Act to stop people passing off other coffees under this name. Over 80% of Jamaican Blue Mountain is exported to Japan, so good luck if you manage to get your hands on some. The taste profile is mild, smooth with very strong floral aromas.
So, if you’re a fan of smooth, balanced coffee with a sweet, fruity aroma, then Caribbean coffee beans might be just what you’re looking for.
Coffee beans originated in Ethiopia but has spread over time to a wide area. The flavours are many and varied dependant on region. Your job now, is to find the ones you like.