There are many different types of coffee species, not unlike the different species of other fruits out there. Still, most of the beans produced and used can be divided into two main species: Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica beans account for a majority of the coffee produced and sold in the world today. And, the account for about 60% of the world’s coffee consumption. They’re generally considered to be of a higher quality than the other bean types and are grown predominantly in Latin America.
Robusta beans, on the other hand, are a much stronger and bitter bean that is produced and used in many types of espressos and even for those that prefer a really strong coffee. They tend to have around double the caffeine content of Arabica beans.
Two less common types are Liberica and Excelsa, which are rarely seen, especially in the United States. The former is grown exclusively in the Phillipines and is not imported at all into the States. On the other hand, the latter (which is often considered a genus of Liberica beans) only makes up about 7% of the world’s consumption and are grown in Southeast Asia.
For those of you who want a little extra info on each of these, read on:
Starting with a fan favorite among coffee connoisseurs, estimates for Arabica’s prevalence in the world production range from 60 to 75 percent. These plants are occasionally referred to as the mountain varieties because they are grown at higher altitudes with ample shade and steady rainfall.
Overall, this is the most “delicate” or least hardy of the different types. That means that growing it in the wrong environment could severely and negatively the success of the crop. Also, they are more susceptible to diseases. (We mean plant diseases, not the flu)
While there is obviously a high amount of variation among different localities, Arabica beans tend to have brighter bodies. Also, they usually have with more complex flavor profiles and aromas, which is why they tend to be more popular among serious coffee drinkers.
These beans are showcased best by hot brewing, especially manual techniques like pour over. However, their depth and complexity can get overshadowed or diluted if you go for creamers and sugars or cold brewing methods.
Next, the other very common type of coffee bean is Robusta. Rather than gaining its popularity through quality and depth of the brew, these plants are popular for for their high caffeine level and hardiness.
While they do thrive in hotter climates and varied rainfall, Robusta beans are known for being able to put up with a much wider range of climates and altitudes. Also, they withstand diseases much better than other varieties. That resistance makes them better for growing in large crops.
Higher quality robust tends to have a lower acidity and heavy body. These brews stand up better against things like cream and sugar, making them great for something like Vietnamese Coffee. And it works well in blends like Death Wish that are specifically curated for their caffeine kick.
LIBERICA AND EXCELSA
Excelsa is actually a sub variety of Liberica; however, the two types have very different profiles, so many people still consider them two completely different types.
Liberica beans peaked in popularity in the 1890s when coffee rust destroyed 90% of the world’s Arabica crops. The Philippines were the first to start any kind of serious production and thus became a major supplier. https://dc6865a84950a4062e879c7b71507e3c.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
These beans were (and are when you can find them) known for having a distinct, woody or smoky flavor with a full body and floral or fruity aroma.
However, after the Philippines declared independence, trade between there and the United States was cut off. So by the time a crop of Liberica could be reestablished, Arabica had already reclaimed the top spot for coffee production. It has remained that way since then.
On the other hand, the tart and fruity Excelsa bean type is a bit easier to find. It grows on massive 20 to 30 foot coffee trees (as opposed to the max 6 ft trees that Arabica grows on). These beans are mostly used to add an extra layer of complexity and depth to coffee blends, rather than being sold on their own.
Their light-roast-esque flavors stay true even with slightly darker roasts which is why some people do still seek them out.
VARIETIES AND VARIETALS EXPLAINED
First off, let’s dispel some confusion about these terms. If you’ve been dabbling in the coffee community for awhile, you’ve likely come across them before but might not know exactly what they are referring to.
A coffee’s “variety” is a classification term that identifies a specific subspecies or genetic makeup of the coffee plant. The term “varietal” is used for the resulting brew or product that comes from a singular variety of coffee. Among coffee varieties there are original (naturally occurring) varieties, Sub-varieties, mutations, interspecific hybrids, and infraspecific hybrids.
If you’re into botany, going further will likely be pretty interesting, but it may just seem like a bunch of nonsense to other people. So know that you don’t really need to be familiar with every single variety to buy good coffee.
They mainly differ in growing potential and requirements as well as look (bean and leaf shape), which is more important to farmers than it is to you. The quality of the brand you’re buying from should indicate how well they work with the variety they’re growing.
But for those of you who are interested, let’s look at some of the more well-known varieties (these all technically fall under the Arabica family tree):
Typica is your “typical” Arabica. It’s a variety that encompasses a number of the most popular and most sought after regional coffees including Kona, Java, Jamaican Blue Mountain, and more. This variety started in Yemen before being spread far and wide through trade. It first made it to Malabar India and Indonesia before eventually reaching the West
Some subvarieties of Typica include Sumatra, Bergendal, Rume Sudan, Amarello de Botancatú, Blawan Paumah, and Java Mocha. Also, there are a number of Typica mutations, including Mokka*, Pluma Hidalgo, Creole, Ethiopian Harrar, Blue Mountain, Villa Sarchi, San Ramón, and Sidikalang (just to name a few).
*Not to be confused with the Mocha drink, which the original chocolatey flavor of these Yemeni beans inspired.
Bourbon is probably one of the most common sub varieties of Typica. It got its start in the early 1700s when the French brought an Arabica Typica plat to the island of Bourbon (now Réunion). A slight mutation occurred and the variety eventually spread across Central and South America. These plants are popular because they produce more coffee cherries than other Typica varieties.
Sub-varieties of Bourbon include French Mission, N39, Mayaguez, Arusha, Jackson, K20, Kenya Selected, and SL35 ; and Pointu, Semperlorens, Caturra, SL34, Tekic, and Pacas are mutations from this variety.
This is an original variety of Arabica. It is named for the Ethiopian village that it originated from and wasn’t actually planted/harvested commercialy until the 1950s. It is resistant to coffee rust and is now primarily grown in Panama.The trees are rather tall with notably long leaves that mimic the shape of the beans.
Obviously, these aren’t nearly all of the coffee varieties that are out there, but we figured it might help to get an idea of how they are all interconnected. For further reading, Medium has a helpful “periodic table” to help demonstrate the connections. And the World Coffee Research catalog is a great research if you want to more specifically explore individual Arabica varieties.
If you’re interested in exploring a variety of coffees every month, I’d recommend checking out your list of the best coffee of the month clubs.
Now let’s more on to the simultaneously less and more complex world of coffee drinks, shall we?