Types of Coffee Beans: Not As Complicated As It Seems

You’re tired of spending your life savings at Starbucks, so you’ve just bought your first coffee grinder and coffee maker.

When you visit a coffee shop or walk down the coffee aisle of a decent supermarket, though, the bins filled with coffee beans can be overwhelming. 

Light roast. Medium roast. Medium-dark roast and dark roast. Beans from Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia. Brazil. Kona coffee and Colombian coffee and Kenyan coffee.

“I just want some coffee beans!”

Calm down, dear reader. It’s really not as complicated as it might seem. 

Light, medium and dark just describe the way the beans have been roasted, in order to enhance their natural flavors. Countries of origin simply provide hints about some of the flavor characteristics you might expect. Those distinctions can help you choose your beans once you’ve become a coffee expert.

But in reality, there are only four different types of coffee beans – and you’re unlikely to find two of them in any store near you.

Here’s a crash course to get you started.

1. Arabica Beans

You’re probably most familiar with Arabica coffee, even if you’ve never seen the beans. They’re the “bean of choice” for most coffee lovers, and for coffee shops who are primarily concerned with the flavor of their brew.

Arabica coffee beans (which grow on the coffea Arabica plant) are the most popular in the world, responsible for making about 60% of the world’s coffee. They originally came from the Ethiopian highlands; after being brought to the part of 7th century Arabia now known as Yemen, they were transported throughout the world.

These coffee plants are somewhat tricky to grow. They’re fragile, so they require lots of careful tending. They’re susceptible to pests and “coffee rust,” a fungus that quickly destroys the plants. They also require lots of shade and rain, which is why they flourish best at high altitudes, at least 2,000 feet.

That’s means – unlike other types of coffee – Arabica can’t be grown everywhere in the so-called “Bean Belt,” the subtropical and tropical regions between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. It will only thrive in nations with high elevations. Brazil, and to a lesser extent Colombia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru and Guatemala, are responsible for most of the world’s Arabica bean production.

For all of those reasons, Arabica beans are more expensive than most other coffee beans. Most coffee drinkers think they’re worth their price, though.

There’s a good reason you often see companies brag that they use “100% Arabica beans.” They usually produce the highest-quality coffee, smooth and sweet, with complex and intricate flavor undertones that may include fruit, sugar or chocolate. They will usually contain just enough acidity and very little bitterness.

The higher quality of Arabica coffee makes it easy to understand why Arabica beans dominate the world’s coffee production, despite the challenges of growing coffea Arabica.

2. Robusta Beans

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand how Robusta beans got their name. The plant they come from (coffea caniphora) is a robust one – and the flavor of Robusta coffee can best be described as “robust” as well.

Coffea caniphora first grew in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s now grown in other sections of the Bean Belt, because it’s hardier and more tolerant of its environment than the Arabica plant. Most of the beans sold today come from Southeast Asia (primarily Vietnam and Indonesia) and Brazil, although India and Uganda are also noteworthy for their production of Robusta coffee beans.

Robusta plants require hot weather but are hardier than Arabica, they grow larger and taller, and they produce greater yields. Those are three of the reasons that Robusta is the second most-commonly grown type of coffee bean; they’re essentially easier and cheaper to produce, and some opt for Robusta beans because they’re less expensive to buy.

Here’s the other attraction to these beans: their caffeine content. Robusta beans have almost double the amount of caffeine naturally present in Arabica beans. That extra caffeine appears to boost the medical benefits of coffee brewed from Robusta beans, and it also serves as protection against disease and predators while the plants are growing.

Robusta coffee is generally harsher with a heavier body. It usually has a somewhat-bitter taste that may verge on the edge of burnt, and a stronger aroma. Some high-quality Robusta beans can actually be smooth and less bitter, but it requires a decent amount of coffee knowledge to find them. Single-origin beans (all sourced from the same country, the same producer, and usually the same farm) from specific growers and regions are more likely to be worth seeking out.

Robusta’s robust, deep flavor profile stands up well to creamer, milk, sugar and other added ingredients, and when used to make Italian espresso, the beans produce a rich and thick crema. End users aren’t the primary market for Robusta beans, though. They’re commonly used to produce coffee blends, balancing the taste (and cost) of Arabica beans. Robusta is also used to make many commercially-sold instant coffees.

3. Liberica Beans

Arabica and Robusta are the two main types of coffee beans you’ll see sold in America. Liberica beans, however, may be worth seeking out.

This varietal grows on the coffea liberica plant, originally found in Liberia (hence the plant’s name). But a coffee rust epidemic destroyed most of the coffee production in that West African nation, and the plants are now mostly grown in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Liberica coffee is particularly popular in the latter country, where it’s known locally as Kapeng Barako.

Liberica is relatively easy to grow, but it requires hot and humid climates and produces small yields, so there’s very little of it on the market. Liberica beans make up about 2% of the world’s coffee production, and they are extremely difficult to find in the West. The best place to look for them is in grocery stores that serve Filipino neighborhoods.

Liberica coffee beans contain even less caffeine than Arabica beans, but some coffee drinkers around the world love the floral aroma and nutty, bold taste of Liberica coffee (if they can find it, that is). Others who’ve tried it say it simply tastes like wood, with a nasty aftertaste. Don’t be scared, though. You’ll probably never get the chance to try it, unless you deliberately seek it out.

4. Excelsa Beans

Excelsa coffee beans are quite different from Liberica beans – but surprisingly, they’ve recently been reclassified as a variant of Liberica. That’s apparently because they each have the same almond shape, they each grow almost exclusively in Southeast Asia, and they each grow on 20-30 foot high plants that are more like trees.

About 7% of the world’s coffee beans come from the coffea excela plant, and some veteran coffee drinkers say Excelsa beans produce the tastiest cup of coffee of all. It has the tart, fruity flavor of a light roast, but with additional notes that are more like those you’d find in a dark roast. That odd combination explains the most common use of Excelsa beans; they’re often used in flavor blends with Arabica and/or Robusta beans, to add more complexity.

These beans are also quite difficult to find in the Western world.

What About All of Those Other Names for Coffee Beans?

As we mentioned at the start, “light roast,” “dark roast,” “Columbian,” and “Kona” aren’t different types of coffee beans.

The first two phrases describe how long roasters have subjected their beans to heat, in order to alter their flavor, aroma and caffeine levels. The second two words simply describe where the beans came from; they usually provide valuable clues to a coffee’s body or flavor, but they aren’t separate types of coffee beans.

If you’re just moving past the stage of life where you order a coffee at Dunkin or coffee drinks at Starbucks, your best bet is to first learn to distinguish between Arabica and Robusta beans. Then you’ll be ready to experiment with different roasts and countries of origin. Becoming a true coffee aficionado is a long journey, but an extremely enjoyable one.

Written by Liz Moore

8 min read

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