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You’ve finally decided to grind and brew your own coffee. But when you walk down the coffee aisle of a decent supermarket, the bins filled with coffee beans can seem 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!”
Don’t panic. There are only four types of coffee beans, and just two to be concerned with.
Here’s a crash course to get you started.
It’s really not as complicated as it first appears. Here’s why: “light roast,” “dark roast,” “Colombian,” and “Kona” aren’t different types of coffee beans.
The first two phrases, light roast and dark roast, describe how much heat the beans have been subjected to during the roasting process.
Light, medium and dark roasts are all made from the same beans. The distinction is that light roast beans have been exposed to much less heat than dark roast beans, either due to a shorter roasting time or higher temperatures. Medium roast beans, of course, are “in the middle.”
Heat intensity dramatically affects the flavor, aroma and caffeine levels of the coffee produced from coffee beans – but any beans can be light roasted, medium roasted, or dark roasted.
The second two words, Colombian and Kona, 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.
In the examples we’re discussing, Colombian beans are from the nation of Colombia, and Kona beans are almost always from Hawaii.
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 how to distinguish between the four types of coffee beans. After that, 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.
As we’ve mentioned, the first two are the only ones you’re likely to find when you go shopping.
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 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.
Arabica 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 coffee plants. They also require lots of shade and rain which is why they flourish best at high altitudes, at least 2,000 feet.
That 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. Nearly all 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.” These beans 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 plants.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand how Robusta beans got their name. The plant they come from (coffea canephora) is a robust one – and the flavor of Robusta coffee can best be described as “robust” as well.
Coffea canephora 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 Robusta beans sold today come from Brazil and Southeast Asia (primarily Vietnam and Indonesia), 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 consumers 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 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. They’re often used to produce coffee blends, balancing the taste (and cost) of Arabica beans. Robusta is also used to make many commercially-sold instant coffees.
Arabica and Robusta are the two types of coffee beans you’ll commonly 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. Others who’ve tried it say it simply tastes like wood with a nasty aftertaste.
Don’t be scared to look for it, though. You’ll probably never get the chance to try it unless you deliberately seek it out.
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 quite difficult to find in the Western world.
Published: January 25, 2022
Last Updated: August 19, 2022
8 min read
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