The Mystery of Coffee Bean Descriptions and Coffee Jargon
The Mixed Blessing of Increased Choice of Coffee Bean Types
With the increasing popularity of coffee comes a great increase in the range and quality of coffee bean types available. Supermarkets now stock beans to satisfy discerning coffee drinkers, and online specialists supply beans you could only read about a few years ago.
But with this popularity comes a couple of downsides. Firstly, brands and stores have to work harder to distinguish themselves. Second, there are many people selling coffee who sound like experts, but don’t know as much as you (or they) may think.
Coffee Bean Descriptions - Sometimes Helpful, Often Confusing
This means increasing amounts of flowery language to describe coffee in stores and on packaging. There are also more folks offering opinions and advice on what to drink. Both the opinions and descriptions can be helpful, but some are less useful, even misleading.
It’s not at all uncommon to feel confused or uncertain by what is written or said about coffee bean types you’re thinking of buying. It’s not obvious what information to rely on, and what to ignore.
How to Figure Out What Descriptions Really Mean
One practical answer is to but from a store where you can rely on what they tell you. We have a few favourite spots where we believe they know what they’re talking about. We occasionally profile these, and are always on the lookout for new places to try out.
Another approach is to increase your own coffee knowledge a little, enough to make informed choices about the coffee bean types available.
Below is a good place to start. It’s the first in a series explaining common terms used in describing coffee beans. It’s based on questions we’ve frequently heard about choosing coffee bean types.
1. What are Arabica and Robusta beans?
These are the two species of coffee plant used to make virtually all the coffee bean types you will find.
There are many more, but virtually all the coffee grown commercially is made up of these two. There's a third called Liberica, but you’ll rarely if ever come across it, so can ignore it for most purposes. Some consider a Excelsa a fourth, but it’s technically a variant of Liberica, although with very different flavour.
Most coffee grown around the world is Arabica – around two-thirds to three-quarters. The rest is Robusta, apart from around 2% Liberica.
Many people choose Arabica beans, because they believe it taste better than Robusta. While it’s true that good Arabica usually tastes better than good Robusta, things aren’t so simple. Good Robusta beans can taste better than average Arabica, poor examples of both are equally unpalatable, and a blend of both can range from exquisite to dire.
Robusta is cheaper, because the crops are hardier, and are less “fussy” about where and how they’re grown. It’s used to good effect in some blends to enhance the flavour. But it’s also commonly used in blends and instant to keep prices low.
Robusta beans have more caffeine than Arabica, so are often used in espresso blends. (Caffeine levels aren’t as high in espresso as other brewing methods).
Should you care what species your coffee beans are? In our view, no – let the roasters deal with that, and choose based on flavour. You can’t automatically infer anything about the bean species from whether the coffee tastes great or lousy.
2. Where are the “best” coffee bean types grown?
Not a particularly meaningful question in our view, but nevertheless people ask variations on this question up to 10,000 times a month online.
One way to answer the question is based on price, assuming the best coffee bean types are the most expensive. But that puts Indonesia’s Luwak (better known as Civet or “Cat’s Poo” coffee!) towards the top – and it’s hard to argue this is the best tasting coffee around.
(By the way, if you’re intrigued by coffee beans that have been digested by a cat, you’ll want to find out about the less well-known Black Ivory coffee, consumed by elephants.)
If it’s about the best-tasting coffee bean types, the opinions you’ll find vary tremendously of course, as it’s a subjective answer that depends on what flavours a given reviewer likes.
The true answer is that the best coffee in the world can come from anywhere, and the quality is down to the quality of the beans, how well the roasting matches their character, and whether they’ve been blended to bring out the best of the available flavours.
In practice, there are some countries that are better than most at growing exceptional tasting coffee beans. These include Brazil, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Then there are a set of more niche places that are known for producing small quantities of distinctive coffee, or have one stand-out bean that has become famous. These include St Helena (whose coffee was first made famous by Napolean), Jamaica and Panama.
Here’s an alphabetical list of beans that regularly feature on “best in the world” polls. For what it’s worth, we like most of them, but don’t drink any on a regular basis. Our favourites tend to be blends from great roasters near us.
Blue Mountain – Jamaica
Fazenda Santa Ines – Brazil
Finca El Injerto – Guatemala
Geisha Esmeralda – Panama
Los Planes - El Salvador
Kenyan AA – Kenya
Kona – Hawaii
Mandheling – Sumatra
Mocha – Yemen
Peaberry – Tanzania
St Helena Coffee – St Helena
Yirgacheffe – Ethiopia
3. How does coffee from different regions/countries taste?
First, a caveat – the flavour of a bean depends on more factors than just its country of origin. As well as the quality of the bean, you have variations by the conditions of growth, the individual species of bean, and of course how it’s processed, roasted and made.
Having said that, there are some flavours you can expect from different coffee bean types grown in different regions of the world:
South America: “Classic”, balanced, mellow, some cocoa/nuts, complex
Central America: “Bright”, a little sweet, subtle flavours
Africa/Middle East: Fruity or floral, often quite sweet, some are spicy
Asia/Pacific: “Heavy”, smooth, generally quite simple flavours
And here’s what you are likely to taste in coffee bean types from individual countries:
Brazil: Classic, mellow, smooth, slightly sweet – often with tones of chocolate
Burundi: Reasonably sweet, some spice flavours
Colombia: Bright, can be fruity, often with floral hints
Ethiopia: Primarily fruity or floral, depending on how it’s processed
Hawaii: Mild, with fruit and floral notes
India: Smooth, mild, creamy, designed for South Indian filter makers
Indonesia: Earthy, heavy, mainly a mix of spicy and cocoa flavours
Kenya: Sweetish with hints of chocolate
Panama: Geisha beans are floral in flavour, others more fruity but less sweet
Tanzania: Citrusy and floral in nature
Yemen: Spicy, but very variable in quality. Good beans are great, others can be very poor.
4. Do schemes like Fairtrade and direct trade help coffee farmers?
One of the biggest issues around the ethics of coffee bean production is the treatment of farmers, especially the poorest. For years, few were aware of how little of the money paid by consumers made its way back to the farmers, most of who lived in poverty.
Various schemes have been set up over the years to help address this. They work in different ways, but all try to encourage more money from coffee sales back to farmers, and more attention to working conditions.
The biggest of these is “Fairtrade”, which has been in place for several decades, and works in all the major coffee growing countries. It’s beyond doubt that it has made things better than they were before, and has raised awareness of the issues very successfully.
Fairtrade works by using global certification to enforce standards that improve how farmers are treated. This includes how certified coffee is packed, distributed, marketed. This certification and monitoring is managed by Fairtrade International, a global body that consists of national and regional fair trade labelling organisations.
Critics say that Fairtrade is costly and overly-centralised, and claim the benefits are questionable. There is evidence for and against this point of view, but as with most big industries, there are complex motivations and agendas on both sides of the debate.
One of the common arguments against the Fairtrade model is the cost to producers and packers of getting certified. Those who support this view believe that money could be better spent on the farmers themselves.
An alternative often advocated is "direct trade", where roasters work directly with the farmers whose beans they use. But almost by definition there’s no central certificate that “proves” farmers of such coffee are better treated than any others.
Ultimately, coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry with many people taking a cut of the profits, from the coffee shop owner to the shipping companies. As it’s a traded commodity, people in the financial markets also make money from it, without having to go near a bag of the stuff. But most of it is grown and processed in poor and developing parts of the world, by small businesses and family farms.
So it’s perhaps naïve to believe that the share of proceeds going back to the growers is ever going to be “fair”. But in our view, that’s all the more reason to do something as a consumer, even if it ought to or could be more.
Our personal opinion is that Fairtrade and direct trade coffee are better for farmers than alternatives, and the difference in price is nominal for coffee drinkers.
If you buy direct trade coffee, we'd suggest you don’t just accept the label at face value – ask for some reassurance or details, then use your own judgement.
5. What are Single Origin Coffee Bean Types?
Single Origin coffee means all the beans were grown in the same place, and so should have the same flavour. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell you anything about the quality or flavour of those beans, and so is no guarantee that the coffee is any good.
That’s because there’s no definition or control over how the term is used. The greatest difficulty comes from huge variety in what is meant by "the same place" where the beans were all grown. It could be a farm, or even a specific set of plants on the farm. But it may also mean a set of farms in a region, or even many different coffee bean types all grown in the same country.
Previously, the term was mostly used to describe a specially picked set of beans from the same farm, assuring a higher quality batch chosen for great flavour. But as the term became more widely used and adapted, it’s now often a marketing label to justify a higher price.
One of the most important aspects of a good single origin coffee is its traceability. It should be possible to know for sure exactly where the beans were grown, in the best cases down to the farm and plants used. This allows roasters and growers to work together to create a roast that brings out the best characteristics of beans grown there.
If a single origin coffee is labelled direct trade, then that traceability means it’s also more likely that the growers are getting a better deal financially from their crop. It’s not only the farmers that benefit from this. A good relationship with the roasters means there’s more incentive to innovate with the crops, adapting the bean from year to year to create better flavours that respond better to processing and roasting.
Conversely, a mass producer of coffee may label all their Ethiopian coffee as single origin, regardless of where in the country it comes from. That may be a good thing, such as with some of Starbucks’ single origins. They vary which Ethiopian beans they use year to year, so that there’s a consistent flavour, regardless of weather or other variations. But others may not be as scrupulous as this. It's not unknown for a premium priced single origin coffee to simply be beans from the same country, regardless of what else they have in common.
As always, where you buy your beans from and what brands you choose are the main ways of ensuring that you get what you expect from your beans, particularly if choosing single origin coffee bean types. But most importantly of all, rely on your taste buds to guide you.
6. Are Single Origins Better than Blended Coffee Bean Types?
In a word, no!
Unlike scotch whisky, where a single malt (the whisky equivalent of single origin coffee) usually tastes better than a blended whisky, a good blend coffee will often taste as good as a good single origin. And a poor single origin will taste as bad as a poor blend.
The reason why is that coffee roasters tend to work their magic on a set of beans to create the best flavour possible, and usually have a flavour in mind they’re aiming for. The art of blending is about understanding how different flavours from different beans will work together, so it’s possible to improve a bean’s flavour by adding others to it.
It also depends on how you make your coffee. Espresso machines subject beans to quite an intense, quick process to extract flavour. As a result, they bring out flavours differently to say Aeropress or pour-over, where there’s much more time taken.
That’s why you’ll often see stores recommending a blend for espresso and a single origin for Aeropress. Good stores will usually have a couple of choices of each, catering for different flavour preferences.
It should be no surprise to hear we think there’s no easy way to choose good beans – single origin or blend – without tasting them. If you’re in a hurry or can’t be bothered, use the flavour descriptions or recommendations of somewhere reliable. Ideally, create your own preferred flavour profile, so you can choose based on flavours you know you like.
7. Are Flavour Descriptions Useful, or Just Marketing & Pretentiousness?
Just like wine and whisky, coffee is full of complex, subtle flavours, for which a special lexicon has developed to describe them. Unlike its alcoholic counterparts, coffee tasting is relatively modern, and the expertise is less widely understood.
It’s also a very subjective art, like anything to do with flavour. The skill of the coffee taster is in finding a relatively objective way of describing and comparing flavours. This is where the industry helps, but creating standards, references and training.
With the success of the coffee industry, there are new coffee stores appearing all the time. However, only a few take the time (and spend the money) needed to hire and train staff in industry training on flavours.
As a result, for every trained coffee taster, there are many less well trained staff bandying around terms they’ve heard, without necessarily appreciating what they mean. That extends to the marketing departments of coffee companies and chains, where packaging descriptions are first and foremost designed to increase a customer’s desire to buy.
As a consumer, there are only two ways past this, if you want to rely on coffee flavour descriptions to choose your beans. Firstly, find a store or brand whose descriptions you can rely on. Secondly, equip yourself with enough knowledge to form your own views of coffee flavours, and try before you buy.
The key to describing coffee flavours professionally is the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel, an international standard approach to describing flavours. It’s built on many years’ work, and is a fascinating tool if you are even slightly interested in coffee flavours. It takes effort and time to learn to use it properly, but it’s not difficult for a regular coffee drinker to learn the fundamentals. If you do, it quickly becomes clear from reading descriptions whether the writer is following this approach. Even if they’re not, it’s still pretty straightforward to translate what you’re reading to the more formal terms used.
So unfortunately, the answer to the question isn’t very helpful: Yes, flavour descriptions can definitely mean something useful when choosing beans; but they can also be mostly about marketing hype.
The good news is that with a little education you can learn to spot the difference; or by picking where you buy carefully, you can avoid the latter.