Beginner’s guide to coffee beans

Paul Meikle-Janney of Dark Woods shares his beginner's guide to coffee beans and clears up any confusing coffee spiel

Find yourself skimming over terms such as washed, natural and robusta and skipping straight to the tasting notes when searching out a new brew? We asked Paul Meikle-Janney of Dark Woods to share his beginner’s guide to coffee beans and clear up any confusing coffee spiel

1. Species

With just a couple of species of coffee bean commonly available, you’d think deciphering between the two would be easy, but nothing is simple when it comes to speciality coffee.

More than 65 per cent of the coffee sold around the world is made from arabica beans, with the remainder predominantly made up of robusta. ‘Arabica is seen as the premium choice,’ explains Paul, ‘it has a cleaner taste, with more fruity, acidic and floral flavours. Robusta, on the other hand, has a more bitter finish and a richer, round body.’

There are also loads of different varieties of arabica (and robusta) too, such as bourbon, typica, geisha and caturra. With tasting notes on the opposite sides of the spectrum, you’ll often find the two bean species blended together to produce a smooth, Italian-style espresso.

2. Origin

In the same way that the terroir of a region impacts upon wine production, soil, climate and altitude also affects the flavour of the coffee bean. ‘Coffee growing regions can’t all be bundled into the same bag, but here are a few general pointers,’ says Paul.

Central America

Acidic and fruity notes are prominent in good quality Central beans.

Ethiopia

The east offers wine and blueberry flavours, while the west is known for its jasmine scented florals.

India

Famous for its robusta, with a clean and sweeter taste.

South America

Expect wheaty, nutty flavours with a sweet and mellow finish.

Kenya

This region has been known for blackcurrant tasting notes but fresh, acidic flavours such as lemon tea are more common.

Indonesia

Lower acidity and a fuller body produces rich, chocolate flavours.

3. Processing

Once the coffee cherries have been picked, the seed (bean) inside needs to be removed. There are two main ways of doing this – washed or natural – with each method creating a distinct flavour.

For washed coffees, the beans are squeezed from the ripe fruit then washed to remove the sticky residue, holding on to all of the citrusy flavours and creating a lighter body,’ explains Paul. ‘For natural coffees, the cherry is dried first before the beans are separated from the brittle skins, resulting in a sweeter taste and lower acidity.’

coffee roasting

4. Roasting

Light or dark, the roast is probably the part of the coffee producing chain you’re most familiar with. Light roasts are synonymous with the recent speciality boom: ‘a shorter spell in the roaster yields natural acidic and fruity flavours with less bitterness,’ says Paul. ‘In darker roasts, the majority of the acidity is burnt off, producing caramel roast flavours and, eventually, a bitter taste.’

If you liked our beginner’s guide to coffee beans, read more coffee-related features here.