When we talk about coffee, we talk about so many different things, depending about our country of origin or the place we’re currently in, but also depending on our own taste and our personal expectations.
To avoid repeating the same old mistake of going into a coffee bar, somewhere far away from home, and asking for “Just a normal coffee” (a request always answered by a stunned barista, that probably has an idea of “normal coffee” that’s completely different from yours), let’s try to make some order in the different types of coffee we can find.
From beans, to the final product.
First of all, let’s talk about types of coffee beans: Arabica Vs. Robusta (and some of the rest)
Arabica (around 75% all the world’s total production) is usually the bean of choice in the specialty coffee world. It’s usually high quality and grown at high altitudes, with a lot of shade and rain. Due to the lower level of caffeine, it’s more susceptible to diseases, more delicate and obviously more expensive. You can expect complex flavors and aromas from Arabica coffee, and it can have a bright acidity and interesting sensorial notes such as flowers or tropical fruits.
Robusta is basically the opposite. It’s the bean of choice for commercial coffee (even if lately things are finally starting to change), it’s cheaper, resistant to diseases, with more caffeine and typical a more bitter flavor, with less acidity and a heavier flavor profile.
Excelsa and Liberica are a perfect example of less common types of beans. Liberica, with a nice full body and fruity and floral aroma, comes only from the Philippines; while Excelsa (from Southeast Asia) grows on “giant” coffee trees (up to 9 meters!) and as a tart and fruity taste.
Next, we need to consider the basic types of processing coffee: Natural Vs. Washed Vs. Honey (Just to talk about the basic ones)
Natural Processed coffee (or dry processed) is the more “classic” way of processing coffee: the full coffee cherry is dried simply by sunlight and air before being de-pulped. They tend to have more fruit and fermented flavors because the bean has more time to interact with the natural sugars from the cherry as enzymes break down the mucilage around the bean. This process should be done with extreme carefulness: if the cherries are not turned often, with a special attention to remove overripe cherries, funky flavors will pretty sure emerge in the roasted coffee.
Washed Processed coffee is the opposite: the coffee cherries are de-pulped then usually fermented to promote the separation of any remaining pectin still stuck to the bean and parchment, then washed clean prior to drying. They are known for their characteristic clarity and vibrant notes. Removing all of the cherry prior to drying allows the intrinsic flavors of the bean to shine without anything holding them back.
Honey Processed, or pulped natural, is a method in which the fresh coffee cherries are de-pulped, but allowed to dry without washing. A little of the fruit is still remains, but nowhere as much as in the natural process. Most of the cherry is gone, but the remaining golden, sticky mucilage remains and is reminiscent of honey, which is where the process gets it name. During the honey process, as the coffee is drying, the sticky coating on the outside of the beans oxidizes and darkens in color. It starts as a golden yellow color and coffee which is removed at this point is referred to as yellow honey process coffee. If the coffee is allowed to continue fermenting, the mucilage oxidizes to a red and eventually a black color. The more fruit is left on the bean the darker the color as well. Black honey processed coffee may also have more fruit left on the bean during the drying process than lighter honey coffee.
Let’s move now to the roasting phase: Light Roast Vs. Medium Roast Vs. Dark Roast
Light Roast beans tend to have more acidity and more caffeine (because the roasting process was not long enough to eliminate these characteristics), but they can also present some interesting delicate notes (floral, herbal, etc.) that are difficult to find in more roasted beans.
Medium Roast is what stays in the middle. Balanced, with less acidity and caffeine (but still a nice amount of both), toasted flavor, and full aroma.
Dark Roast has a very low or almost nonexistent level of acidity, less caffeine and a rich and heavy flavor. It starts to develop a typical roasted and bitter flavor, that becomes predominant when the roast becomes Extra Dark.