Types of Coffee Beans | A Comprehensive Overview of Coffee Bean Varieties

by AllannBrosCoffee Team | Last Updated: November 18, 2020

You have all the right stuff: the best manual coffee grinder, the best stainless steel coffee maker, but you don’t know what kind of beans to buy. It makes sense because not only are there lots of different flavors, but there is a wide range of different types of coffee beans as well.

Regional variations can have an enormous impact on the experience you have with your coffee. For example, some beans are going to be suitable for people with a low tolerance for acid, while others may be grown in a way that actually improves the health of the environment.

The more you know, the better you will be able to make enjoyable, conscientious decisions. That in mind, read on for everything you need to know about coffee beans!

Different Types of Coffee Beans & Characteristics

Types of Coffee Beans

There are technically four main categories of beans Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. We will definitely cover these beans below, but there are also a number of variations to consider that fit within these very broad categories. We will look at these as well.

Let’s get right down to it, shall we?

Arabica:

Arabica coffee is considered the gold standard and accounts for some of the best coffee beans on the market. The beans tend to thrive in a balmy environment that is cool enough to facilitate a relatively slower growth process and not so cold that it damages the plant’s integrity. Consequently, Arabica beans tend to thrive in conditions that are approximately 59-70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Though the beans have only had the caffeine content of robusta beans, they are still considered a fan favorite for the fact that they are flavorful, fragrant, and generally delicious.

What does Arabica coffee taste like? (Tasting Notes )

Naturally, the taste experience will be quite subjective. Everyone has something of a different experience with Arabica coffee, and yet the fact remains that there are common elements to the taste configuration that seem to be perceived as pleasing to the average consumer.

Arabica beans are generally valued for their smoother, sweet notes. Many detect tastes that resemble sugar, honey, fruit, flowers, caramel, chocolate, or even gently toasted nuts. 

Of course, one thing you might have noticed about the above references is that they all taste different in and of themselves. For example, honey and chocolate, though both delicious, are quite different when it comes to taste. Thus the subjective element of arabica beans rears its head.

The growing conditions will have something of an impact on how the coffee ultimately tastes. However, it’s also a matter of perception. Astute tasters may notice some or all of the notes listed above, while more casual consumers could easily struggle to understand what makes Arabica different from any other cup of coffee.

Where can you buy Arabica beans?

Because Arabica beans are so popular, they aren’t exactly difficult to find. Go into any major chain (including fast-food restaurants), and the type of coffee they sell will almost definitely be Arabica. However, the quality probably won’t be similar to that which you can achieve by brewing at home.

To make great Arabica coffee at your own house, you may need to do a little bit of investigating the next time you go to the grocery store. The manufacturers will almost always label what kind of bean was used on the bag. This is especially true when you are buying higher-end coffees. Always be sure to read the label so that you can guarantee you get exactly what you are looking for. 

Robusta:

Robusta is considered the everyman bean for the fact that they tend to be more affordable and easier to grow. While most coffee beans require high elevations and a very particular climate to achieve their glory, robusta beans aren’t nearly so particular. 

They can be grown at very moderate or even flat heights and also tend to be resistant to disease. They also are very potent and can half up to twice the caffeine content of competing beans. The downside, however, is that robusta beans tend to be considered somewhat lacking in the department of flavor. That is why, despite the fact that they are easier to grow, they make up less than half of our global coffee supply.

The pros of robusta coffee, besides the durability of the plant itself, are that it tends to yield a very potent bean. If you want a really strong flavor with lots of caffeine, all at a price you can afford, the Robusta bean will be for you.

And don’t let the reputation fool you. It is true that Arabica is considered the higher end bean. However, it is still abundantly possible to have a great coffee-drinking experience with robusta coffee.

What does Robusta coffee taste like? (Tasting Notes)

Robusta coffee tends to lack some of the nuances that we illustrated when we were discussing the much-prized arabica bean. While Arabica has notes that read like the dessert menu at a fancy restaurant, Robusta serves as a bit more of the working man’s coffee. 

If you’ve ever had diner coffee, you probably won’t struggle to imagine what Robusta tastes like. It tends to be bitter, flat, and almost burnt in its flavor. But while this description isn’t exactly romantic, it’s also not to say that you can’t get really great robusta coffee. Indeed, we have had plenty of pleasant experiences with the bean. It’s all about how you brew it!

Where can you buy Robusta beans?

Robusta beans are actually a little less common than Arabica because they just aren’t nearly as popular. You can definitely still find them at the store, but you may have to do a little more sleuthing to uncover them. As always, inspecting the labels will help you get what you are looking for. 

However, in this particular case, you may also find it fruitful to take your search online. While looking for robusta coffee at the store will involve reading lots and lots of labels, online it can be as simple as typing a couple of words into your favorite search engine.

Liberica:

Liberica coffee is native to Africa and grows in a much warmer climate than the beans that we have described above. While this bean has seen some traffic in the regions of the Philippines, Indonesia, and some neighboring countries, it remains relatively obscure from a global standpoint.

Why does this bean exist at all, when robusta and arabica beans are so popular? It was actually cultivated because robusta and arabica plants were dying off in the Indonesian and African climates. While most coffee beans favor a balmy climate, this plant can thrive in extreme temperatures, making it a valuable asset to the volatile climate of Africa.

What do Liberica beans taste like?

Liberica beans are said to taste quite different than any other you are likely to encounter. Words like “smokey,” or “woody” are often used to describe the experience of drinking liberica coffee. If you are having a hard time imagining what a woody coffee would taste like, you are not alone. Indeed, most liberica coffee drinkers mention that the experience is quite unlike any they have had with other types of coffee beans.

Where can you buy Liberica coffee beans? 

Liberica coffee beans are going to have to be an import unless you live in one of the regions that we described above. While you probably are not going to be able to find this coffee at your local store (unless you happen to live near a highly specialized gourmet shop), it should be easy enough to track the bean down online.

You know the drill! Fire up your favorite search engine, and give it a try. It may be a little pricier than you are used to for the simple fact that these beans have a long journey on their way to your door, but curious pallets may be willing to accept the costs.

Excelsa:

Excelsa accounts for less than ten percent of the world’s coffee supply, making it a relatively obscure bean. Native to Vietnam, this plant tends to do well in a hot, humid environment and enjoys modest circulation in the southeast Asia region.

What does Excelsa coffee taste like?

Coffee drinkers who have experience with Excels say that it features a very strong flavor. The average Excelsa consumer notes tart flavors that combine well with fruity notes to provide the drinker with a fairly complex drinking experience.

It most closely aligns with the experience of a light roast Arabica bean but also features some of the more bitter flavors that are associated with a darker roast.

Where can you buy Excelsa?

This is going to be another bean that is a little bit trickier to track down for people who aren’t native to the region where it is traditionally grown. There are two options for western consumers that want to give Excelsa coffee a try. For one thing, you can always try your luck at a specialty or gourmet store.

These are often a great place to experiment with new flavors, but you also are going to be limited in your selecting capacity by whatever the shopkeep has deemed to be a worthy addition to their stock. If this approach does not suit you, you can also always take your hunt to the internet. There you will find no end of different types of Excelsa beans to experiment with.

Just keep in mind that this might be another pricey purchase for the same reason listed above. Because excelsa beans are not widely circulated, you will need to import them, which can be quite pricey.

GO DEEPER—Types of Coffee Beans Showdown

Few variations are broadening the categories (coffee varieties) that you should be interested to know!

Espresso Beans

Best Espresso beans can come from either Robusta or Arabica and earn their categorization more for the way in which they’ve been roasted. Typically, espresso beans are baked for long periods of time to account for their very dark, strong flavor.

Kona

Kona is an arabica variation that can be grown only in very tropical environments (most notably, Hawaii). It’s earned the distinction of being a fan favorite for the fact that it has a very low level of acid, making it a great fit for people with stomach problems.

Sumatra

 Known for its almost syrupy flavor, Sumatra is an arabica variation that is grown in the mountains of Indonesia.

Kopi Luwak

Kopi Luwak is likely the most famous (and certainly the most notable) robusta variation. This Indonesian bean is famous for the fact that it is harvested from the feces of feral cats that live amongst coffee bean farms (hopefully, they wash them thoroughly).

Gross? Yes, obscenely so, but also quite popular. A bag of Kopi Luwak can easily cost several hundred dollars and is said to be one of the tastiest varieties in existence.

Of course, this is but a very small sample of the various flavors that are currently available. Entire libraries could be filled with information on the wide range of different bean varieties. However, if you are interested in expanding your coffee horizons, this list will certainly serve as a great place to start.

What Kind Of Coffee Beans Should You Choose & What To Buy?

The different categories of beans described above notwithstanding, you can also choose between roasted and unroasted coffee beans. It’s a lot to take in, we know, but this is actually a relatively simple decision to make on your part, as we will explain below. Let’s get right into it, shall we?

Unroasted Green Coffee Beans:

Unroasted green coffee beans are ostensibly just the raw and unprocessed fruit of the coffee plant. This is what gets picked at harvest time and is usually processed and roasted. Most consumers have never actually seen a raw coffee bean.

Those without this experience may be surprised to find that it is green rather than dark brown or black like the beans that they are used to seeing. While raw beans are not at all standard, they can be purchased at certain specialty stores. However, they will be much easier to find online.

Just note that buying the bean won’t be enough. If you really want to enjoy a good coffee experience, you will need the best coffee roaster and coffee grinder at your home to process by yourself. This will make for an incredibly fresh cup of coffee, but it is also a fairly involved process that many consumers simply are not interested in participating in.

Roasted Coffee Beans:

This is nearly one hundred percent of the coffee that you will see at the store. Roasted coffee has been picked from the plant, roasted (usually onsite), and then packaged and shipped off. The problem that many people have with pre-roasted coffee is that it is very easy to get a stale product.

Coffee is a little like a new car; it starts depreciating in value the moment it is harvested. It is exactly for this reason that higher-end coffees usually list the harvest date somewhere on the packaging. Coffee enthusiasts like to make sure that their beans are never staler than a few weeks old. However, you can still have good experiences with pre-roasted coffee, especially if you buy for quality and are careful to store the beans properly.

Whole Beans:

Coffee aficionados almost unanimously agree that whole bean coffee is the only way to go. The flavor of coffee depreciates significantly immediately after harvest and then further depreciates after it has been ground up. By purchasing whole beans and waiting until the moment you are ready to brew to grind them up you can maximize the taste experience.

However, there is something of a drawback. For one thing, it takes time to grind coffee beans. If you are in a rush every morning, this factor alone might be enough to disqualify them as a consideration. You also, of course, have to have the requisite equipment. Coffee bean grinders can be pricey and bulky, which may further diminish their appeal for some users. 

Ground Coffee:

Ground coffee is much more common for the average consumer. It may not be as fresh as the whole bean, but what it lacks in flavor, it tends to make up for in convenience. No grinder is needed, and it can be prepared in a matter of moments.

While ground coffee is kind of looked down upon by gourmet snobs, you can definitely find good stuff if you are willing to sniff around a little. 

Is It Better to Buy Whole Bean or Ground Coffee?

It really depends on who you ask. Coffee snobs are pretty much all going to tell you that whole beans are the only way to go. However, if you are willing to look beyond convention, you will find that it is also possible to find a very good preground coffee. Here is the bottom line:

In Summarizing of Coffee Bean Varieties

This has been but a small taste of the wide range of varieties that are currently on the market. You could spend a healthy portion of your life sampling all the different types of robusta, arabica, excelsa, and liberica coffee beans. It is also worth noting that there are a significant number of regional beans that never hit the export market—products that don’t fall into these categories.

To experience the nuance of these beans, you’ll have to plan for some international travel. Short of this, however, there are certainly many enticing bean varieties available at your local grocery store!

FAQs

Q. How do I choose the best coffee bean? 

A. Choosing the best coffee beans is largely a matter of determining what you view as the best. Is price your main consideration, or do you buy sheerly for quality?

We have done a Time-proof Buying Guide enumerates the many different criteria that can contribute to what sort of coffee beans you select.

Q. Do different types of coffee beans come from different plants?

A. Yes! Robusta and arabica plants are genetically unique, though they do, of course, share many properties in common with one another.

However, different types of arabica or robusta coffee beans are still considered to be from the same plant, even though their flavor profile may be very different.

Q. What type of bean does Starbucks use?

A. To maintain their reputation as a maker of gourmet coffees, Starbucks uses Arabic beans exclusively. However, they may import their product from a wide range of different sources all across the globe.

Q. What type of beans does McDonalds’ use?

A. Like Starbucks, McDonald’s uses 100% arabica beans, most of which come from Brazil, Columbia, and Guatemala.

Q. What kind of bean does Dunkin Donuts use?

 A. Care to wager a guess? That’s right. Like Starbucks and McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts uses 100% arabica beans for their coffee.