The Beginner’s Guide to Coffee Beans

Coffee drinkers know the value of an amazing cup of coffee in the morning. Starting off with your favourite coffee beans brewed the way you like it can be the difference between a bad or good day.

More than 50% of North American adults consume coffee daily. Still, many coffee drinkers do not know coffee’s rich and interesting history. This in depth guide will take you through every step of the coffee making process.

The art of coffee can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You don’t need to have a deep understanding of where a coffee is grown or how it’s brewed to appreciate your drink. If you want to learn more about coffee, this is a great starting place.

coffee bean map, whole bean coffee and an ibrik brewer

The Legend of Coffee

There’s no way to know how true this legend is, but it’s now set as cannon in coffee lore. Legend has it that there was a young Ethiopian man named Kaldi who has a goat herd. Every day Kaldi would let his goats out to graze and they would return in the evening.

One day as the sun set, Kaldi waited for his goats to return, but they never did. He stayed up all night waiting for them to come back. When the sun rose Kaldi ventured out to find his lost herd. He found them running and jumping around some trees with bright red cherries. Kaldi sampled the cherries and was reenergized after his long night of waiting for his goats.

After this experience, Kaldi reported his discovery to the local monks. The monks experimented with roasting and brewing the beans from the cherries… thus making the very first cups of coffee. Over centuries, coffee has slowly spread across the globe and ended up in your morning cup.

Coffee Varieties

Coffee is not technically a bean. It is the pit of a coffee cherry, but we still call it a bean. There are many varietals of coffee, but only two that are generally cultivated. The two overwhelmingly common strains are Robusta and Arabica. One coffee plant takes 5 years to reach maturity and produce beans. The bushes can grow up to 5 m, but are usually trimmed to 2 m for easier harvesting. Each plant grows from 1 to 11 pounds of beans per year, depending on the growing conditions that season.
A branch of a coffee plant, full of cherries

Robusta Coffee Beans

Robusta beans have a shorter growing season, so they produce faster. They also can be grown at a lower altitude, and produce more cherries per plant. The bushes are easy to grow, and resistant to insects and diseases. Robusta makes up approximately 40% of the world’s coffee beans. This is partly because Robusta coffee is easier for farmers to produce. It’s more resistant to rust, less sensitive to insects and has a higher yield. The beans from Robusta plants tend to be about ½ the cost of Arabica beans. They also have more caffeine per bean than Arabica coffee. However, the taste is often stated as harsh and bitter.

Arabica Coffee Beans

Arabica coffee bushes have a longer growing season. This results in harvesting less often, so less crop per bush. Arabica beans grow at higher altitude, and are more susceptible to diseases. Coffee rust is of particular concern for coffee growers, as is climate change. These both contribute to the growing costs as well. Arabica is more preferred by consumers due to the lower caffeine and better flavour. Arabica coffee make up 60% of the world’s coffee beans.

Coffee Growing Regions

Coffee grows best close to the equator between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This area is often referred to as the “Bean Belt”. The flavour of the coffee varies based on many factors. These include where the plants are grown, the soil, altitude, temperatures and rainfall. The flavours from a bean crop will usually be similar year to year. The more subtle flavours may be slightly different each season.

coffee beans arranged in a world map on a red background

Central and South American Coffee Beans

Central and South American coffees tend to have subtle tones of chocolate and nuts. These main growing countries include Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Columbia. We’ve also had coffee from El Salvador and Honduras at Cupper’s. And of course, one of our annual seasonal specialties is from Panama!

African Coffee Beans

African coffees tend to have fruity notes, like a dry wine or dried fruit. The largest coffee growing countries in this region are Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. We’ve also had coffee from Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Uganda at Cupper’s in past.

Southeast Asian Coffee Beans

Coffees from Southeast Asia are lower in acidity than other coffees. If coffee upsets your stomach, that’s due to high acidity, so this is a good growing region to try. The flavours are more spicy and smooth. The largest coffee growing country in this region is Indonesia, as well as India and Sumatra. Fun fact: One of the common nicknames for coffee comes from here – the island of Java. 

The Cherry and Bean

Coffee beans are the pit of a cherry that grow from a coffee plant. The plants can have buds, flowers, green and ripe cherries all at the same time on the same branch. This makes harvesting and production more challenging.

Coffee leaves with cherries and green beans

The coffee cherry itself is safe to eat. The outer fruit is sweet and tastes like hibiscus or berries, rather than coffee. The fruit also has some caffeine, which the plant produces as a pesticide to protect itself. The riper the fruit, the sweeter and more balanced the beans will be. Coffee processing removes and discards the fruit pulp.

Usually there are two beans in every cherry. Some plants have only one bean in each cherry. These are Peaberry coffees. Processed green coffee beans have a thin membrane. This membrane isn’t apparent before roasting, and is also called silverskin. This skin comes off during roasting and we discard it as chaff.

Coffee Picking

Coffee beans are the pit of a cherry that grow from a coffee plant. The plants can have buds, flowers, green and ripe cherries all at the same time. This makes harvesting more challenging.
Woman in red had and scarf harvesting coffee cherries
Harvesting coffee beans happens by either strip picking or selective picking. In strip picking, workers strip all the cherries off the branch. This happens regardless of the cherries’ ripeness. This is a faster and cheaper way to harvest so used on lower quality coffee. With selective picking, only the ripe cherries get harvested by hand. The workers pick the same trees every 8-10 days. This kind of harvesting happens primarily with high quality Arabica coffee. 
 
A good coffee picker harvests 100 – 200 pounds of cherries a day, which results in 20-40 pounds of beans. Each worker is paid on the merit of their work, so the more and better they produce, the better their earnings. After picking, the day’s harvest goes to a centralised processing plant.

Coffee Processing

Before the coffee gets roasted it needs to be processed into the dry green beans. This involves removing the pit from the fruit and pulp using a variety of methods. Each method has an effect on the sweetness, body, and acidity of the final brewed coffee.

Rack of coffee cherries drying on a wood and tarp frame, mountains behind

Wet / Washed Processed Coffee

Wet or washed processed uses a large volume of water. Green coffee has the fruit removed after harvesting. Only the parchment skin remains on the bean. The beans get weighed and sorted by size, then added to large fermentation tanks. They stay in the tanks for 12-48 hours. There, natural enzymes in the fermentation tank dissolve the mucilaginous layer. Afterwards, the beans are rinsed and are ready to dry. Mechanical drying finishes in 1-2 days whereas drying in the sun takes 3-16 days.

Eco-pulped processing is very like wet processing, but uses less than a tenth of the water. Thus it’s considered more environmentally friendly than wet-processing.

Dry / Natural Processed Coffee

The dry method of processing coffee is much older and often used in areas where water is less available. The fresh picked cherries are spread out in the sun on large concrete pads. They dry in the sun for many days, sometimes several weeks. Workers rake them several times during the day. This raking helps dry them thoroughly and prevent rotting. The cherries dry until the moisture content is approximately 11%.

Honey Processed Coffee

Honeyed coffee is much less common. With this process, the pulp is removed from the cherries but not rinsed away, and both dry together. These are sub-categorized as yellow, red or black, depending on how much pulp stays with the beans.

Milling the Coffee

The next step in coffee processing is cleaning and sorting the green beans. Generally this step looks the same regardless of the coffee or region. First, if the beans were wet processed, hulling machinery removes the parchment layer. If they were dry processed, hulling removes the entire husk of the dried cherry.
green coffee beans on a sizing sorting rack
Sometimes coffee polishing happens at this point, though this is an optional process. Polishing removes the silverskin from the bean by machine. Polished beans are thought to be better than unpolished beans. However there is no effect on the final coffee.
 
Next, the beans get sorted and graded by size and weight of each bean, using screens, and/or air jets. Finally, any defective beans are hand or machine removed. Defects include unacceptable colour or sizes, over-fermented beans, damage by insects, or unhulled beans. Often beans are both machine and hand checked to ensure the highest quality of coffee.

The Finale: Green Coffee Beans

Green coffee always refers to processed, unroasted coffee beans. It is a raw food item and you have to take extra care in handling green coffee to avoid any cross contamination. The processed green beans get bagged in jute or sisal bags, or put inside plastic lined containers. The bulk coffee is then loaded into shipping containers, ready to export.
 
Sometimes green coffee beans are brewed into a Green Coffee Bean Extract. This extract has a light serving of caffeine and is often added to a variety of drinks.

Coffee Roasting

At Cupper’s Coffee & Tea we order thousands of pounds of green coffee beans each year. They arrive to us on pallets, already processed and ready to roast. Fresh coffee is important to us, so we roast every day. We only roast what we will sell in next few days, so everything leaves our store in less than a week. Most of our coffee sells within a day or two of roasting.
 
The following is a VERY brief overview of the roasting process at Cupper’s. If you want a more detailed description of what happens to the coffee as it roasts, please check out this blog post.
Pallets of bags of green coffee in front of a forklift and truck
Our master roaster is Josh, and he is in charge of all coffee roasting at Cupper’s. He first starts with heating the roaster, then weighing the green beans he’s planning to roast. Next Josh loads the green coffee beans into the hopper. When the roaster is ready, he releases the beans into the rotating drum to roast. As the beans reach the desired roast level, they’re dumped into the cooling tray at the front of the roaster. The cooled, roasted coffee get binned in our wholesale area. It’s later packaged for each individual order. 

Coffee Strength

Coffee strength means different things to different people. We enjoyed James Hoffman’s explanation in his video essay from 2022. He states that ‘coffee strength’ often describes four completely different aspects of coffee. These include proportion, bitterness, roast, and caffeine content. As a result, the term ‘strength’ actually makes coffee more confusing than it needs to be.

Proportion

Usually with coffee strength, we mean the proportion of coffee extracted to the water. A strong cup of coffee contains a higher percentage of coffee extracted than a weak cup of coffee.
 
Brew method has a part in the proportions of coffee strength. For example, brewing a one ounce shot of espresso makes a small amount of concentrated coffee. Brewing one ounce of drip coffee means that ounce will be much weaker.

Bitterness

Some people use strength to refer to the bitterness of a coffee. A bitter coffee is not desirable. It’s often a coffee that has been improperly brewed or roasted, or comes from a low quality bean. Lucky for you Cupper’s Coffee & Tea puts a tremendous amount of care into our bean sourcing and roasting.

Roast

Dark roasted coffee is often referred to as a strong coffee. But roast level doesn’t make a coffee stronger, only darker. A dark roast bean tends to have sweeter, more caramelised notes. A lighter roasted coffee will have more earthy green notes. Think of the degree of roast as if it were a steak. Having a well-done steak does not make the meat taste stronger. At the same time, having a rare steak does not make it taste weaker.

Caffeine Content

The biggest caffeine differences in coffee is due to the species of bean. A robusta coffee bean will have close to twice the amount of caffeine as an arabica bean.
 
Roast level also changes the amount of caffeine in your coffee. This is a very small difference, but nonetheless true. The longer the beans roast the more of its caffeine converts away. Thus a light roast coffee minimally contains more caffeine than a dark roast coffee. If you drink many pots of coffee a day you may notice a difference but the average person with a few cups will not.

Brewing Coffee

Now that the beans have been grown, processed, and roasted… you are almost ready for a cup of coffee. (Finally, right?!) To brew coffee, there are four main concerns: brew time, proportions, grind type, and water.

office coffee service

Grind Type

Not all grinders are equal in quality or ability. We recommend using a burr grinder to get a consistent grind on your beans. It is equally important to ensure you are using the correct size of grind for your specific brewer. For more on the intricacies of grind size check out our Definitive Guide to Grinders in 2022.

Water

Water is often an overlooked part of the coffee brewing process. Using filtered water will create a better tasting coffee. Sometimes tap water has overwhelming flavours that affect the taste of your coffee. This can include chlorine, spring run off, or old pipes. There are many brewers on the market that have a built-in water filter to make better coffee.

Proportions

The proportions of coffee to water is important. You need to dial in on the right amount of grinds and water for the perfect cup. We have a handy dandy guide to help you get started with coffee/water proportions.

Brew Time

Every brewing method takes a different amount of time to brew your coffee. By ‘brewing’, we mean the actual amount of time the water is in contact with the coffee grounds. A French Press will brew for about 5 minutes, where an Aeropress brews in about 2 minutes. Brewing coffee too long makes it over-extracted. This creates a bitter, nasty cup of coffee. Brewing it with too little time leaves it weak and flavourless.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is coffee harvested?
Quality coffee is usually hand harvested. The process for harvesting coffee is very labour intensive and complicated. This is because a single plant can have cherries at different stages of development. Coffee harvesters have to be very careful to pick only the ripe cherries that will make good coffee.
 
What coffee has the most caffeine?
Very technically, light roast coffees have a higher amount of caffeine. In reality, there is such a slim difference between medium and dark roasts that you are not likely to notice.
 
What coffee is less acidic?
Coffees grown in Southeast Asia tend to be lower in acidity than from other regions.
 
What is a good coffee to water ratio?
This depends on how you’re brewing your coffee beans. A general starting point is using 1:17. For every gram of coffee, you use 17 grams of water.
 
What is the difference between coffee and espresso?
Espresso isn’t a type of coffee bean or a specific roast of coffee. The term “espresso” refers only to the espresso brewing method. This method forces hot steam through a proportionally large amount of finely ground coffee. This results in a highly concentrated shot of coffee, or espresso shot. Any kind of coffee bean can make an espresso.