Roasted Beans [Coffea arabica, C. canephora (robusta), C. liberica ]

Coffee is a member of the Madder family (Rubiaceae). This family contains over 611 genera and over 13,000 species, but less than a handful have culinary usages, almost entirely for flavoring beverages and and flavoring and coloring a few foods. Coffee, however, is the economic blockbuster of the family.

More on the Madder Family.




One legend has it the effects of coffee were first noticed by a goatherd in Ethiopia, seeing the friskiness of his flock after consuming the leaves and berries. Another says it was a Sufi mystic noticing frisky birds in Ethiopia. There are others - and, like most food stories, none are likely true.

The primary active ingredient in coffee is caffeine, but there are others that have been insufficiently studied. Coffee was first used as a tea made from the leaves, and some indigenous peoples in East Africa still use it that way. It was found, however, that the beans within the berries were more effective, and roasted they were more palatable. The photo specimens are Colombia Supremo on the right, about 0.50 inch long, 0.35 inch wide and 0.22 inch thick, and Colombia Peaberry on the left, up to 0.43 inch long, 0.29 inch wide and 0.24 inch thick, both high grown and roasted medium. There are usually two "beans" per berry, but only one in the case of peaberry.

Because coffee beans do not ripen evenly and incompletely ripe beans are inferior, quality coffee beans must be picked by hand, making several passes through the plantation. This is the most labor intensive part of coffee production. In the lowland plantations, whole branches are stripped of berries, ripe, unripe and overripe and prepared for shipment to large commercial roasters who sell ground coffee in cans.

There are many species of coffee, but only three are widely used for beverages worldwide.

  • C. arabica:   This is the most popular with connoisseurs as having a lower acidity and a more delicate taste and aroma. Unfortunately, arabica is particularly vulnerable to a fungus infection called "coffee leaf rust" which makes growing it expensive. Over 75% of coffee grown is arabica.
  • C. canephora:   Two varieties of this species, commonly lumped as "robusta", are favorites of coffee growers as they are less trouble and offer a higher yield. Major coffee blenders often use quite a bit of robusta to make their blend stronger. Also, robusta has over twice as much caffeine as arabica. It accounts for about 20% of coffee grown.
  • C. liberica:   "Liberian Coffee" from West Africa was heavily planted in Indonesia and the Philippines in the 1890s when the leaf rust wiped out the arabica plantations. Some is still grown in Indonesia but it is the major variety in the Philippines. In character it is more like robusta than arabica.
  • C. charrieriana:   This species from Cameroon in central Africa is a curiosity - it is caffeine free. I don't know if any attempt is being made to commercialize it.

In wholesale trade there are three basic categories:

  • High Grown Mild:   arabica beans grown at least 2000 feet above sealevel, often between 4000 and 6000 feet.
  • Brazilian:   lowland arabica beans, which may or may not come from Brazil, but are grown at below 2000 feet.
  • Robusta:   beans of the canephora species (see above).

Coffee Terms & Trivia

Green Coffee Bean Extract:   An extraction long used in the "Swiss Water Process" for decaffeination, this is the latest "sure fire magic cure" promoted by the weight loss industry. It's probably at least as effective as all the other "sure fire magic cures" they've promoted over the years. It's just amazing how these wonderful products have completely banished obesity from America. What is that you say?

Grinding Beans:   Coffee should be ground as fine as will work with the type of filter used. It degrades very rapidly after grinding as aromatic elements evaporate. Best to have a coffee grinder at home and grind fresh every morning. I use a burr grinder, but a very low cost whirling blade grinder works well too (but I use mine only for grinding spices). Second best is to buy whole bean and grind it at the store and seal it back up. Trader Joe's, for one, provides a grinder for this purpose, and their containers reseal tightly. Some supermarkets also provide a grinder, but their packaging is usually not as good - just bags.

Water:   This must be brought to a full boil or the coffee will taste terrible, but it should be turned off immediately it boils or it will get flat. A French gourmet did extensive experimenting with water temperature and found the coffee was better if you let the water cool a few minutes to about 200°F/95°C before pouring on the grounds - but only by a very small margin. Just as with beer, the quality of the water affects the quality of the brew.

Coffee Maker:   Basically, you steep ground coffee beans in water at about 200°F/95°C until the water tastes like coffee. Simple is best and glass or ceramic are the best materials for making coffee in. I use a Chemex flask and unbleached filters, with the flask set over warming heat. My only addition is to insert two bamboo chopsticks (now very thoroughly blackened) before placing the filter cone - this speeds the filtration. I have no interest in any other kind of coffee maker, so if you want comparative reviews, you'll have to look elsewhere. I do also have a French plunger coffee maker, but use it only for tea.

Roast Levels:   The exact temperature reached by the beans during roasting affects the balance of varietal coffee flavor versus the roast flavor, as well as acidity and body of the resulting brew.

Personally, I think it could stop at "Full City", but it doesn't. Recently (2011), the yuppie class was much into dark roasts, but I've heard they've been lightening up. Of course the marketeers may favor darker roasts - they can buy the cheapest beans they can get since you won't be able to tell the difference. The darker roasts are preferred by Europeans and others who smother their coffee with cream and sugar, the lighter roasts are ideal for those of us who take our coffee without adulterants.

This table is pretty representative, but there are minor variations.

  • Cinnamon Roast: (385°F/196°C) Tea-like character, sharp acidic tones. Beans are mottled light brown with no gloss.
  • New England Roast: (401°F/205°C) A specialty roast that particularly displays the regional character of the beans, with distinctive and interesting acidity.
  • American Roast: (410°F/210°C) A roast used for some single origin coffees displaying their regional characteristics. Medium light brown, no surface oil.
  • City Roast: (426°F/219°C) A roast very often used for specialty coffees. Coffee flavors with regional characteristics still quite good. Medium brown, slightly glossy surface, no obvious oil.
  • Full City Roast: (437°F/225°C) A common roast for espresso blends. Medium dark with just noticeable oil sheen. Roast flavor is beginning to take over from coffee flavor.
  • Vienna Roast: (448°F/230°C) Regional coffee flavors are now significantly eclipsed by roast flavors. Moderately dark brown with light surface oil.
  • French Roast: (464°F/240°C) Roast flavors now dominate over coffee flavors, and burn flavors become noticeable - acidity rather subdued. Dark brown and shiny with surface oil.
  • Italian Roast: (473°F/245°C) Roast flavors begin to be overcome by burned flavors, acidity is gone and it brews a thin bodied cup. Very dark brown and very shiny with surface oil.
  • Spanish Roast: (482°F/250°C) Burned coffee - tar and charcoal flavors dominate. Brews a flat cup (no acidity at all) with thin body. Pretty much black and very shiny with oil.

Health:   Claims and counter claims regarding the health impact of coffee drinking have been all over the map, with the anti-coffee voices particularly shrill. Current medical opinion is that moderate coffee drinkers (2 to 3 cups a day) are 10% to 15% less likely to die than non-drinkers in any period of time. The cause of this is not known, but another study showed that moderate coffee drinkers are less likely to commit suicide than non-drinkers. If you want an extensive health rundown, the article on Wikipedia Health effects of coffee is probably as good as any and better than most.

Coffee Houses:   The first European coffee house was opened in Venice in 1645, but the most famous was opened in Vienna in 1683 by Polish/Ukrainian Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki (Georg Franz Kolschitzky in Viennese). It was to him the King of Poland awarded the coffee beans abandoned by the Turks in their defeat at the Battle of Vienna. Business was not real good - until he invented filtering the coffee and adding milk or cream - then business was very good indeed.

Specific Varietals:

  • Armenian Coffee:   This coffee is found in Los Angeles County and Armenia (for other regions see "Turkish Coffee"). Just about every multi-ethnic market here in LA has medium and dark beans (often used "half and half") appropriate for this concoction. It must be ground to powder, boiled and served unfiltered, with or without sugar, but no milk or cream.
  • Brazilian:   Brazil is the world's foremost coffee grower, producing between 30% and 35% of all the world's coffee. It is pretty much all undistinguished lowland coffee destined for the biggest commercial roasters. The best grade, that sold to specialty roasters as "Brazilian" is "Bourbon Santos", which is produced only by young trees in their first two or three years of production. It is a middle of the road coffee, but better than most Brazilian.
  • Celebes: Situated northeast of Java, this island produces another world famous coffee, similar to the Sumatran. Perhaps a little less rich and a little more acidy. Manado is considered the best, with Rantepao considered a close second.
  • Civet Coffee:   In some coffee growing regions, including the Philippines, mongoose relatives called palm civets are up all night eating coffee berries. Of course they are up all night, anyone who eats that much coffee won't be able to sleep. Civets are very fussy and only eat perfectly ripe berries. The pulp is digested and the beans pass through (though slightly altered), to be collected and rinsed by gatherers. Most is exported to Japan, where they are willing to pay absurd prices, over 2013 US $50 per pound, for "special" coffee.
  • Columbian:   This country is a coffee powerhouse second only to Brazil, but produces better coffee. The best grade is "supremo" with "extra" the second grade - but there is also a mix of the two called "excelso". The leading regions are Medellin, Armenia and Manizales, often mixed as "MAM". All very respectable coffees.
  • Decaffeinated Coffee   Coffee for people who don't want to stay awake. Green beans are steamed, then subjected to one of several solvent processes to remove the caffeine, hopefully leaving all the flavor constituents (success varies). For a run down of the many processes see the Wikipedia article Decaffeination.
  • Dominican:   A "middle of the road" coffee from the Dominican Republic, often labeled Santo Domingo because it sounds more marketable.
  • El Salvador:   Rather bland coffee for commercial roasters. Best grade is "strictly high grown".
  • Ethiopian:   Ethiopia is probably where coffee originally came from, and many wild varieties still exist there. Most Ethiopian coffee shipped to North America comes from around the city of Harrar, and may be called "Ethiopian Harrar" or some other name with "Harrar" in it. This coffee has a rich taste with winey aftertaste. On the other hand, wild coffee gathered in southeastern Ethiopia and sold (generally not in North America) as "Ethiopian" or "Abyssinian" is bland and of poor quality.
  • Guatemalan:   Distinctive, rich and slightly smoky flavored coffees, amongst the best in the world. Best regionals are Antigua and Coban, best grades "strictly hard bean" (grown above 4500 feet), "hard bean" grown between 4000 and 4500 feet.
  • Haitian:   The best are "strictly high grown" and second best "high grown". Both are soft rich flavored coffees.
  • Instant Coffee:   An abomination of our "convenience culture". Coffee, mostly from lower grades and robusta, brewed in industrial tanks, then dried and crumbled. Meant to be spooned into styrofoam cups of hot tap water for persons of low self esteem.
  • Jamaican:   A very classy coffee. The highest grade is "Blue Mountain" and the highest of that is "Wallensford Estate", but nearly all is shipped to Japan where a much higher price can be fetched. "High Mountain Jamaican" is second best. Lowland Jamaica is not much better than El Salvador.
  • Java:   Java once lead the world in coffee production, but it was all wiped out by the coffee leaf rust in the 1890s. Most of the arabica plantations were replaced with robusta, but arabica has made a slow comeback to some extent. Java arabica is full bodied and rich, and just a bit more acidy and spicy than Sumatra.
  • Kenyan:   An excellent coffee. Kenyan coffee is similar to Ethiopian Harrar with a winey aftertaste, but the flavor is more intense and full bodied. Considered by many one of the greatest coffees available. Grades are AA, A and B in that order.
  • Kona:   This is the only coffee of the United States, and it is fading fast due to the high cost of doing anything in Hawaii, a result of the booming tourist industry. It is medium bodied, richly flavored and highly aromatic with moderate acidity and a slightly winey aftertaste.
  • Maragogipe:   From Brazil, a mutant producing very large porous beans. It has now been transplanted to many coffee growing regions. Opinions vary from "woody and disagreeable" to "best coffee in the world". It is of limited availability.
  • Mexican:   Very good light coffee. Best are Oxaca Pluma and Altura Coatepec, also Sltura Orizaba and Altra Huatusco. This coffee should have a medium roast and be taken without milk or cream, which would swamp the flavors.
  • Mocha:   Coffee grown and processed by ancient methods in Yemen, in the southwest corner of Arabia. It is still considered one of the best coffees in the world. The beans may look a bit rough due to the primitive milling methods. The best grades are Mattari, Sharki and Sanani in that order.
  • Mocha Java:   This was the first significant blend, and is still very popular today as a premium blend. It was found that Yemen grown coffee (exported through the Arabian port of Mocha) and coffee grown by the Dutch on Java (Indonesia) compensated for each others weaknesses.
  • Mysore:   This is the main coffee of India. It is considered of heavy body, low acid and somewhat lifeless in flavor and aroma. The best grades are "arabica plantation A and B" and "arabica cherry AB".
  • New Guinea:   From Papua New Guinea, this is another fine Southeast Asian island coffee. Compared to the Sumatran it is rich but a little less full bodied and has similar acidity.
  • Nicaraguan:   Similarly bland to El Salvador - good for commercial roasters.
  • Peaberry:   This is coffee beans from berries containing only one "bean". This is a form often associated with Ethiopia, for marketing purposes, but about 5% to 10% of the crop in any plantation is peaberry. Experts (rather than marketeers) say they provide a slightly different cup of coffee, but not consistently better or worse.
  • Peruvian:   A mildly acid, thin bodied but flavorful coffee similar to the middle grades of Mexican.
  • Philippine:   The Philippines were once a very major coffee exporter, but in the 1890s the leaf rust wiped out the plantations. Some were replanted in liberica and the Philippines is now the only country where major amounts of liberica are grown (though arabica and robusta are also grown there). Very little is exported because the Philippines is still a net importer of coffee, though production is increasing.
  • Sumatran:   A very famous coffee grown on the Malaysian island of Sumatra. Many consider Sumatran Mandheling and Ankola the best coffees in the world. These coffees are noted for richness, fullness of body and gentle acidity.
  • Tanzanian:   Coffee grown in the north, on the slopes of mount Kilimanjaro and nearby are quite similar to Kenyan, bright, full bodied and with a winey aftertaste. Grades are AA, A and B. In the south, completely different coffee is grown, usually called "Mbeya". This coffee is similar to Sumatran, full bodied, mellow with very little acid, and with hardly a hint of the winey aftertaste of other East African coffees.
  • Turkish:   A style, where coffee is roasted medium dark, ground to powder, brought to a full boil and served in a tiny cup without filtering. Usually it will be moderately or heavily sugared. This was the form in which coffee first appeared in Europe, before Jerzy Kulczycki started filtering and adding milk or cream. This form of coffee is extremely popular in the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine and the Arabic regions. It is unknown in Los Angeles County and Armenia (see Armenian Coffee).
  • Yunnan:   This coffee, grown a little north of the Vietnam border, is similar to Sumatran, but with lower acidity. It has been available mostly in California but is considered worthy of wider distribution.
  • Venezuelan:   This country was once Colombia's most serious competitor, but they've traded coffee for oil. Little is exported because they now barely grow enough for local consumption.

US Consumption:   The United States is the largest importer of coffee. In 2009 the average American consumption was 9 pounds per year. I'm not a heavy coffee drinker, but I probably account for something like 5 pounds.

gn_coffee 130806   - ©Andrew Grygus - - All photos on this page not otherwise attributed are © cg1. Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted.