Matt Westenburg Talks Coffee Beans

A good cup of coffee starts with quality coffee beans, but many of us don’t understand the difference. Coffee beans are classified by what kind of bean they are, how much they’re roasted and what coffee grade they receive. Here’s a quick rundown of what makes coffee beans different and what that means for your favorite cup of java.

Arabica or robusta beans?

Your morning cup of coffee is probably roasted from either Arabica or robusta beans. These are the two kinds of coffee beans are most commonly grown for coffee drinkers around the world. Arabica beans are generally sweeter with fruity tones and higher acidity. They’re widely grown in Latin America, but some regions of Africa have successfully grown Arabica coffee plants.

Robusta beans have a stronger taste and more caffeine than Arabica beans. These beans are easier to grow and more resistant to pests and harsh weather conditions. They also produce higher yields than Arabicas. Widely grown in the Eastern Hemisphere, robusta beans are more widely available in grocery stores and supermarkets. Arabica coffee beans are usually associated with better quality, but high-end Robusta beans taste as good as or better than Arabica beans. Arabica beans tend to be more expensive because of the additional challenges in cultivating them.

Matt Westenburg

Roasted coffee beans

In general, as coffee gets darker, the beans lose their caffeine and their original flavor. Fresh coffee beans are green and soft, unlike the beans we brew at home. After harvest, the beans are roasted to various degrees and at different temperatures. The roasting process affects the coffee’s color and flavor.

Light roasts are a lighter shade of brown and the beans don’t have an oil coating on the surface. The flavor of a light roast is noticeably more acidic, but the coffee retains more caffeine than medium and dark roasts. Medium roast coffee beans have a more balanced flavor, without the grainy taste found in light roasts. These coffee beans are roasted until after the first crack and before the second crack. Medium-dark roasts the next step on the coffee bean roasting spectrum. A small amount of oil begins to show on the surface of medium-roast beans and aromas from the roasting process become more distinct. With the least amount of caffeine and the most roasting, dark roast coffee beans are almost black in color. Dark roast beans take on different flavors throughout the roasting process, which is why they taste the most bitter.

Matt Westenburg

Coffee grades

Coffee beans are graded based on their quality before they hit market shelves. Higher quality beans are valued more than low end coffee beans. The international Coffee Association and Specialty Coffee Association of America have established grading metrics to evaluate coffee. Experts look for defects like stones in the coffee or unfrosted coffee beans that are black in color. These are considered primary defects. Secondary defects are classified as broken beans, or water damaged beans. Once receiving a grade, the best coffee beans are labeled Specialty Coffee, followed by Premium Coffee and Exchange Grade Coffee.

Coffee beans come in different varieties, different roasts and different grades. Understanding what each of these classifications means can help you identify your favorites. Once you know what coffee beans you like best you’ll always be able to start your brew with the best beans.