Full of beans: Know your coffee varieties

Stewart Turner / 23 January 2015

Supermarket shelves are crammed with beans from all corners of the world. Armed with our tips, you can become a coffee connoisseur in an instant.



Arabica or Robusta beans?

There are two main types of coffee bean. Arabica gives coffee its subtle, delicate notes, while Robusta beans are higher in caffeine and responsible for that punchy, bitter taste. Arabica beans are more expensive to produce, so cheaper brands are a blend of the two. The more Robusta beans in your blend, the rougher the taste.

Pay extra for 100% Arabica if you fancy a smooth, sophisticated cup of coffee that’ll tease your taste buds rather than tread all over them.

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How strong do you like your coffee?

It’s all about the roast. The longer the beans are roasted, the stronger the taste becomes.

Dark roasts like Italian and French coffee are perfect for that punchy espresso hit, while a light or medium roast gives you a smoother, less challenging taste.

Most coffee on sale in the supermarkets will come with a handy strength guide, ranging from 1 (mild) and 5 (strong), which simply indicates how long the beans were roasted for.

Should I buy ground coffee or beans?

Whole coffee beans ground immediately before brewing will always beat a packet of pre-ground hands down in terms of flavour, so if you’re searching for the ultimate cup of coffee, get yourself a grinder. You can pick up a small, electric model for around £15 - £20.

Remember to match the grind to the type of coffee maker you’re using. A coarse grind works well in a cafetiere, while a fine grind is perfect for an espresso machine or an Aeropress. Beware of brands claiming to suitable for all types of coffee machine. It’s simply impossible.

Where does your bean come from?

As you might expect, a coffee bean grown high in the cloud forests of Costa Rica can taste completely different to one grown in the Ethiopian highlands.

At a basic level, coffee from Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador and other South and Central American countries tends to be nutty and zingy with plenty of chocolate notes, while African coffees (predominantly from Kenya and Ethiopia) are citrusy, juicy and bright. Asian coffees, from places like Indonesia and Vietnam, are usually earthy, robust and smoky.

And that’s just the start. Discovering coffee’s transcontinental nuances is every bit as exciting as exploring the world of wine or beer – and with less of a hangover.  Online coffee clubs such as  Kopi and Grumpy Mule offer subscriptions which allow you to try a different variety of bean every month.

Caffeine

Are you looking for a brew that’s going to keep you sitting bolt upright on that long, long drive across the country? Well, contrary to what you might expect, a dark, well roasted French or Italian-style coffee won’t necessarily keep you awake at night. Roasting the bean actually reduces caffeine content, so the lighter the roast, the greater the amount of caffeine in the coffee.

Robusta beans contain around twice as much caffeine as Arabica. If you’re simply after a quick pick-me-up, you’re best off gritting your teeth and downing a cup of something cheap and nasty.

Decaf coffee

Taking the kick out of coffee beans has a detrimental impact on flavour, so the better the bean in the first place, the higher the quality of its decaf offspring. Check your coffee was decaffeinated using the chemical-free Swiss Water Method, which has the least impact on flavour of the available treatments.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.