Descriptions of coffee origin can vary widely, from the very specific (“La Minita Coffee Estate, Tarrazu, Costa Rica”) to the generic (“Columbian”) to non-existent. Indeed, most coffee is not described by origin and is in fact a blend of coffees from a variety of locations. There’s nothing wrong with blends — think wine négociants in the Rhône — but there’s also lots to like about knowing exactly where your beans come from.
The Coffea genus is taxonomically complex with wide variations within species and even between related individuals but the two most widely cultivated species are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora var. robusta. They’re commonly referred to as arabica and robusta.
Arabica is normally considered the finer of the two and it will be occasionally called out, especially in cheaper blends (100% arabica!). It has half as much caffeine as robusta and accounts for about two-thirds of world coffee production. Robusta, from west Africa, is grown primarily grown there and in Brazil and Vietnam — the latter being the world’s largest coffee exporter. You can see the production breakout by country at the International Coffee Organization site; the blue column on the left has production by a/r (arabica or robusta) worldwide.
The coffee varietal is analagous to wine varietals like zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, mourvedre, etc. Arabica varietals include typica, geisha, pacamara, and bourbon, although there are many many more. Stumptown has a good description of coffee varietals. Note that robusta is technically a varietal of C. canephora.
Growing method (non-exclusive)
Organic, fair trade, shade grown, and so on. I’m not going to go all Wendell Berry on you here; suffice to note that some of these terms have specific designations and certifications and others may tend to be more aspirational.
Other green coffee characteristics
You occasionally see terms such as “SHB” for Strictly Hard Bean (grown at altitude) or peaberry, for a smaller rounder bean.
Light to dark, reflecting the amount of time that the green coffee bean has been heated in a coffee roaster. A variety of terms are used to describe roasts, including:
- “Full City” for a light roast
- “Vienna” for a medium roast
- “French” or “espresso” for a dark roast
Starbucks has popularized a very dark roasting style, presumably to stand up to the giant containers of milk that their coffee gets dumped into, but that dark roast tends to obliterate any other more subtle details in the bean. You can use cheap beans if you roast dark.
A good roaster will be proud of their craft and signal it with terms like “small batch roasted.” Roasting is very much a craft and good roasters are craftsmen.
Coarse to fine, again with a variety of not very standard terms (espresso, french press, drip, etc.). Roasted coffee goes stale very quickly and roasted ground coffee goes stale quickest of all. So if at all possible you should grind just before brewing and avoid buying ground coffee entirely. Real coffee nerds roast just before brewing, but that’s a little hardcore. The type of grind depends on the brewing method, so terms overlap between the two categories; espresso, for example, requires a very fine (“espresso”) grind.
I’m very primitive in this regard — I don’t own an espresso machine and make my coffee by pouring water from a kettle over a drip cone filter — but there are as many ways of making coffee as there are grains of sand in a thousand Ganges Rivers. In this category, the term “espresso” is widely abused. To me, espresso requires a machine that produces high pressure to force a small amount of water through a compressed puck of finely ground coffee beans, the moral equivalent of hard liquor with a crema.
Easily the coolest — in an obsessively Japanese nerdy kind of way — brewing method is the siphon bar at the Blue Bottle Cafe in San Francisco. They source pukka single estate beans and all but that machine is out of this world. I seriously underestimated it; I thought I could drink coffee, but two cups of that stuff and I was practically hallucinating.
Gross, in my opinion, but cheap beans wearing lots of perfume are available in flavors ranging from amaretto to vanilla to baked alaska.