Is Coffee a Seed or Bean?

In this edition of the Zen Cafe Blog, we’re going to explore some fun facts about coffee that you might not be aware of (or at least I wasn’t aware of before I started working for a coffee company). Coffee is so common as to be essentially ubiquitous, but discussions about it tend to center on one of three things; 1) how coffee is roasted (i.e., light, medium, dark, French, Italian, etc), 2) how coffee is brewed (i.e., pour over, coffee machine, french press, etc), 3) and how coffee tastes (i.e., sweet, bitter, robust, etc). These are all important topics which this blog will cover in due time, but today I’d like to focus on something a little bit different; what is coffee?

That may sound like a dumb question with an obvious answer; it’s the liquid gold which we all know and love for its great taste and uncanny ability to enliven us in the morning. That’s not incorrect, but I’d like to trace that question back a bit further. What is coffee before it’s a beverage? What is it before it’s roasted? Heck, what is it before it makes it off the farm?

Though we call coffee a bean, turns out it’s actually a seed. More accurately, it’s a seed found in the cherry of the coffea plant, a plant which comes in two main varieties; arabica and robusta, both of which originated in Africa. You heard me right; coffee isn’t a bean grown in the ground, but rather, essentially the pit of a cherry. Nifty, right? Here’s a picture of a coffee tree so you can get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

coffee tree

Now, I said above that there are two basic varieties of coffee plant; arabica and robusta. The most common type of coffee used in the speciality industry (and consequently the type of coffee Zen Cafe deals in) is arabica. The reason for this is simple; the arabica plant is less bitter than robusta and is perceived to have a greater number of flavor permutations. Because of this difference in taste (and partially due to its higher caffeine content), robusta is primarily used in instant coffee, but it also finds a home in some espresso blends as a result of its ability to produce a thick crema (the golden foamy head on a shot of espresso).

Within the broad category of coffee arabica, there exist a great many subcategories, or varietals of the coffee plant–far too many to list. The awesome mural in our roastery (painted by Zen Cafe’s own Kelly Stombaugh) gives you some idea of the many many different types of coffee grown throughout the world, all of which have different physical, chemical, and flavor characteristics.

zen cafe varietals tree

Coffee varietals tend to vary by country of origin, which is part of what makes coffees from different parts of the world taste distinct from one another; for example, coffee varietals grown in Ethiopia tend to be earthy, fruity and acidic, whereas those grown in Brazil tend to be less acidic and have a more chocolatey character. This element of coffee growing is not especially well understood (at least by me), however, and must be taken in combination with farming/processing  practices and growing conditions in order to understand the uniqueness of a coffee’s cup profile.

I’ve probably talked your ear off by this point, so we’ll stop for now. Next time, we’ll get into the importance of the other two elements of coffee growing I mentioned above; farming/processing practices and growing conditions. See you soon!


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