Beans, seeds, cherries or berries – just what are coffee beans?

When is a bean not a bean? When it’s a coffee bean.

Confusingly, coffee beans aren’t really beans at all. They’re called ‘beans’ because of their physical appearance, but they’re actually the seed of small fruit called coffee berries or cherries, which grow on evergreen trees in tropical climates.

According to the World Coffee Organisation,around 70 countries worldwide have the right climate to produce coffee, with Brazil topping the chart as the world’s largest producer and exporter. As each country produces coffee with different characteristics, the taste can vary from fruity to acidic to rich depending on the country of origin.

The two types of coffee normally found in the supermarket are Arabica and Robusta, with Arabica accounting for around 80% of the total. Arabica trees like high altitudes, and their beans are normally ground for fresh coffee as they have a rich, mellow flavour. Robusta, as the name suggests, is a much hardier plant capable of flourishing at lower altitudes. It fruits more prolifically than Arabica, and the resulting beans are often used in blends and freeze-dried instant coffee.

Once the berries have ripened from green to red, the bean inside is fully formed and the harvest is picked and dried. The husk of the berry is removed, and the bean removed. Most commercial coffee beans are then roasted to intensify the flavour, with the degree of roasting varying from light, medium, medium-dark or dark depending on the strength of flavour required. It’s also possible to buy non-roasted beans for home roasting. Coffee aficionados know that roasting the beans in small quantities as they’re required guarantees the freshest possible flavour – but most of us would find this a little extreme, and prefer to enjoy one of excellent varieties of commercially-roasted bean on the market.

Once roasted, the beans are normally either sold as wholesale coffee, to be ground in caf├ęs and bars by commercial coffee machines, or ground for sale in small packs to consumers.