Stepping into the world of coffee feels like stepping onto another planet. Instead of being confused or worried you’re not doing things ‘correctly’, we’re here to get you excited.
Your cup of coffee becomes more remarkable when you know the hard work that goes into making it. When you learn coffee descriptors and scientific terminology, you’ll be able to choose beans that suit your palate better. When you learn about coffee origins and its history, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for your purchase.
Our complete guide will educate you on the types of coffee by looking at terminology, origins, roast levels, bean varieties, and grind types. We’ll even cover brewing methods so you can start making coffee at home. By the time you’re done, you’ll never look at coffee the same way again!
Essential Coffee Vocabulary You Need to Know
Learning about coffee can feel like taking a test you didn’t study enough for. As the saying goes: knowledge is power.
Picking up coffee vocabulary allows you to choose bags that suit your palate or lines up with your values. You’ll also be able to pick drinks you love or support brands living up to sustainability standards.
We’ll start off by answering a few common questions about coffee vocabulary, then dive into common coffee descriptors.
What do You Call High-End Coffee?
We at DrinkStack are firm believers that quality coffee is what you decide. For simplicity’s sake, high-end coffee is usually specialty coffee.
Specialty coffee is any coffee that’s received a high score from the Specialty Coffee Association (or SCA). Seasoned professionals grade this coffee on metrics such as the complexity of flavors, aroma, and a lack of defects. For example, defects could be coffee beans that aren’t fully grown or were damaged by pests.
While specialty coffee earns its place as a particularly delicious and rare example of the crop, your journey should always be personal. You may find your favorite coffee didn’t get the specialty grade label at all!
What is Considered Cheap Coffee?
Cheap coffee is usually on the blander side without much subtlety or complexity. It also tends to have more defects that lend to a poorer flavor.
When people say cheap coffee, they usually mean instant coffee or the pre-ground bins you find at the grocery store.
What are Coffee Description Words?
Coffee descriptions paint a picture of what your senses will enjoy. These senses usually revolve around taste, scent, and texture.
When you know these descriptors, you’ll be able to buy bags that better suit your preferences.
Getting into coffee quickly becomes confusing thanks to these general descriptors. These descriptions can get a little ambiguous but are still important.
- Bright – Have you ever heard of a coffee described as bright? This is a common way of suggesting it’s tart or fruity.
- Clean – This general descriptor is particularly It can refer to a coffee that has few defects and doesn’t taste ‘off’. It can also refer to coffee that is made with the washed processing method, which we’ll explore in the processing method section below.
- Complex – Some coffee contains multiple flavors beyond just the classic coffee taste. For example, a complex coffee could taste like dark cherries, chocolate, and have a vanilla-like aftertaste.
- Aromatic – This descriptor is for coffee with a particularly powerful and unique scent.
- Acidic (High or Low Acidity) – Since coffee comes from a fruit, it retains some of the acids that lend to a tart or sour flavor. Some drinkers love acidity due to its citrusy flavors. Other drinkers prefer low-acidity coffee to reduce symptoms such as IBS or acid reflux.
- Balance – Similar to wine, coffee can be balanced. This term refers to how every trait of the coffee doesn’t overwhelm other traits. For example, a balanced coffee could be a little sweet, a little nutty, and a little tart. An unbalanced coffee could be a little sweet, but overpoweringly sour and acidic.
Simply put, these are the flavors you’ll likely enjoy with your purchase. Keep in mind flavor notes can be a little ambiguous and can change depending on your brewing method!
Below are common flavor notes associated with coffee (but are far from the only ones):
- Dark chocolate
- Baking spices (such as vanilla or cloves)
Take in a deep breath and enjoy – the aroma is one of the best parts of the plant! This feature is dynamic and can change depending on how you grind the coffee or brew it.
Coffee has a very distinctive aroma on its own, but you can also get subtle hints of:
- Semi-sweet chocolate
- Red fruit (such as cherry or raspberry)
- Roasted nuts
- Baking spices (such as vanilla or cloves)
Mouthfeel is another way of referring to a drink or food’s texture. If you’re unfamiliar with this, consider drinking a cup of coffee, then sipping a glass of water. Notice how different the texture feels on your tongue and along the inside of your cheeks.
Your coffee’s mouthfeel could resemble the following:
This coffee descriptor is related to the mouthfeel but is not quite the same. Think of your coffee’s body like its weight. How heavy or light does it feel on your tongue?
Coffee brands will describe their coffee’s body with the following descriptors:
- Light-bodied – this coffee will feel light and airy, almost like water.
- Medium-bodied – this coffee will be a little heavier
- Full-bodied – this coffee feels the heaviest and the thickest, sometimes coming with a creamy mouthfeel
Common Coffee Misconceptions You Need to Know
Before we dive into coffee origins and why they matter, let’s talk about coffee misconceptions. These myths can make your buying process less fulfilling or leave you confused.
Specialty Coffee is Automatically the Best
This myth almost has a ring of truth. While specialty coffee goes through rigorous testing and grading for quality, the best coffee for you is a personal decision.
We recommend experimenting with all kinds of coffee on your journey. Try a specialty bag from a roaster, then buy a bag from the grocery store shelf.
Coffee is a Bean…Or Is It?
Coffee beans aren’t actually beans! This nickname comes from their bean-like appearance, but they’re actually seeds from the fruit.
The coffee fruit is sometimes nicknamed a cherry for its red appearance, but it’s also not a cherry. It’s closer botanically to a berry, which cherries are not related to at all!
Coffee Blends are Cheap
Another misconception is that coffee blends are automatically of inferior quality. What is meant by a coffee blend? For starters, blends use multiple types of beans from different coffee-producing countries (or coffee origins).
Coffee blends are actually fun ways to mix and match the dominant traits of different coffee beans. For example, a bag of blended coffee could have roasty, nutty coffee from Brazil mixed with fruity coffee from Colombia.
What are Coffee Origins and Are They Important?
Coffee origins are one of the most intimidating details for newcomers due to the sheer history involved. How do you even start sorting out all the countries and coffee-growing regions?
Most importantly…does learning all of these details even matter? We’re here to tell you it definitely does. Coffee origins offer a wealth of fascinating history that sheds light on how your product came to be. Each bag holds a compelling story that gives your coffee habit more value.
To start, coffee origin is a broad term referring to where coffee is grown. This term can refer to an entire continent, a country, or a region within that country. Single-origin coffee is any bag that comes from a specific country or region.
The largest coffee-producing region in the world easily goes to Brazil. Despite recent cold snaps damaging coffee farms, the year 2022 saw Brazil producing fifty million coffee bags.
You’ll regularly see Brazilian coffee in cafes or grocery store coffee bags. While some coffee drinkers associate this origin with bulk over quality, you can find delicious coffee quite easily. Brazilian coffee’s reputation leans toward being mellow, sweet, and nutty. Brazilian coffee brands are a solid choice for a beginner who doesn’t want anything too bitter or expensive.
A popular Brazilian drink is the cafezinho, a tiny cup of hot filtered coffee usually brewed with friends or business partners.
A lesser-known coffee origin is Vietnam, though this fact isn’t for lack of production. Vietnam actually produces almost as much coffee as Brazil!
Since Vietnam’s production usually turns into grocery store drip coffee or instant coffee, this origin has a reputation for quality over quantity. Many roasters today are changing that reputation with delicious Vietnamese coffee blends. You can try out this coffee yourself with today’s best Vietnamese brands.
Traditional Vietnamese coffee is dark roasted, often bitter, and brewed with a phin filter. We’ll cover this brewing method in the brewing section below!
Another very popular coffee-producing country is Colombia. While not reaching the same productivity levels as Brazil or Vietnam, they come close at nearly 15 million coffee bags per year.
If you’ve ever seen a coffee bag with a farmer sporting a thick mustache and a mule, you’ve already encountered Colombian coffee. Marketers created the fictional character of Juan Valdez as a symbol of Colombia’s hard-working coffee farmers. However, coffee farmers are a highly diverse group. Most coffee farming families are composed of multiple generations, genders, and skill levels.
Casual and passionate coffee drinkers alike love Colombian coffee brands for their impeccable balance. Coffee beans from this origin lean toward chocolatey, fruity, or citrusy flavors, rarely hitting any extreme.
Coffee experts and historians alike widely consider Ethiopia to be the birthplace of the coffee bean. The oldest known recordings of coffee consumption are here, as well as an interesting myth concerning coffee’s birth!
Many people believe coffee to have been discovered by an old farmer thousands of years ago. This farmer is said to have noticed the erratic, energetic behavior of goats eating coffee cherries and later decided to try the fruit out himself. After a little experimentation, coffee was born! Nowadays Ethiopian coffee ceremonies are an elaborate cultural method of showing hospitality to a guest.
Ethiopian coffee regularly lands on the shelves of specialty cafes for its sweet flavors and almost honey-like mouthfeel.
Ever heard of Blue Mountain? Jamaica is the origin of this famed coffee and produces fewer bags than most origins, but usually of very high quality.
Jamaica has been producing coffee as a primary export since the late 1700s. This country is well-suited to growing coffee thanks to its hot climate and high altitudes, particularly among its Blue Mountains (hence the name). Despite many people associating this country with coffee, many Jamaicans prefer to drink tea.
If you’re craving coffee that’s on the sweeter side of the flavor spectrum, you’ll love Jamaican coffee. Bitterness and high acidity are quite rare in favor of chocolate, vanilla, and floral notes.
Many newcomers to coffee are often surprised to hear about Hawaii’s contribution. Indeed, Hawaii is home to the famed Kona coffee, a beloved type you can’t find anywhere else.
Finding Kona coffee can be difficult at first due to many brands mislabeling their products. Lawmakers in Hawaii have proposed regulation changes to protect the Kona coffee name. If you want to purchase authentic Kona coffee, read the recent legal change and what you should look for in packaging.
What are the Different Types of Coffee Plants?
Growing, harvesting, and roasting coffee is a science. While we don’t expect you to become an overnight expert, learning a few scientific words for coffee will help you be a discerning buyer.
Easily the best-known coffee plant is arabica (scientifically known as coffea arabica). Many coffee drinkers prefer arabica due to its lower caffeine level, gentler flavors, and reduced bitterness.
Arabica is easy to find due to being the standard coffee of choice for specialty cafes and grocery stores. You can find 100% arabica bags as well as blends.
Once considered the black sheep of the coffee industry, robusta is seeing a revival. Scientifically dubbed coffea canephora, you can find robusta in many blends and instant coffee.
What is so Special About Robusta Coffee?
Robusta coffee may turn some drinkers off for its higher caffeine content and bitter flavors. Other drinkers prefer it because it’s rich, bold, and makes fantastic espresso.
Are There Different Types of Coffee Beans?
Arabica and robusta plants produce many varieties of beans. You’ll sometimes find these bean names on the front of your coffee bag (particularly from specialty roasters).
Arabica Bean Varieties
There are many types of coffee beans under the arabica umbrella, though some are more popular than others.
This popular arabica bean variety regularly shows up in Latin American sourced coffee. Many farmers favor catacurra for providing high volumes of coffee, though it’s also rather sensitive to coffee leaf rust. Coffee leaf rust is a damaging fungus that rots the tree’s leaves.
Expect to enjoy citrusy fruit notes such as lemon, lime, and tangerines. You may also find hints of sweet chocolate or stone fruit.
This bean variety is easily one of the best-known. Many of today’s prized single-origin coffee – such as Blue Mountain or Kona – uses typica as their main variety.
Typica has unique flavor notes of subtle baking spices, floral notes, and citrus fruits. It’s complex while leaning toward the sweeter end of the equation.
This rarer, coveted coffee bean variety is usually found in specialty coffee spaces. While it doesn’t produce quite as much coffee as typica, some roasters prefer it for its quality.
Bourbon coffee is famously rich, usually invoking flavors of buttery caramel, sweet chocolate, and hazelnuts.
Robusta Bean Varieties
Robusta bean varieties don’t get nearly as much attention as arabica, though this fact is changing rapidly.
Erecta is one of the most widely used robusta bean varieties. Like most robusta plants, these beans have a stronger and almost smokier flavor.
This common robusta variety frequently shows up in African countries, particularly Uganda. More people are starting to consider these beans for their earthy flavors and intense acidity.
This entry on the list is a mixture! The catimor bean variety blends arabica and robusta for a truly impressive result.
Originating back in the 1950s, farmers crafted catimor to make it easier to grow large amounts of coffee. Multiple countries produce catimor as a main variety, particularly Indonesia and Vietnam.
Catimor provides delicious notes of red fruit, nuts, and bitter chocolate.
What are the Three Main Coffee Processing Methods?
Have you ever read a coffee bag and wondered what they meant by washed or natural? When farmers harvest coffee, they need to remove the seeds and prepare them for roasting.
This method of preparation comes in three main categories that affect the coffee’s flavors, aroma, body, and mouthfeel.
Natural Process (or Dry Processing)
This coffee processing method involves leaving the coffee cherries out in the sun to dry naturally, hence the name.
Many farmers prefer this method for saving time and money, thanks to not requiring heavy machinery or water. On the other hand, a lot of space is necessary to spread out the cherries. The fruit also needs to be carefully tended for weeks before it’s ready.
Due to staying in contact with the coffee fruit, natural process coffee tends to have a fruitier and sweeter flavor profile.
Washed coffee is exactly what it says on the tin: the coffee is repeatedly washed to remove all traces of the fruit. This labor-intensive processing method requires skilled farmers, steady access to clean water, and specialized machinery to pull off.
Since washed coffee no longer has any traces of fruit, some coffee drinkers consider its flavor most representative of its origin. Many drinkers described washed coffee as ‘clean’.
The honey process is another drop in the bucket of confusing coffee terms. No honey is used in this process: this name refers to the mucilage left on the coffee seed when it’s removed from the fruit.
Mucilage is the sticky juice left over after removing the coffee cherry. While the washed process gets rid of this, the honey process keeps it. Honey-processed coffee isn’t as sweet as the natural but has almost as high acidity as washed. Overall, it’s quite balanced!
What are the Different Types of Coffee Roasts?
Roasting coffee is a more familiar topic to newcomers, but not by much. Roasting is a subtle art that will greatly impact your enjoyment of coffee and can even improve your health!
How light or dark your coffee is roasted is called a roast profile. Below are the standard types of coffee roasts, their key flavors, and the occasional health benefit.
A light-roasted coffee will have a higher level of acidity than the other roasts. As a result, you can safely expect light coffee to be more acidic or bright.
Light-roasted coffee can also be quite floral and mellow. Funnily enough, the higher acidity can be a downside for some drinkers. Acidic coffee can worsen symptoms such as IBS or acid reflux.
As we move along the roasting scale, you’ll notice gray areas in between the extreme profiles. Coffee drinkers enjoy light-medium roasts for adding a slight toastiness to their cups.
If you crave the high acidity or subtle floral notes of light roasts but crave that classic roasted flavor, try light-medium. Keep in mind that light-medium roasts are still rather acidic.
The most popular roast profile by far is the medium roast. Why? Medium-roasted coffee is incredibly balanced in terms of flavor and aroma.
You’ll enjoy many of the coffee’s natural flavors with a rich, roasted undertone. This coffee is less acidic and tends to be easier on the stomach, too.
If you prefer earthier or more chocolate notes, seek out medium-dark. This end of the spectrum is where the roast starts to dominate the flavor profile.
Medium-dark coffee is smokier and nuttier than its lighter counterparts. This roast profile usually boasts a fuller body and a creamier mouthfeel, to boot. The acidity here is very low, so we recommend this coffee for sensitive stomachs.
The darkest end of the roast profile spectrum is an acquired taste, but one you may fall in love with. While you won’t taste more subtle floral or sweet notes, you’ll enjoy robust and powerful flavors.
Dark roasted coffee is deeply smoky and leans hard toward bitter chocolate and roasted nuts. This kind of coffee is fantastic for people who like to dollop in a little milk or creamer. Espresso also responds best to dark coffee due to its richer and more intense flavor profile.
How is Coffee Decaffeinated?
Technology has improved immensely to remove caffeine without affecting your beans’ flavor or aroma.
Swiss Water Method
Do you worry about chemicals getting into your morning cup? The Swiss Water decaffeination method is chemical-free, organic, and widely considered the safest way to make decaf.
You can easily find Swiss Water decaf by seeking out the big, blue sticker on the front of the bag. While the process behind this method is highly complex, at no point are any harmful chemicals added. The creators have a compelling breakdown of how this method works.
Another common method of decaffeinating coffee is the sugarcane method (or ethyl acetate method). It’s somewhat similar to Swiss Water in how it removes the caffeine chemical but uses different materials.
Ethyl acetate is a type of acidic compound found in many day-to-day products. You can find this chemical in nail polish remover, varnishes, wine vinegar, and even overripe fruits. Decaffeination happens by soaking coffee beans in this solution to trap caffeine chemicals and remove them.
There is mixed information on the safety of ethyl acetate, so educate yourself further before making a purchase.
If Swiss Water is on the positive end of the spectrum, methylene chloride is on the opposite end. This decaffeination method is quickly falling out of favor for not just muting coffee’s flavor, but possible health risks.
You can find methylene chloride in decaffeinated coffee, tea, beer, and food flavoring. The information on possible health risks is also mixed, so exercise caution when buying.
What Level Should You Grind Coffee?
Using the wrong grind level can clog your machine or make your cup taste flavorless. Before we look at brewing methods, we’ll show you what each grind level looks like.
This grind level is so fine it looks like flour. You’ll only be able to achieve this grind level with an electric grinder, so save the hand grinders for the rest of the list!
A fine grind is best for a traditional espresso machine or Turkish coffee.
This grind appears like little grains of sand or salt. Pour overs and Moka pots both benefit from this level.
This middle ground gives you some wiggle room to play with your pour-over, Moka pot, or Chemex.
You’ll be able to spot coarse coffee easily by its wood chip-like appearance. This grind level is best for the French Press
Very Coarse (or Extra Coarse)
This grind level looks like extra large wood chips and is best for cold brew.
How Do I Start Brewing Coffee?
It’s time to put your knowledge to the test with brewing methods you can try at home!
The function of brewing is to extract all the delicious flavor chemicals from your coffee using hot or cold water. Brewing comes in two main forms: steeping and immersion. Steeping involves running water over your grounds with the aid of a filter. Immersion involves soaking your grounds.
The affordable and user-friendly pour-over is one of the most popular types of brewing methods. This simple device comes in three simple parts: the pot, the dripper, and your filter of choice.
Pour-over coffee is often smooth, bright, and highly aromatic.
Another win for the beginner homebrewing crowd is the elegant French Press. It requires a different approach than the pour-over by immersing your grounds.
Creating French Press coffee is as easy as pouring hot water onto coarsely ground coffee and waiting for four to five minutes. This type of coffee tends to have mellow flavors with a creamy mouthfeel and full body.
You’ve likely seen one of these little silver beauties while browsing coffee supplies. The Moka pot is a staple of Italian coffee culture and is found in countless homes today for easy espresso.
Moka pot espresso is silky and dark, leaning toward tart or chocolate flavor notes.
Phin Coffee (or Phin Filter)
This Vietnamese coffee brewing method creates a delicious coffee that hovers between a creamy French Press and a Moka pot espresso.
While similar in appearance to a pour-over, the Chemex uses a thicker filter. The coffee in this brewing method tends to have a thicker body.
If you want to learn more about how the Chemex differs from the pour-over, read our guide here!
Siphon (or Vacuum Brewing)
The complex structure of a siphon coffee maker more closely resembles a school science experiment than a brewing method. Also known as vacuum brewing, this method uses both gravity and steam to brew.
Some drinkers prefer siphon coffee for its exceptionally clean and bright taste. You can check out our recommendations for the best set-up to start brewing.
This quaint brewing method involves heating finely ground coffee in a small metal cup using hot sand. Since it doesn’t use a filter, Turkish coffee is less acidic with a very bold flavor.
Turkish coffee is also commonly mixed with cardamom, cloves, or sugar.
The espresso machine is a complex contraption that helps create the lattes, mochas, and cappuccinos you love so much. These machines often come with a steam wand for steaming milk and can sometimes have a grinder, to boot.
What are the Different Types of Coffee Drinks?
There are more coffee drinks than you can shake a coffee scoop at. We’ll give you a starting list of the most common and widespread.
Drip coffee is simple, affordable, and readily accessible. Also known as black coffee, this coffee is smooth, flavorful, and very aromatic.
Espresso is a highly concentrated coffee made either with a Moka pot or an espresso machine. These are served in little shot glasses you can drink alone or turn into recipes.
An Americano is a popular drink composed of espresso shots mixed with hot water. Many drinkers prefer this over drip coffee when they want more flavor.
This iconic coffee drink comes with shots of espresso mixed with steamed milk and a topping of foam.
Similar to a latte, the mocha comes with a base of chocolate syrup.
If a latte is a little too rich for you, try a flat white. This drink uses the same ingredients, but much less steamed milk.
On the other hand, you may want more steamed milk than espresso. The cappuccino uses creamy and fluffy steamed milk over espresso shots.
This tiny coffee drink comes in a shot glass with a tiny dollop of microfoam.
Iced coffee is a recipe that tosses espresso shots over ice, then mixes in your milk of choice.
If iced coffee doesn’t have the flavor or consistency you prefer, try cold brew. This cold coffee is more flavorful and can even come in fizzy variations.