The Ultimate Coffee Guide: Types of Coffee
Do you stare at the list of drinks on the coffee shop menu, shrugged your shoulders, and order a familiar, safe, crowd-pleasing cappuccino? But what are all those other different types of coffee, anyway? With names of popular coffee drinks like Lungo, Americano, flat white, macchiato, latte, ristretto, cold brew, iced coffee, and Frappuccino, the world of coffee drinks can be intimidating. Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered with this complete guide to different types of coffee beans, roasts, blends, flavor characteristics, types of coffee drinks, and coffee buying tips. We’ll help you match the right specialty beans to your favorite coffee drinks and venture beyond to ordinary toward the spectacular.
Before we go any further, let’s put it out there. Coffee is a fruit. Those beans you grind up in the morning are the seeds of cherries that ripen on tall, evergreen, waxy-leaf coffee plants. The flavor in your cup is influenced by, among other things, plant variety, growing region, elevation, climate, harvesting, and cherry processing. For our purpose here, we’ll restrict our discussion to coffee types and roasts, but you’ll find more in our article Where do coffee beans come from and how are they grown?
Types of Coffee Drinks
There are more than four hundred million cups of coffee consumed in the United States per day. That’s 3.1 cups of coffee per person. Thirteen percent of coffee drinkers prepare their coffee with an espresso machine, and more than seventy-four percent brew coffee at home. So, Americans love coffee drinks, and they know how to drink them.
In this section, we’ll take a look at the most popular coffee drinks. We’ll also give you some advice on the ideal beans to use for the different coffee drinks.
The top spot goes to the espresso shot. Most drinks served in coffee shops have one or two 30ml espresso shots as their base ingredient. Espresso is brewed by forcing hot water at high pressure through finely ground beans. The extraction takes around twenty-five seconds and pulls out oils from the beans creating a silky caramel-colored layer called crema. While, a shot of espresso contains 30 ml of coffee, while a double espresso contains the double, 60 ml.
Espresso is the preferred brewing method to experience the true character of a blend or single origin. In coffee shops, baristas opt for medium or medium-dark roasts as they have the greatest appeal. At home, you can use any roast level for espresso, but if you choose a dark roast, be sure to clean your machine regularly to avoid build-up from excess oils.
A latte is made with 1 part espresso 3 parts steamed milk, topped with fine silky foam and is one widest known coffee drinks. Textured steamed milk is often used to create art on top of the drink. The most common patterns made with the steamed milk are hearts, tulips, and rosettas.
For a latte, medium-dark roasts work best. You need a bold enough flavor to push through the steamed milk. We’ve been making great lattes with our Social Dog Blend. It is full-bodied with hints of milk chocolate roasted peanuts, brown sugar, & a graham cracker finish. Yummy!
A cappuccino is made with 1 part espresso, 1 part steamed milk, and 1 part foam. Different from a latte, the steamed milk foam in a cappuccino is thicker, resulting in less milk in the drink. Because of this, a medium or medium-dark roast works well. We like to give our cappuccinos a dusting of cocoa powder for a bit of jazz.
A flat white is a popular drink in Australia and New Zealand. It is similar to a cappuccino but is made with two shots of espresso and microfoam steamed milk. When the milk is steamed, very little air is incorporated into the milk resulting in fine, almost indistinguishable bubbles. It’s a lovely way to drink great espresso.
The story goes the americano was created by American soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II. The drink is made by pouring hot water over a shot of espresso and is often enjoyed without milk. It's similar to black coffee but has a bolder taste. To learn how to make an Americano, check out our post What is an americano coffee?
Lungo (Italian Coffee)
A lungo is almost the same as an americano, but upside down. In other words. Instead of pouring hot water over the shot of espresso, the espresso shot is poured over the water. Because there is less disturbance to the espresso’s crema, the drink tends to be a bit more bitter than an americano.
For both the americano and the lungo, we like to use a medium roast for its balanced flavor and low acidity.
This is a classy espresso drink, and we love it. The word “macchiato” means mark or stain. The drink is made by adding one to two tablespoons of microfoam of steamed milk on top of a shot of espresso. The foam brings a rich velvety texture to the espresso. We make ours with a dot of almond milk.
A Ristretto is a short shot of espresso. It is made with less water than espresso and has half the yield. It sounds like it would be horrid, but it is much sweeter than a normal espresso shot. Admittedly, Ristrettos are more popular in the European market.
Cafe au Lait
This drink is made with coffee brewed using a French Press rather than espresso. It is made by combining one-part brewed coffee with one part scalded rather than steamed milk. The scalded milk adds a thick creamy texture to the drink and brings out the lighter flavors in the coffee.
There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as an iced coffee on a warm summer afternoon. Iced coffee is simply brewed coffee served over a few ice cubes. In other words, the iced coffee is brewed using hot water, allowed to cool, and served on ice. Don’t mistake this with cold brew. Cold-brew and iced coffee are two entirely different things. Check out our post Cold-Brew vs Iced coffee: Which Is Better?. Iced coffee is a great alternative to hot coffee on those warm summer days when you need to cool down.
To be honest, we shouldn’t list this as a coffee drink. In fact, cold brew is a coffee brewing method. Traditional brewing uses hot water to extract the flavors from ground beans. With cold-brew coffee, room temperature water is used, and the extraction takes place over twelve to twenty-four hours. The long extraction results in a coffee concentrate that is rich, smooth and, sweet.
If you follow us on social media or read our blogs, you’ll know we adore cold brew. There’s always a mason jar of cold brew in our fridge. We make ours with unsweetened almond milk.
Types of coffee beans
Just as there is here are many different types of coffee drinks, there is also different types of coffee beans. Almost all of the world’s coffee comes from one of two species; Arabica or Robusta. There are many varieties within each, but packaged coffee is generally labeled as one or the other.
Arabica coffee makes up more than sixty-one percent of all commercial coffee production and is superior to Robusta in both flavor and aroma profile. The specialty coffee market is centered around Arabica beans, while standard commercial coffee blends are often comprised of both Arabica and Robusta.
Robusta coffee plants are hardy and produce a higher annual yield than Arabica. They are also less vulnerable to disease and variable quality. This means large coffee plantations can rely on mechanical harvesting, reducing labor costs and increasing yield. While the beans are considered poorer quality than Arabica, they do have a higher oil content and produce a thicker crema layer, making them popular for use in espresso blends.
Coffee bean types
When you head out to purchase coffee beans, there are some basic terms you will encounter. Along with Arabica and Robusta, you will soon be confronted with packaging labeled as single origin, blend, and organic. What the heck? All of these terms will become an important part of your ongoing coffee selection, so it’s time to take a look at each of them.
Generally, single-origin beans are more expensive than other coffee beans. If the label is marked with the words single origin, it means the package contains beans from a single coffee farm, rather than from many farms in a growing region. In other words, the pedigree of the beans can be traced to a specific grower. We mentioned earlier the importance of plant variety, altitude, climate, farming practices, and harvesting methods. This is why knowing the precise origin of the beans can be important, and why distinct flavor profiles come from different farms.
If you're going to consider buying single-origin beans, here are a few things to consider:
- Single-origin beans are meant to highlight distinctive flavor profiles. Don't buy them if you're going to load up the brew with dairy and sugar.
- Consistency is unlikely. On a coffee farm, each harvest is a bit different than the one before it. It's a lot like wine in this way. Unless the beans come from the same lot and are roasted in the same batch, two bags of single-origin beans from the same farm may vary greatly.
- Buy single-origin beans in small quantities. Most coffee aficionados choose single-origin beans if they are interested in flavor and aroma nuances and want to experiment with extraction. Not many people would pay extra for single-origin beans for their everyday cup of coffee.
- Single-origin beans are finicky. To get the best out of single-origin beans you have to know what you're doing. The method of brewing and the precision of extraction time is important. Slight variations make a huge difference in the cup.
When it comes to specialty coffee beans, blends are most common, but also most misunderstood. The confusion lies in there being several categories of coffee blends; commercial, regional, territorial, varietal, or artisan. The individual components of a blend are referred to as origins. In all cases, blends have huge advantages for the coffee consumer:
- Consistent quality: Coffee is an agricultural product and is subject to annual changes in rainfall, sunshine, temperature, soil conditions, plant aging, water quality, and the threat of diseases. One harvest can be very different from the next. Blending ensures a level of quality can be maintained from year to year, and throughout a single harvest.
- Balanced flavor profile: Coffee processing can result in a vast range of tastes from sharp citrus notes and floral hints, to honey and dark chocolate tones. By mixing beans from different origins, blenders can offer the consumer a balanced and controlled flavor profile.
- Balanced aroma: As with flavor, the aroma of roasted coffee beans can range from sweet and bold, to bitter and earthy. By mixing coffee from different origins, a blend can maintain a desired aromatic profile.
Large commercial coffee blends, the ones sold wholesale and in grocery chains, are often a blend of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans. As explained earlier, Robusta coffee is easier to mass harvest and possesses more oils and bold flavors desirable for commercial coffee. The inclusion of Robusta in commercial blends allows producers to offer the coffee at affordable wholesale prices.
Regional and territorial blends
A regional coffee blend is a combination of origins from a single country or multiple countries within a coffee-growing region. For instance, an African blend may include origins from several different countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Tanzania. A territorial blend will bring together origins from a specific geographic area.
A varietal blend showcases coffees from a specific variety of Arabica. For instance, Kona coffee is grown on Hawaii’s big island and there are several popular blends created from this exclusive variety of coffee.
All over the world, artisans work to create fantastic coffee blends showcasing the vast array of flavors and aromas of coffee. Like a master whisky distiller, a coffee blender or roaster is skilled at choosing the perfect origins to create a unique, harmonious, well-balanced flavor profile. Some blends are created for specific brewing methods. For instance, we developed our Fancy Mouse Blend for those serious about their espresso.
Sometimes, organic coffee is referred to as a blend, but that's not right at all. Instead, organic coffee refers to how the coffee is farmed and processed. All Chamberlain Coffee blends are 100% USDA certified organic.
After the coffee cherries are harvested and processed, the beans look like large, dried, fruit seeds. They are green and have a strong earthy scent and you might be hard-pressed to know they're coffee beans at all. It is during roasting the seeds take on their glossy, dark brown color and begin to have the distinctive aroma of coffee. If the beans are to be part of a blend, they will be combined before roasting so they can be roasted to the ideal level.
While plant variety, growing conditions, cherry selection, and cherry processing all contribute to the character of coffee, the largest influence on flavor and aroma comes from roasting. The length of the roasting process affects the body, acidity, bitterness, viscosity, intensity, and aroma of the coffee. The roasting level also determines the brewing method that will best highlight the blend's complexity. Even the way you choose to drink the coffee may be guided by the roast level.
There are four roast levels; light, medium, medium-dark, and dark.
When coffee beans are lightly roasted, they are brought to an internal temperature between 350 °F and 401°F. At these temperatures, the beans make an audible snap that is referred to as the “first crack. At this point, the roasting is terminated. Unlike what you may expect, light roasts are higher in caffeine and acidity than the other three roast levels. The short roasting time means there is less influence from roasting, and the original character of the coffee shines through. This roast level is great for French Press or pour-over brewing and should be enjoyed with little or no milk.
During medium roasting, the coffee beans are brought past “first crack” to an internal temperature of between 410°F and 428°F. The roasting is terminated just before the “second crack” stage. The beans have more body than light roast, and there is less acidity. Medium roasted coffee dominates the specialty market because of its balanced and smooth profiles. It is ideal for most brewing methods, and the flavors are strong enough to hold up well when enjoyed with dairy or almond milk.
After the “second crack” has been achieved, medium-dark roasts are brought to an internal temperature between 437°F and 446°F. As the internal structures of the bean begin to break down and the outer shell becomes porous, oils are forced to the surface. This is why medium-dark roasts have a glossy appearance. They are full-flavored with low levels of acidity. Medium-dark roasts are ideal for the long extraction time of cold brew.
Dark roasted coffee beans are heated to an internal temperature of between 464°F and 482°F. At these temperatures, most of the natural oil in the beans is pushed out through the outer shell, giving the beans an oily appearance. When beans are dark roasted, more of the sugars caramelize leaving the coffee with a sweet and smooth flavor. Many people avoid dark roasts because the original characteristic of the beans is overtaken by the flavor imposed by the roasting process.
The beans, the roast, the drink, and the moment
“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” T. S. Eliot
There is no other drink that holds as much imagination, intrigue, and complexity as coffee. And, there is no other drink with such an immense capacity to bring people together to tell stories, share ideas, make plans, and celebrate life. Few main streets in America are absent of at least one coffee shop, and even fewer homes go without coffee in the pantry.
Coffee is much more than a drink. The coffee farms are the lifeblood of the underdeveloped world and the bastions of economic and political freedom.
Those two little seeds delicately cocooned in a coffee cherry are as different in one part of the world as they are in the next, or from one farm to another. Each origin showcases its own special flavor profile that has been influenced by plant variety, growing conditions, farming practices, and processing methods. The beans continue their journey through roasteries all over the world where additional characteristics are added to the beans through the roasting process. The perfect coming together of science and art creates fine blends for us to enjoy together.
For as long as we keep brewing and drinking coffee, we’ll find new ways to celebrate its magic and different types of coffee. New ways of enjoying and different types of coffee are being discovered every day. A few years ago, no one had heard of cold brew or whipped coffee, but today they are as commonplace as drip coffee was years ago. Once you understand the basics of coffee type and roast level, there is no limit to the recipes you can invent. We’ve got a ton of inspiration for you in our post Best coffee recipes in the world.
So, next time you step up to order your morning cup of gold, stretch your legs and try out something other than the usual latte or cappuccino. Better yet, head home, brew up some coffee, and find an exciting new way to drink it and your favorite types of coffee. Snap a selfie, and share your drink with the world!