Bean to Cup: Different Types of Coffee, Roasts, and Drinks, Explained
Do you know your Arabica from your Robusta, your light from your dark roast, and your cappuccino from your latte? Learn how to be your own barista or just how to navigate the coffee shop menu with this complete guide to types of coffee and coffee drinks.
You only need to step into a chic café to realize that coffee has evolved so far beyond your basic black drip, accented with little more than a scoop of sugar or splash of milk. Names, techniques, blends — it can all be a bit fussy, complicated, and even overwhelming.
So especially if you're trying to recreate a refined coffeeshop experience at home, it's helpful to have a deeper understanding of what's going into your cup. That's why we're doing a deep dive into different kinds of coffee, from beans and roasts, to classic drinks and inventive recipes.
Types of Coffee Beans
The most commonly used and widely available bean, Arabica accounts for 60 percent of the world's coffee production. Originating hundreds of years ago in the highlands of Ethiopia, and likely popularized in 7th Century Arabia (hence the name), it's actually quite delicate and difficult to grow — meaning its prevalence doesn't necessarily translate to commodity prices. Often found under gourmet labels, high-quality Arabica is smooth and complex, with a notable lack of bitterness.
The second most popular bean, Robusta is hearty and disease resistant (which also accounts for the name). It originated in sub-Saharan Africa, which continues to be one of the primary growers, along with Indonesia. A more budget-friendly choice, instant coffee is generally comprised of 100 percent Robusta. The high-in-caffeine bean can have harsher, more bitter qualities, which is why it's also often found in blends, especially in Vietnam.
Rarely found in North American and European markets (accounting for a mere two percent of the world's coffee supply), Liberica is almost exclusively produced in Malaysia, and especially favored in the Philippines. It is known for having an inconsistent flavor; sometimes smoky and woody, sometimes floral, with a rather harsh finish.
Types of Coffee Roasts
Just as there are different types of coffee, there are also a variety of roasts, which have a marked effect on your java's final result. A blond and toasty light roast has high levels of acidity and caffeine, a nut brown medium roast has balanced flavor, aroma, and acidity, a dark roast is full bodied and heavy with low-caffeine content and a faintly spicy flavor, while a mahogany-colored, extra dark roast is bitter, smoky, and burnt, with the lowest caffeine of all.
Types of Brewing Methods
The most common way to produce traditional black coffee, medium grounds are added to a brew basket and run through an automatic machine.
Related: How to Make Coffee
A more refined way to make a stronger brew, boiling water is poured slowly over fine grounds set in a filter basket, which drips into a cup.
Pressurized hot water passes through a filter containing finely ground, dark roasted beans. The force produces an especially concentrated shot.
Coarsely ground coffee steeps in room temperature water for an extended period of time, resulting in a low-acidity, high-caffeine brew that's excellent enjoyed cold.
You can buy specially designed cold brew coffee makers, or you can use a French press, like in this French Press Cold Brew.
Types of Coffee Drinks
Espresso vs. Black Coffee
Both black coffee and espresso are made by steeping beans with hot water, so what's the difference between the two then? As explained above, espresso is made of finely ground, extra-dark beans, that are run through a pressurized machine that produces only one, highly-concentrated shot at a time. Black coffee is more simple and humble: hot water dripped over ground coffee beans for a low- to medium-concentration of coffee and caffeine.
But espresso and black coffee as most often building blocks for drinks. Indeed, a combination of coffee and espresso (and steamed or foamed milk) is used to make a wide variety of coffee drinks, like the following:
Cappuccino vs. Latte
They're both smooth and creamy coffee shop go-tos, but the difference between a cappuccino and latte is largely a matter of proportion. The distinctly layered cappuccino has an even distribution of steamed milk, foamed milk, and espresso, while the latte is heavy on steamed milk (which is blended with, rather than layered on top, of the espresso), and light on foam.
Related: How to Make Espresso Drinks
An alternative to plain, black drip coffee, the Americano consists of an espresso shot diluted with hot water.
Equal parts espresso and steamed milk. The milk balances the sharp bitterness of the espresso.
If you like your coffee with more coffee, this is the type of coffee drink you need. Named for its ability to give your system a jump start, this is a full cup of coffee with an espresso shot stirred in.
Essentially a cappuccino, with a cocoa kick and creaminess from steamed milk.
Combine three parts foam with one part espresso, and you're holding a macchiato. It's not as creamy and smooth as a cappuccino, but it's not as strong as a straight shot of espresso either.
The flat white is a double shot of espresso with steamed milk. Australia imported this espresso-based drink to American coffee houses, and it's been a hit with the sippers who like the richness of cappuccino but not the fancy foam.
Café au Lait
A fancy name for a simple drink — it means "coffee with milk" in French — café au lait is a cup of brewed coffee with warm milk.
More cocktail than coffee drink, an Irish coffee is a combination of coffee, sugar, cream, and whiskey. This Irish coffee recipe is a great introduction.
Types of Iced Coffee Drinks
Add ice to brewed black coffee, and you have the basics of iced coffee. And just like a cup of steaming-hot java, you can decide if you want to add any milk, sugar, or cream.
Cold brew coffee is made with, as the name suggests, cold or cool water, rather than hot. To get the best flavor, coffee grinds steep for 4 to 48 hours. The longer the grinds steep, the stronger the brew. Once the steeping process is over, you can flavor with cream, milk, or sugar, and drink over ice. Or you can even warm it up for a hot cuppa.
Read more about how to make cold brew coffee.
Like iced coffee, this drink is made by dumping shots of espresso over ice. You can flavor or sweeten it any way you like. And nearly every type of hot espresso drink can be made into an iced version, like this Iced Caramel Macchiato recipe.
Nitro Cold Brew
Spotted in the trendiest coffee spots today, nitro coffee is a foamy, frothy cold coffee drink that's made by "charging" cold brew coffee with nitrogen. It's poured from a nitro tap, too, much like beer, which might explain why the end result is very similar to a certain Irish beer.
Starbucks made it famous (and owns the trademark to the name), but the term Frappuccino has come to represent a certain type of coffee drink: an icy, blended drink of coffee, cream, and other flavorings. There's also usually whipped cream for good measure.
International Coffee Recipes
Now that you've schooled yourself on the coffee basics, you can further expand your horizons with caffeinated concoctions from all around the world.
Try whipping up a glass of Dalgona Coffee, a trending South Korean drink made of frothy instant coffee. There's also Creole Coffee, a New Orleans-style, chicory-spiked treat balanced with molasses and cream; Turkish Coffee, where grounds, milk, and sugar are simmered together in a saucepan; Thai Coffee, infused with cardamom and crowned with condensed milk; and Italian Affogato with Cold Brew Coffee, a cross between an after-dinner drink and a light dessert, featuring cold brew (or hot espresso) topped with a scoop of ice cream.