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The Ultimate Guide to Specialty Coffee: A Comprehensive Overview of Beans, Roasts and Brewing Methods’

Different Types of Specialty Coffee Beans: A Breakdown of Varietals and Origins

Specialty coffee beans or speciality coffee beans (same thing) in short are super high quality coffee beans which achieve a score of 80+ on a scale up to 100. We are going to dive into a short summary on some of the key aspects of specialty coffee to explain what it is, why it matters and frankly, how you can get your paws on some delicious, ethically sourced, sustainable good stuff!

Freshly roasted specialty coffee beans in a bag beside an Americano

Freshly roasted specialty coffee beans in a bag beside an Americano

Varietals:

In short, Arabica and Robusta are the two main types of coffee beans, and Arabica beans are considered to be the higher-quality of the two. They are known for their delicate and nuanced flavours, with notes of fruit, chocolate, and floral undertones. Arabica beans are grown at higher elevations and have a lower caffeine content compared to Robusta beans.

Within Arabica beans, there are several varietals, such as Bourbon, Typica, and Caturra. Bourbon beans are known for their smooth and sweet flavour, with notes of caramel and nuts. Typica beans are considered to be one of the oldest coffee varietals, and are known for their balanced and complex flavour.

Another popular varietal is the Geisha bean, known for its unique and complex flavour profile, which often includes floral and fruity notes such as jasmine, bergamot, and stone fruit. The beans are grown in Central and South America, as well as Africa. Geisha is usually at the top end of the price range for specialty coffee. We were lucky enough to get our hands on a small batch in 2022 at Figment which proved to be a big hit as we only have a few tins left!

Origins:

In addition to varietals, the origin of the beans also plays a role in determining the flavour of the coffee. For example, beans grown in Ethiopia are known for their bright and fruity flavours, while beans grown in Kenya are known for their complex and bold flavours. Beans grown in Central America are known for their balanced and smooth flavours, while those grown in South America are known for their nutty and chocolatey notes. There isn’t really a best or worst here (although that might be slightly controversial) the reality is that everyone has different tastes and ultimately that’s the most important factor. It’s always worth trying a few different roasts from any given origin and of course the roaster has an incredibly important role in bringing out the right roast profile for the best taste. Brewing method can really influence the end result also, personally, I like to play around with espresso in Americano form as well as pour over using my trusty v60 before I decide how to brew the rest of the bag!

Overall, understanding the different types of specialty coffee beans, including their varietals and origins, can help you appreciate what makes specialty coffee so special, its really the priority and care given to growing the beans in the right soil at the right altitude and the condition complexity and care that set specialty beans apart from typical coffee, that’s why it’s a bit more expensive too. 

When you are looking to buy a specialty coffee, pay attention to the varietals, origin and the roast level, as it will give you a better idea of what to expect in terms of flavour. Coffee is fun and therapeutic when its explored and experimented with!

If you are super interested, or just super bored, there is plenty more on varietals and origins in our dedicated blog posts.

The Science of Roasting Specialty Coffee: How to Identify and Appreciate the Perfect Roast

Roasting speciality coffee is like a science experiment, and just like in any science experiment, you need to get the right ingredients and conditions to get the perfect result. Our founder Neil explained this to me as one of his favourite aspects of coffee roasting – the fact that it’s a process involving a somewhat romantic blend of engineering and art. You can listen to Neil explain the origin story of Figment on our website if you fancy it!

Anyway, the perfect roast is the one that brings out the best in the beans, highlighting their unique flavours and characteristics. We talk about this as telling the ‘origin story’ of the bean, which is ultimately our responsibility as expert roasters. But how do you know when you’ve hit the sweet spot? Well, let me tell you, it’s not rocket science, but it’s not as simple as just sticking a fork in it either.

First things first, let’s talk about the different levels of roast. Light roast, medium roast, and dark roast are the three main categories, and each one brings out different flavours in the beans. Light roast is known for its bright acidity and fruity notes, while medium roast is balanced and smooth, and dark roast is bold and chocolatey. But just because a coffee is dark roasted, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. It’s all about finding the right roast for the right beans. This is one of the key differences to standard coffee, the quality of the roast, as most of the mass produced coffees you find on the market today are… dare I say it… actually burnt.

Now, let’s talk about how to identify the perfect roast. One way is by observing the colour of the beans. Light roasted beans are a light brown colour, medium roasted beans are a medium brown colour, and dark roasted beans are a dark chocolate brown. But let’s be real, most of us aren’t experts in colour theory, so that’s not the most reliable method. Another way is by listening to the beans as they’re roasting. As the beans roast, they make a series of crackling sounds, similar to popcorn – check out this video of our Aberdeen roastery for a better picture.  Pulling out the beans “seconds” after the the first crack is the light roast, the medium roast is when you get more into the first crack, and if you hear a second crack, congratulations, you’ve got yourself a dark roast. But…  most of us aren’t experts in acoustics either, so that’s not the most reliable method either.

The best way to identify the perfect roast is by tasting it. A good way to start is by trying different roasts of the same bean and noting the differences in flavour. It’s like a coffee treasure hunt, and you’re the Indiana Jones of coffee. And remember, just like Indiana Jones, always choose the cup that chooses you.

I tend to find that specialty beans in your hand aren’t oily like the stuff you would grab at a supermarket, which actually is pretty key in the maintenance and cleaning requirements for your home bean to cup set up… if you are lucky enough to have one. I wouldn’t dare put those oily beans in my sage!

In conclusion, Roasting coffee is like a science experiment, and just like in any science experiment, you need to get the right ingredients and conditions to get the perfect result. And if you still can’t figure out the perfect roast, don’t worry. Just like any good scientist, you’re allowed to have a few failed experiments before you get the right one. 

You can get a bit more detail on this in our blog post all about roasting if your heart desires.

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