Whether you’re new to coffee, or an experienced specialty coffee drinker, you want to drink something tasty and energizing. There is a large variety of coffee out there, with terms like “100% Arabica”, “Natural Process”, and many other common terminologies, how do you know what you’re buying — and more importantly, if you will like it?

Where Does Coffee Come From?

The first step to understanding the world of specialty coffee is understanding the production process of specialty coffee. Coffee beans actually aren’t beans at all, but seeds of the coffee cherry that are grown in tropical highlands around the world. Originally produced in Yemen around as early as 1450 AD, coffee spread to Ethiopia and the rest of Europe throughout the 15th century, quickly becoming a mainstay in much of the world’s diet. Today, coffee can be found growing in many tropical climates around the world, such as Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, and China, to name a few of the most popular regions.

Fundamentally, a coffee’s origin is the country it was grown in, with the green, unroasted coffee being sent around the world to be roasted locally. The origin of the coffee has one of the largest effects on the coffee you drink, and is often the strongest indicator of flavor notes that might be present in the coffee. Coffee grown in South America, for example, tends to have more chocolatey and nutty flavors in its coffees, while coffees from Ethiopia tend to be very fruity and bright in flavor. Especially when it comes to coffee blends, different origins of coffee can be used to balance out the notes in a blend, offering stronger fruit notes where they may lack them, or adding brightness and acidity that can help sweet flavors shine.

Varietals and Processing

With such a long history of coffee, much of the growing and production process has been codified behind industry-specific terms. One such term is the “Varietal” of the coffee or the genetic origin of the coffee. As coffee grows in different environments it adapts to highlight different flavors as well, causing coffee experts to define these unique variations by “Varietal.” Originally from the Ethiopian “Arabica” Varietal, a plethora of varietals have been defined to distinguish coffees from one another, such as Robusta, Geisha, Catuai, and many, many more. While Arabica may certainly be the most popular, other varietals have quite a lot to offer as well.

After the growing phase, coffee cherries must be processed for roasting and consumption. There are two primary ways this is done, though more processing is being developed with its own unique effects on the end product:

Washed Process

The most common processing method in the world, washed process coffee removes the coffee seeds from the cherry with a water bath before fermenting for 12-36 hours. After this short fermentation period, coffee seeds are washed, sorted, and sun-dried before being packed up and sent out to coffee roasters. Washed Process coffees are typically described as the “cleanest” tasting coffee, providing a clear and unaltered flavor of purely what the coffee seed has to offer.

Natural Process

Natural Process Coffee is the oldest method of coffee processing, as well as the most environmentally friendly process. Instead of being de-pulped at the beginning, coffee seeds are left to dry and ferment within the coffee cherry for 3-4 weeks, after which they are de-pulped, washed and sorted, and distributed to roasters around the world. Due to the longer contact time with the fruit, Natural Process coffees are typically described as tasting sweeter and fruitier, with more acidity in the brew.

Roast Levels

Once Origin, Varietal, and Processing methods have been taken into account, the roast level is the final category to differentiate coffees. Ranging from dark to light roast, the same coffee can have very different characteristics based on how long it has been roasted. Roasts are somewhat subjective and graded on a sliding scale, meaning one roaster’s medium roast could be similar to another roaster’s light, and vice-versa. Overall, darker roasts tend to feature bolder chocolate notes and a heavy body, while lighter roasts tend to feature brighter fruit notes with a clean cup. It is also important to note that darker roasts tend to have less caffeine than lighter roasts, due to more of the caffeine being burned away during roasting.

Choose a Coffee Unique to You

At the end of the day, there is an incomprehensible variety of coffee blends available to choose from. Experiment with all the different coffees and brewing styles and find what tastes best to you — Just make sure your coffee is always fresh! Coffee older than 4 weeks or so will start to taste stale, losing much of the hard work and care put into making an excellent coffee blend.

Author's Bio: 

Tess DiNapoli is an artist, freelance writer, and content strategist. She has a passion for yoga and often writes about health and wellness, but also enjoys covering the fashion industry and world of fitness.