I’m definitely a coffee nut and my kids say I’m probably a has-been – but is a coffee bean a bean or a nut?!
Coffee beans are neither a bean nor a nut but are actually a seed. The coffee bean is the seed of the coffea plant and they grow inside the plant’s fruit, known as “coffee cherries” (although they aren’t really cherries but just look like them).
Join me as I go nutty about coffee beans and discover everything there is to know about these flavorsome little brown things that make our coffee so delicious…
Is a Coffee Bean a Nut? (Is Coffee Made of Nuts?)
The coffee bean is sometimes described as a nut; however, it’s neither nut nor bean but is actually a seed.
What we know as the coffee bean is the seed of the coffea plant. They’re found inside the plant’s fruit, which is known as “coffee cherries”. These aren’t actually cherries of course; they’re just round and red and look a bit like cherries.
So, we have a bean that’s actually a seed growing inside a cherry that isn’t a cherry at all. Makes sense…
What is a Coffee Bean Classified as? (Are Coffee Beans Beans?)
The coffee bean is classified as a seed, and it’s the seed of a fruit rather than a vegetable. They are definitely not beans, which are usually a separate classification called legumes.
So why are coffee beans called beans? Shouldn’t we be going down to the store and asking for a bag of “dark roasted coffee seeds” rather than beans?
We’ll look at the history of the term in just a moment; however, in brief, coffee beans are simply called beans because they look a bit, well, bean-ish.
Is a Coffee Bean a Seed?
Yes, the coffee bean is actually the seed of the coffea plant. Coffea plants are shrubs with green, waxy leaves. After a year, the plant begins to flower, and the year after that, the first fruits appear.
These small, round fruits do look very like cherries, and most varieties are red when they’re ripe. Like cherries, they’re fleshy fruits. Inside the fruit pulp, you’ll find a pair of seeds that (unsurprisingly) look like coffee beans.
Sometimes you get a single, rounder seed that’s called a peaberry. Each seed is covered with a protective layer of cells called a “silverskin” as well as a papery layer called a parchment.
These beans are extracted from the flesh and the parchment removed. The silverskin comes off during the roasting process.
Want to know more about how the coffee gets from shrub to cup? Here’s a short film showing a large-scale coffee bean harvest.
Why is Coffee Called a Bean?
Coffee beans are called coffee beans because of their appearance. If you look at a picture of a green (pre-processed) coffee seed, or are lucky enough to see one in real life, you’ll agree that they do look remarkably like beans.
They’re flattish on one side and slightly curved, and usually have a greenish color. They definitely look more like beans than the pits you see in a typical cherry, or the tiny mass of seeds you find in a grape.
So really, we should be talking about coffee seeds, not beans; but that would just seem pretty weird after all these years of referring to them as beans.
Are Coffee Beans a Fruit or a Legume?
Coffee beans are the seeds of a fruit, most commonly known as the coffee cherry. If they were genuinely beans, they’d be part of the legume family along with other beans and pulses.
The coffee seed is only part of the fruit, like apple pips or plum stones. The seeds are removed from the fleshy pulp of the fruit, then often, the skin and flesh is discarded. It’s usually composted; however, sometimes it’s made into another drink.
In Ethiopia, the original birthplace of coffee, the fruit is dried and brewed, and made into a drink called Qishr. In Central and South America, the discarded coffee cherries became known as “cascara”, which is Spanish for “husk”.
The husks form the basis of a beverage called “cascara”. This tastes more like a fruit infusion or herbal tea than coffee, because it’s made from a dried fruit.
What Are Coffee Beans Made Out of?
Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffea plant, found inside the fruit commonly known as the coffee cherry.
To get to look like those pretty brown beans we all love so much, the seeds are extracted from the pulp, their parchment-like layer removed, dried, then roasted. But what do these beans contain?
The coffee bean (or more accurately, coffee seed) contains a lot of natural compounds for such its size. It’s made up from 50% carbohydrates, amino acids, fiber, minerals (including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc), and of course, caffeine.
Coffee beans are also naturally high in antioxidants, which according to WebMD can do everything from fighting off headaches to reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. That’s a lot of good from a handful of roasted seeds.
What Are the 4 Classifications of Coffee Beans?
Although there are over 120 different varieties of coffea plant, there are just four classifications (or types) of coffee beans: Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and Liberica.
Most beans or blends come from just two variants, Arabica and Robusta, so we’ll take a closer look at these two types.
Arabica is believed to be the finest of the two, and it’s certainly the more expensive. It’s believed to be one of the oldest species of coffee, and Brazil is its largest producer. Arabica is more delicate to grow than Robusta, and is fussy about its conditions.
It tends to grow at higher altitudes than Robusta, and because of this, is naturally lower in caffeine (although still has plenty of bite). The higher you go, the fewer pests there are, so Arabica doesn’t have to produce as much bug-repelling caffeine as its lower-growing peer.
What are the Arabica beans like? They’re oval and quite large, bigger than Robusta, and that distinctive center crease is very pronounced. They taste sweeter and are often described as “chocolatey” and “nutty”. They’re also a touch acidic in flavor.
How about Robusta? As the name suggests, this is a tougher cookie. The plants prefer lower altitudes and start producing fruit quite young.
Their beans are cheaper because the plants are easier to grow, and they’re naturally good at seeing off pests. One of the ways they do this is to produce more bug-killing caffeine, giving you a stronger brew.
These African and Asian beans are lower in acidity than Arabica, and tend to have deep, woody tones. This richness makes them ideal for making espressos. Appearance-wise, Robusta beans are small and quite pale, with a less visible center crease.
We talk a lot about Arabica and Robusta. Are Excelsa and Liberica beans actually used? Liberica plants make up only about 2% of the world’s coffee crop.
They are tall and tree-like, and are mostly grown in the Philippines and Malaysia. The beans taste quite like Robusta, only more so.
Excelsa is a sub-species of Liberica, although it tastes more like the acidic Arabica. It’s sometimes used to add an extra dimension to blends, although it makes up only a small fraction of the coffee bean market.