Something’s brewing

When it comes to coffee, there are varieties to suit all tastes – and all pockets

Whether you take yours short and black or skinny with a shot of caramel, coffee varieties are becoming as vast as the industry itself. Coffee is no longer just coffee. But what do all those fancy names actually mean?

The two main commercial coffee beans are arabica and robusta. Arabica, which is grown at higher altitudes, is regarded as a better quality bean, according to the International Coffee Organisation (ICO).

“The arabica is a delicate flower, literally and metaphorically, and this is reflected in the price,” says an ICO spokesman. “But coffee is very much like wine and preference is subjective and dependent on palate.”

Growing conditions also play a part in flavour, says executive director of the British Coffee Association (BCA) Dr Euan Paul: “Some of the most popular coffees are from arabica beans, but have been grown in different climates and soils which impacts on their overall taste.”

Exclusive: Kopi Luwak coffee in production

Kenyan, Colombian and Java coffee are all arabica varieties. Kenyan coffee has a strong, bold taste with a mellow after-taste, whereas Colombian coffee is intensely aromatic with a heavy body and bright acidity. The strong, black, very sweet Indonesian Java coffee became so popular that “java” is a slang term for coffee in the US.

But as popularity of coffee has grown, so too has the price tag. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is seen as the champagne of the coffee world with its mild flavour and lack of bitterness and carries a globally protected certification mark.

And the lucrative market for exclusive coffees has extended to monkey business. Quite literally. Kopi Luwak is a gourmet coffee made from coffee beans that have passed through the digestive system of the palm civet, a breed of Indonesian monkey.

A spokesperson for coffee company Douwe Egberts says people will always be prepared to pay more for something that’s different. “Ultimately, producers are capitalising on their exclusivity. Often coffees are blends but you can buy single-origin coffees and, if you’re willing to pay the price, microlot coffees – beans harvested from one field in one day.

“Genetic oddities such as peaberry coffees – where the beans have not split in two inside the cherry fruit – are also sold at premium price even though theoretically they shouldn’t taste any different.”

According to the BCA’s Paul, there is no such thing as bad coffee, as quality controls are vigorous. “That’s when it becomes a question of preference. It all depends on what you want from your coffee and, for some people, that’s cheap vending machine gloop.”


TV presenter and journalist Piers Hernu:

My standard coffee order is a latte with one sugar, unless I’m at home and feeling lazy. Then it’s an instant.

My perfect cup of coffee was on my honeymoon recently in Lefkada, Greece. There was a little coffee shop that sold wonderfully indulgent, strong coffee.

My top coffee memory was popping round to Pete Doherty’s recently and having coffee in a blue, chipped, plastic mug. Not very rock ‘n’ roll. He didn’t even have milk or sugar, but the sentiment was there.

Actress and singer Janie Dee, who will be starring in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off at the Old Vic from 3 December:

My favourite coffee is a frothy cappuccino. Where I can, I always go Fairtrade. My perfect cup of coffee was in Rome. That’s where I went from being indifferent about coffee to completely falling in love with it.

My top coffee memory is drinking three strong espressos to get me through a recital with an Italian orchestra. I’d been partying hard and was exhausted. I couldn’t sleep for the next two days but I sang like a lark that night.