Coffee-to-English Dictionary, Part I: The Plant


A coffee plant in Nicaragua. [Photographs: Meister]

Do you ever feel like you could use a little translation at your local coffee shop, or while perusing the bags of beans at your favorite market?

Presenting the first in a multipart Coffee-to-English glossary, which will hopefully help you navigate the sometimes-complicated coffee lexicon. (Now all you have to do is work on perfecting your fake coffee-snob accent.)

Arabica: A species of coffee that is grown at high altitude and valued for its "gourmet" quality. Only Arabica coffees can be considered "specialty," and then only those that achieve a cup score of 80 or higher.

Canephora: A cheaper, lower-altitude-grown species of coffee than Arabica that is more commonly found in commercial or mass-market coffee products. These coffees, often referred to as "Robusta," contain roughly twice the amount of caffeine Arabicas do, which makes them hardy, productive, and very disease resistant—but also contributes unpleasant rubberlike or woody flavors in the cup.

Cherry: The fruit that surrounds the coffee bean as it grows on its native plant (NB: The singular "cherry" is used to describe the fruit in plural as well).

Natural process: In this method, the cherry is allowed to completely dry around the bean, either while it remains on the coffee plant (as in Brazil), or after being picked ripe and laid out to dry, often on raised beds of metal mesh. The bean is removed from the cherry once the fruit is completely dry.

Origin: A place where a coffee grows or is cultivated. This could refer to a country, a specific farm, or even a particular washing station or mill.

Pulp-natural process: A popular method in Brazil and El Salvador, this is also sometimes referred to as "honey process" or "semi-washed." After harvesting, the skin is removed from the cherry, but the bean is left to ferment for a period of time in its mucilage before being hulled.

Specialty coffee: A term used to differentiate higher quality coffees (e.g. those that "score" 80 or above on a taste-quality scale of 100) from those that are sold as a commodity product for mass-market consumption. "Specialty" or "premium" coffee comprises about 10% of the coffee industry as a whole.


Cherry being depulped.

Variety: Types of coffee that exist within a coffee species—just like Jazz, Pink Lady, MacIntosh, and Granny Smith are varieties of the apple species. Some coffee varieties are the result of natural mutations that occurred after transplanting, while others are lab-created hybrids bred to combine particular characteristics natural to one variety or another (e.g. disease resistance, flavor, or productivity).

Washed process: Developed in Latin America, this process uses water to strip the sticky fruit from the coffee beans once it's harvested. The cherry is picked and "depulped," or has its skin removed. The beans are then left to ferment either in open containers or underwater for 12 to 24 hours, allowing the sticky fruit guts that surround them to break down. That fruit goo, called "mucilage," is then washed off the beans, or "hulled" in tanks of fresh water.

Coming next, Part II: Espresso.