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To bean or not to bean; that is the question! (apologies to Shakespeare)
Is a coffee bean a bean? Is it a legume? Is it a fruit? Is it a nut? Is it a berry?
Not sure? Let’s find out…
Taxonomy – Classification of Living Things
Knowing a bit about taxonomy will help us understand what coffee is and what it is not.
All living things can be classified and this is called taxonomy. The taxonomy classification can show how living things are related to each other.
Classifying living things is not perfect and there are often disputes.
Taxonomy can also be confusing or just unsatisfying. However, it is a convenient place to see how the coffee ‘bean’ is different from other organics.
You can see the general taxonomy relationships between coffee and ‘true beans’ in the image below.
Coffee is related to beans through the Eudicots classification but the family relationship stops there.
The main feature that distinguishes a coffee ‘bean’ from a true bean is the Family taxonomy classification.
Coffee is from the Rubiaceae family and true beans are from the Fabaceae family.
The Anatomy of a Coffee Cherry
The coffee beans you brew are processed and roasted seeds from a coffee cherry fruit.
In a previous post, we looked at the anatomy of a coffee cherry, but we’ll summarize it here.
The coffee cherry has about three main outer and inner layers: the exocarp, mesocarp (a thin layer of pulp) and parenchyma.
The coffee seeds are at the centre and the innermost layer of the coffee cherry. The seeds are covered in a paper-like envelope named the endocarp, more commonly referred to as the parchment.
Inside the parchment, side-by-side, lie two seeds, each covered separately by spermoderm, but it is commonly referred to in the coffee trade as the silver skin.
Only one bean is inside the cherry in about 5% of the world’s coffee. This is called a peaberry (or a caracol, or “snail” in Spanish), a natural mutation. Some people believe peaberries are sweeter and more flavorful than standard beans, so they are sometimes manually sorted out for special sales.
What is a Coffee Bean?
You may have picked out that we referred to the coffee bean as a seed, which is the seed of a coffee plant fruit.
Coffee traces its origin to a genus of plants known as Coffea. Within the genus are over 500 genera and 6,000 species of tropical trees and shrubs. Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 25 to 100 species of coffee plants.
The genus was first described in the 18th century by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who described Coffea Arabica in his Species Plantarum in 1753.
Botanists have disagreed on the exact classification since coffee plants can range widely. They can be small shrubs to tall trees, with leaves from one to 16 inches in size, and in colors from purple or yellow to the predominant dark green.
The commercial coffee industry has two important coffee species — Arabica and Robusta.
What is a seed?
A coffee bean is a seed.
A seed is simply an organic structure capable of growing into another plant. Under the right conditions, you could plant a coffee bean and expect it to grow into a new one – a Coffea plant.
This is true for anything else that’s considered a seed. Seeds come in many different shapes, sizes and textures, which can confuse when comparing them to other plant components.
Further adding to the confusion is that some seeds can be classified as other things, such as beans.
Is a Coffee bean a Bean or a Legume?
A coffee bean is not a bean or a legume.
A legume is a plant in the family Fabaceae, or the fruit or seed of such a plant.
What are beans and legumes?
There is often a lot of confusion about the difference between beans and legumes. Some people think they are two entirely different things. Others believe beans and legumes are entirely interchangeable.
Legumes are plants that bear fruit that grows in pods.
These pods split open when they mature, exposing the (usually) multiple seeds. You can pop a pea or bean out of its pod, and, given the proper conditions of water, sun, and soil, it will grow into a plant.
All beans can be seeds, but not all seeds are beans. Coffee falls into this second category.
Beans are seeds from different varieties of plants, although typically, the whole plant is referred to as beans.
Still a little confused? Let’s look at it differently.
Legumes can be divided into subsections: beans, lentils, peas and peanuts.
To use an analogy, think of beans as a “peacock” and legumes as “birds”. A peacock is a bird, but other birds aren’t necessarily peacocks. They could be a penguin (lentils), a sparrow (peas) or a heron (peanuts).
In other words: all beans are legumes, but legumes aren’t necessarily beans.
That should explain why green beans aren’t beans. Because the fruit of the green bean plant is in a pod, green beans are just legumes, not beans.
Some other common legumes you may have never considered include asparagus beans, soybeans, black-eyed peas and sugar snap peas.
Coffee – NOT beans!
Is a coffee bean a nut?
The coffee bean is not a nut.
Nuts do not split open when mature. They have a hard outer shell that only opens when they germinate or are forced open by your nutcracker.
Additionally, unlike legumes, nuts tend only to have a single fruit inside. Some nuts that fit the botanical classification are pecans, hazelnuts, and acorns.
Surprisingly, walnuts, pistachios, and almonds are NOT nuts! And neither is coffee.
Is a coffee bean a berry?
The coffee bean is not a berry.
The fruit of the coffee tree has often been called a berry, but coffee is not the berry.
The word berry has been used for centuries to indicate any small fruit; in its more general usage, it can refer to “berry-like things”, which the coffee fruit is.
In botany, the definition of a berry is a fleshy fruit in which all three layers – endocarp, mesocarp, and exocarp – are soft (see Anatomy of Coffee).
Examples of berries include grapes or tomatoes, eggplants and even bananas.
Surprisingly, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are not berries!
The endocarp (parchment) of coffee is hard, so it does not qualify as a berry. Yeah, that’s right, a tomato is a berry. So are bananas and eggplants.
Is a coffee bean a fruit?
The coffee bean is not a fruit.
What we call a coffee bean is the coffee cherry seed, the seed-bearing body formed from a flower. That makes it a fruit. When ripe, it is red, although some varieties are purplish, and some are even yellow. It has a thin skin, thin pulp, and a large “seed to total volume” ratio.
Since there is not much “fruit,” even though it is edible, little is done with it. It is usually composted to give back nutrition to the soil. Some Kona farmers have been known to use it to make jelly to sell at the farmer’s market, and others make tea from the skins removed during processing. But the real star is the seed itself.
Even calling it a fruit is not correct!
Botanically, a coffee cherry is a “drupe” or “stone fruit.” A drupe is a fruit that does not split open to release seeds when ripe, and that has an outer fleshy part surrounding a shell of hardened endocarp with a seed or kernel inside. Other examples of drupes include peaches, walnuts, and almonds!
Why do many people think coffee beans are beans?
Many people believe coffee beans are beans because their shape and size are similar to many. Also, “bean” is the popular term most people have heard and used for many years.
Besides the resemblance to actual beans, it’s unclear why the term has become so widely adopted. The truth is that coffee beans are seeds that can be used to grow more coffee plants.
To summarize what we think of as a “coffee bean” is not a bean but the seed of the coffee cherry.
The coffee cherry is a stone fruit of the coffee plant.
Coffee cherries are similar to walnuts in that they are not nuts.
A coffee bean is NOT a…
- green bean
There you have it! The answer to ‘A bean or not a bean’ is coffee is ‘not a bean’ it is a seed!
Here are some similar posts from this website you may like…
Where do Coffee Beans Come From?
Farmers Get Paid a Pittance Even When Coffee Price Doubles
All You Need to Know About Coffee Farming
Are Bacteria in Coffee Good For You?
Similar Stories and References from Around the World
Here are similar stories, and references used in this post, from around the world…
- Coffee bean – Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org)
- Did You Know Coffee Isn’t Really a Bean? – January 6th marks National Bean Day! Ok, ok… we admit it – while it’s a fun day to recognize one of the world’s earliest food crops, National Bean Day (cameronscoffee.com)
- A Coffee “Bean” is Not Actually a Bean – Today I found out a Coffee bean is not actually a bean, rather it is a seed. Now I know you are saying to yourself right now, “Aren’t beans seeds and seeds beans?” Surprisingly, that is not the case. (who knew?) In fact, though beans are al… (todayifoundout.com)
- The Differences Between Coffee Beans and Espresso | The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf – The Differences Between Coffee Beans and Espresso that Might Surprise You Think there’s little to no difference between espresso beans and coffee beans? You’re far from alone but, believe it or not, there are some important differences. Find ou… (coffeebean.com)
- What EXACTLY is a Coffee Bean? – Procaffeination – A coffee bean is NOT a bean At some point, most of us Procaffeinators will ask what a coffee bean actually is. Is it a… (procaffeination.com)
- Are Coffee Beans Actually Beans? – Easy Home Coffee – Many people mistakenly think that coffee beans are actually beans. You might be surprised to learn that this is not true. Coffee beans are actually seeds inside of red or purple fruit called coffee cherries. They are not technically beans despite the (easyhomecoffee.com)
- What is Coffee? – cof·fee /ˈkôfē,ˈkäfē/ noun The berries harvested from species of Coffea plants. (ncausa.org)
- To Bean or Not to Bean – Stratford’s Coffee Roastery – Fair trade organic and direct trade fresh roasted coffee (stratfordcoffee.com)
- What is a Coffee Cherry? And how does it Taste? | The Coffee Chronicler – The coffee cherry is technically a fruit. But does that also mean that you can EAT it? Well, that’s a more complicated question. (coffeechronicler.com)
- Are Coffee Beans Actually Considered Real Beans? – BaristaHQ – We discuss what coffee beans are, if they’re actually beans, and other important facts you need to know about your favorite morning drink. (baristahq.com)
- Coffee Bean – Stardew Valley Wiki – A Coffee Bean is a plantable seed that is also the crop harvested from the plants. Coffee Beans grow and mature 10 days after being planted (and every 2 days thereafter) in either Spring or Summer. The primary source of Coffee Beans is Dust Sprites, (stardewvalleywiki.com)
- The Coffee Bean is Not Homogenous: Sifted Salami Espresso | by Robert McKeon Aloe | Towards Data Science – The biggest hinderance in understanding espresso is an understanding of the coffee bean. Typically, we assume the coffee bean is homogenous in taste and extraction potential. When I started… (towardsdatascience.com)
- Is Coffee A Fruit? Let’s clear up the confusion. No matter how much your life revolves around coffee, at some point, you must have stopped and pondered whether coffee is a fruit or a vegetable? (beanground.com)
- A Coffee Bean is Not Actually a Bean. Today I found out a Coffee bean is not actually a bean, rather it is a seed. Now I know you are saying to yourself right now, “Aren’t beans seeds and seeds beans?” Surprisingly, that is not the case. (who knew?) (TodayIFoundOut.com)
Factual sentences referenced across top search results:
- The two most economically important varieties of coffee plant are the Arabica and the Robusta; approximately 60% of the coffee produced worldwide is Arabica and ~40% is Robusta. (en.wikipedia.org)
- Brazil produces about 45% of the world’s total coffee exports, with most grown in Brazil. (en.wikipedia.org)
- The caffeine content is between 1.0% and 2.5% by weight of dry green coffee beans. (en.wikipedia.org)
- In green coffee beans, the content is between 0.6% and 1.0%. (en.wikipedia.org)
- At a roasting temperature of 230 °C (446 °F), 85% of the trigonelline is degraded (en.wikipedia.org)
- Further, 11-S storage proteins are degraded to their individual amino acids under roasting temperature, thus are an additional source of bitter components due to generation of  Carbohydrates make up about 50% of the dry weight of green coffee beans. (en.wikipedia.org)
- Arabinogalactan makes up to 17% of dry weight of green coffee beans, with a molecular weight of 90 kDa to 200 kDa. (en.wikipedia.org)
Other external links that you may find useful…
- Evolution of green coffee protein profiles with maturation and relationship to coffee cup quality – PubMed
- Analysis of free amino acids in green coffee beans. I. Determination of amino acids after precolumn derivatization using 9-fluorenylmethylchloroformate – PubMed
- Green coffee beans | Semantic Scholar
- Analysis of free amino acids in green coffee beans | Semantic Scholar
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