What is a coffee bean (Hint: It’s not a bean!)

Two "Coffee Beans" back to back
Two “Coffee Beans” back to back

At some point, most of us Procaffeinators will ponder this question. If we are particularly precocious, we ask it in our youth, perhaps when we come across a stray bean in our grandparent’s kitchen. More likely, it happens after we decide that buying pre-ground coffee isn’t good enough anymore and we start buying “whole bean” in order to grind our own.

I answered this much better here:

Please check it out!

I know we call it a coffee bean, but to be strictly correct, it isn’t a bean. You can tell a real bean or legume when you see it growing in its natural state: it will be in a pod like peas, soybeans, and peanuts. To be fair, you can pop a bean out of its pod and, given the proper conditions of water, sun, and soil, it will grow into a plant because, to put it simply, while all beans are seeds, not all seeds are beans. Coffee falls into this second category.

Borrowed from many places on the internet!

If you take two “coffee beans” of similar size, put them together along their flat sides, and think back to your high school Biology class, you can see that what we think of as a coffee bean is actually two seeds (or more properly, endosperms) with their seed coat removed and then roasted to a nice dark brown. [Note: This does not apply to a peaberry, which is a story for another time] Before it was destined for your morning cup, this little beauty was the seed of a coffee cherry. A coffee cherry is (no surprise given its name) a sweet, red fruit that grows on a coffee tree. There’s not actually that much fruit, however, as you can see in the photo; its flesh is thin and it is only a little larger than the seed it contains. That’s okay because the fruit is not the prize, here. Since there is not much in the way of fruit, little is done with it. Some Kona farmers have been known to make a jelly out of it to sell at the farmers market and others make a tea from the skins of the fruit that are removed during the processing stage. But the real star is the seed itself.

With proper drying and roasting, followed by careful brewing, those seeds can create the finest organic suspension known to man. If you want to call them beans, it’s alright by me.


I am Tim Bruno, a former Kona coffee farmer promoting the soon to be released Procaffeination: A Coffee Lover’s Dictionary and several other coffee-related products. I will soon be adding a YouTube channel to my efforts. Stay tuned!

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