Peaberry coffee beans, arabica beans & robusta beans. These are words you might overhear being mentioned by coffee lovers, or hipsters, who are chatting with their local barista, or roaster, on what to order next.
A novice coffee drinker may start off drinking instant coffee. Hopefully, as their taste buds and palates start evolving with time they will start to appreciate the massive differences available. From the different types of beans that are grown, how they are roasted and even the brewing methods used. Just like fine wines, aged Scottish whiskeys or French Michelin star chef made food, there is a much larger & very enjoyable flavor experience to be had from tasting different coffee bean varietals.
As the novice delves deeper into the world of coffee, filled with these percolated, addictive, brown potions, they will undoubtably be captivated by the vast extent of fascinating flavors & delicious varieties that await them at their local speciality coffee fuelling station. One of the curiosities you are sure to find at some stage as you explore the world of third wave coffee culture is the peaberry bean.
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What Is A Peaberry Coffee Bean?
Peaberry (a.k.a caracoli or carcacol – Spanish for “snail”) is a natural occurring mutation of either arabica or robusta varietals (species) where only one bean is produced by the coffee cherry. It occurs in all coffee belt growing districts from places like Kenya & Costa Rica to Hawaii and from low to high altitudes. It is not influenced by the cultivation or processing method used by a farm. It is estimated that 5-10% of coffee grown will produce peaberries.(1)
A normal coffee cherry will contain two beans (seeds). These two seeds develop in the center of the cherry and will each have one side that is flat & touching the other one. They are sometimes called “flat beans”. When the fruit produces only one bean that is round (pea) shaped then it is called a “peaberry.” Did you know that in very rare occasions, you may get three seeds develop that then look triangular in shape.(2)
In terms of appearance, because it’s the only seed in the cherry, there’s nothing for it to grow against and flatten it. The result being that single coffee bean then develops into an unusual oval (or pea) shape as an end product. These peaberries are usually much smaller than their “twin” counterparts and develop an elongated shape when roasted.
Many people mistakenly assume this is a specific species of bean, a special blend, or even a genetic defect, but none of these descriptions are accurate. It is just a natural occurring anomaly and perfectly fine to drink.
Botanical Reasons It Happens
Coffee cherries are the fruit of the coffee tree and contain the seeds, which will eventually be turned into beans. Doesn’t matter which bean you grind, all coffee species have traces that originate to a genus of plants known as Coffea.(4)
The best summarised explanation we could find why small, round seeds form was this one:
The ultimate cause of a peaberry is that either the ovule fails to be fertilized, or there is failure in the growth of the endosperm. Several factors are thought to cause these two conditions: Insufficient pollination, environmental conditions, and genetic defects. Peaberries are much more common in the extremities of the plant, where weather conditions are more severe, the journey of the nutrients is much longer, and the agents of pollination, gravity and wind (it is estimated that insects account for only 5-10% of pollination), have a harder time reaching the stigma of the blossoms for fertilization.(3)
Remember a green coffee bean is actually a fruit, a berry to be precise, called a coffee cherry. Each berry produces two of these ovules. Anyone who has carefully examined your average coffee cherry will notice it has a round side and a flat side that is split in two by a crevice (crack) in the middle.
There is, however, at least one exception to this rule. Sometimes two seeds don’t develop within the coffee berry. When this happens, the single seed growing inside the berry is not limited to one side and grows into a “rounded” coffee bean a.k.a peaberry coffee bean.
For the most comprehensive history and background on everything to do with coffee we recommended reading this book by William H. Ukers (1922) titled “All about Coffee”(5)
Fun Fact: Did you know that Benjamin Franklin used to hangout in coffee shops before it became fashionable(6)
How Are Peaberries Harvested?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell from looking at the fresh read or yellow colored coffee cherry fruit hanging on the branch if inside you are going to be get a single raw peaberry seed or two regular seeds. That means the cherries have to be sorted by hand after a worker has picked them from the field.
They then have to be manually processed at the farm to be hand separated from the rest of the crop in order to be sold as a stand alone product. To help achieve this feat, they are sorted by screen size device at a dry mill before being bagged ready for export. You might get some underdeveloped dual-bean cherries that also make it through the screening process as they are also small enough to pass through the filter holes in the screen.
In many cases the peaberries are sold alongside the normal coffee beans in order to save money from having to isolate them from the rest regular or even elephant size green beans in a batch. What this ultimately means is that if you want to try peaberry coffee beans then be prepared to pay a bit more per gram then you would with normal roasted coffee beans. Again, because more goes work goes into the food manufacturing process to sort them this increases the end user price.
There was a time (believe it or not) when these round coffee beans were rejected. They were considered inferior by coffee merchants! Maybe this was due to their smaller size and the somewhat unappealing difference in their appearance regular shaped beans. Little did the traders know years latter how those small beans would be worth something.
Does Peaberry Coffee Taste Better?
This is one of those hot topics that is debated time and time again in the speciality coffee tasting world. You’ll get a different answer with every coffee distributor, barista or connoisseur you may ask.
Here are some common answers some might tell you:
- Coffee folklore, says peaberries are considered superior to the rest of same crop harvested because all the flavors and nutrients that would be dived into a double bean are instead condensed into just the one bean. Creating a “super berry”.
- Some say it tastes brighter, juicier and sweeter.
- Since they are round in shape they roll in the roaster better and develop a more even roast per bean.
- As they are handpicked by workers the inferior seeds are not mixed into a batch.
If you are a lover or a hater they are just like regular split beans with some of them tasting amazing, and some of them being rather average or dull. It is a natural grown product and so natural differences will occur. However, it does definitely have a different taste profile than its twin brother from the same harvest. Saying that this doesn’t mean it will definitely translate into a higher cupping score at competitions.
Then if you would ask this question to the big coffee emporium, selling peaberries at four or five times the rate of regular beans, they would explain in no uncertain terms that not only is the taste of peaberries superior, it is also the cure for premature balding and the answer to the upcoming energy crisis – they could be exaggerating their answers a little bit.
Probably most coffee aficionados will tell you they can’t notice much of a difference in: aroma, body, acidity, bitterness, flavor or finish characteristics experienced. Nevertheless, if you think there will be some sublime nuances in the flavor profile of a peaberry that are lacking in the regular cup of Joe – you may find you are only paying for the sorting process.
How to Roast Peaberry Beans
The natural small size of the caracoli beans means the roasting recipe needs to be tweaked from roasting a regular size bean. Roasters have to take into consideration a few variables like:
- Size of the mesh in the drum of whatever manufacturer they use like a home Behmor roaster. A tip would be to first put the beans into the cylinder then shake it to see how many might be lost during the roast before starting to roast a batch.
- Temperatures needed as being smaller they will heat up fast and different to what recipe larger bean sizes would require.
- Roasting time needed again as they heat up faster
- Using the sprouted bed roasting technology to roast small green coffee beans(7)
- Listening for the first crack as it might be harder to hear when it happens so over roasting to an undesired profile might easily occur.(8)
- Dealing with the extra chaff produced by these.(9)
Some coffee roasters think that roasting peaberries is slightly more challenging than roasting regular coffee beans. That’s down to the shape, and size meaning that more care is required then usual. As such, a slow and steady roast works best and that’s in order to ensure that the flavours develop on the inside just as much as on the outside.
Best Peaberry Coffee to Buy
I know I’m already talking to the converted, however, coffee is the most enjoyable beverage to drink during the day or after dinner at times. Not only for its refined robust flavor & tons of health benefits, but also for the signature energy boost that has empowered people to finish deadlines and changed nations like the Boston Tea Party.
When it comes to choosing which peaberry to buy just be aware of the Tanzanian mystery. You will more than likely see Tanzanian peaberry coffees for sale versus say a Brazilian, Costa Rican or any other South America or African region. Why this is is it not fully known or understood.(10)
The two most common types you might go with would either be a Tanzanian Peaberry coffee or a Kona Peaberry coffee from Hawaii. Going with either one of these is going to be good choice to experience this varietal of bean if you haven’t before.
These are very different from the most expensive coffee in the world which is Kopi Luwak which is collected after Indonesian cat-like animal called then palm civet or also civet cat has finished digesting it first. This can sell for $3000 USD per kilogram. You can get a more affordable version to try on Amazon here if you are keen to just taste it once.
The next time you your in your local supermarket or coffee shop we’d suggest trying out some peaberry coffee beans if you have never tasted them before. Of course use the best coffee making equipment that you can to get barista level brewed coffee. No matter what recipe you use to make your coffee (have you tried making tea or coffee with butter yet?) you are sure to enjoy another cup of the liquid that helps make the world a beautiful place to live.