One of the most commonly held myths about coffee is perpetuated by the way we refer to it: as a bean. Coffee is a seed—a fruit seed, to be specific—it is not a “bean.” And while all beans are seeds, not all seeds are beans. Beans are actually the seeds of the legume family. The coffee tree does not belong to the legume family. Therefore, the seeds of the coffee tree are not beans.
OK, so what, right? Who cares what we call it? It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a bean or a seed—coffee is coffee. Well, not so fast. It does make a difference that we understand where coffee comes from so we aren’t surprised by the flavors the coffee seed is capable of producing. It is in vogue at the moment, especially among “third-wave coffee roasters,” to roast coffee lighter than specialty shops have been serving ever since Starbucks appeared. Most inexperienced lighter roast drinkers are often surprised by how different coffee tastes when it is not dark-roasted. This is primarily because in the lighter roasts the coffee itself is the main taste, while in darker coffees the roast is the main taste
Since the coffee seed comes from a fruit, it should not be surprising that the taste in the cup can yield a fruit-like flavor when it is not completely roasted out. This is one of the great re-discoveries of the current trend of lighter roasts. Roasters have followed the Starbucks lead for so long, that they forgot that coffee was a fruit seed. Third-wave roasters—in a reaction of sorts against the Starbucks tendency to dark roast everything—are making great strides toward teaching consumers about the complex, floral, and fruit flavors naturally present in the coffee seed.
Although it will probably not change our terminology of referring to coffee “beans” rather than “seeds,” it should always be remembered that this is actually the case. If nothing else, it can prompt us to begin looking for and seeking out different roasts than we normally drink. Perhaps knowing that coffee is actually a fruit seed will encourage you to skip all the sugars, creams, and flavor syrups during your next coffee shop visit, and ask to try a few “naked” samples of the different coffees they offer. Who knows, maybe you’ll find that the blueberry or peach flavors that you tell the barista to add to your super-sweetened drink of choice are actually present in the coffee all by itself. You’ll never know until you try…