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Hard and Soft Coffee Beans

Hard and Soft Coffee Beans

Being in the coffee business requires a vast amount of knowledge, roasting even more, and farming by far even more. EHB. SHB. No they are not Doctorate denotations, a new fad diet, or some coo new Twitter acronym. They are in fact grades of the Hardness or density of a Coffee Bean. Hard and soft coffee beans are as different as any bean can be.

Lets start with what differentiates a hard vs. soft bean. As with most farming conditions it’s all about location and Elevation which are the fundamentals of whether or not we are growing Robusta or Arabica Beans. Robustas are generally grown at lower altitudes in faster producing environments. Vietnam, Congo, Camaroon, and Brasil are some of the more well know regions that produce Robusta. Arabicas however are generally grown at higher altitudes at a slower rate which gives the bean more time to mature, bringing about the natural sugars that give the bean it’s distinct flavor characteristics.

So, given the short lesson in altitudes, would you think softer beans are at higher elevations? Or harder beans are at higher elevations? Read on folks…

It is simply a matter of growing conditions, and elevation. Coffees that grow at relatively low altitudes (under 3,000-4000 feet) are often described as soft bean, particularly in Latin American coffee-growing regions. These soft bean coffees are faster maturing and more porous than the hard bean due to the lower altitude and warmer temperatures. However, Strictly Soft Arabica beans have a more rounded flavor compared to the generally more flavorful and dense Arabica beans grown at higher elevations.  So it is not to say all Arabicas are hard beans.

Hard beans are Synonymous with “high grown (HG)”, “hard bean (HB)” refer to coffee grown at altitudes about 4,000 – 4,500 feet above sea level. Beans grown at high altitudes mature more slowly and grow to be harder and denser than beans grown at lower elevations. The inherent consistency and taste attributes of high grown beans makes them more desirable, and generally more expensive, than coffees grown at lower elevations. The higher altitudes and lower temperatures produce a slower maturing fruit and a harder, less porous bean, and are thus more desirable. Terms like SHBSHG, and the like can vary from region to region, and are used more pervasively in Latin American coffee growing areas.

What does this mean to the Coffee Roaster? The thinking is this:  Soft beans have lower heat transfer abilities. The added open cell pockets in the bean act as an insulator. Softer beans have more pockets that will slow heat conduction within the bean. When the beans are exposed to higher temperatures,  the heat is unable to transfer quickly enough into the bean and builds and scorches the surface.It  may also effect the free travel of moisture out of the bean in the early stage of the roast. To sum it up, a soft bean does not accept heat as quickly due in part to the air in the bean, and should be roasted lower and slower.

Harder beans are able to withstand higher temperatures since the heat conducts quicker without scorching. This seems to make sense because the heat conduction is able to flow more quickly with less pockets and a tighter structure. We have noticed these differences in roasting large batches of Robustas, and I thought it was the roaster until research led me to these two distinctions. They are not exact science however, and each bean origin is specific in terms of the actual moisture content of the bean which will affect roast times, scorching etc. Put your hands down scientists, this is a guide line oriented article.

What does that mean in your Coffee Cup? To say the least hard and soft coffee beans are a good topic of conversation while enjoying your next cup…As mentioned above, the higher the elevation, the slower the growth, and the more taste will develop in the bean. Long Live The Arabica Hard Bean!!