Is A Coffee Bean A Legume

coffee cherries on a coffee tree

by Erin Marissa Russell

We call them coffee beans, but are the beans we get our coffee from actually legumes? The short answer is no. But if they aren’t legumes, what are coffee beans? Keep reading for a total breakdown explaining everything you need to know about coffee beans.

What we call a coffee bean is actually the seed inside a fruit called a coffee cherry. The fruits are red or purple, and interestingly, the seeds inside don’t really resemble beans. Even though they don’t look a lot like legumes, they’ve earned the nickname through common use, so lots of people believe that coffee beans are legumes despite the fact that they are fruit seeds. The only thing coffee beans have in common with real legumes is their shape and size.

What Is a Legume?

What is it exactly that makes a coffee bean a seed instead of a legume? To find out, first you need to know what makes something a legume.

Legumes come from the plant family Fabaceae or Leguminosae. This family includes more than 20,000 species of legumes, peas, and beans that make up the third largest family of flowering plants in existence.

What’s the Difference Between Legumes, Peas, Beans, and Pulses?

In fact, legumes and beans or peas are not quite the same thing. The word “legume” can refer to any plant from the Fabaceae or Leguminosae families. You may see the word used in reference to the leaves, stems, and pods of these plants. The edible seed of legume plants is called a pulse, and pulses may be beans, peas, or lentils. As an example, the pod of a pea plant is a legume whether it is still attached to the plant or separate. However, the peas inside the pod are pulses. All legume seeds grow inside of pods.

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Beans and peas are another example of similar categories that fall under the umbrella of legumes and pulses. What is the difference between a bean and a pea?

  • Peas have rounded shapes while the shapes of beans vary more widely.
  • Peas are usually green, while beans come in a broader spectrum of colors.
  • Pea plants have hollow stems, while the stems of bean plants are not hollow.
  • Beans thrive in warm weather while peas flourish in cooler temperatures.

Coffee Beans Are Not Legumes

Now that we know exactly what legumes are, we can say definitively that coffee beans are not legumes. The coffee beans come from the seed inside a fruit, unlike beans, which grow in pods. Also, coffee bean trees fall under the category of Coffea, in the family Rubiaceae, which also goes by the common names coffee family, madder family, and bedstraw family. Legumes must be part of the plant family Fabaceae or Leguminosae, so coffee beans are ruled out due to their classification as well.

The practice of referring to the seed of coffee fruit as “coffee beans” should be understood as purely linguistic and not indicating any type of relationship between coffee beans and legumes. Instead, coffee beans are actually the seed of the coffee fruit. Let’s examine what this means.

What is a Seed?

A seed is any organic structure that can become a new plant when properly cared for. That means that with proper care, you could plant a single coffee bean (not roasted, of course) and end up with a whole coffee tree in your garden.

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It’s worth mentioning that beans from the legume family are also the seed of the bean plant, so it is possible to be both a bean and a seed. In fact, all beans are seeds. This is just not the case with coffee “beans,” which are seeds but not true beans or legumes.

From the Field to the Grinder

Most coffee bean trees start as seedlings in a nursery in a temperate climate with plenty of sunshine. After their time in the nursery, most of the little plants are sent to coffee plantations in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, or Nicaragua.

Once the plants are mature (after three to four years), they begin to produce red or purple fruits that have the green coffee seed we call a coffee bean inside. Although coffee beans look like they have been sliced in half, this is not the case. Coffee beans grow in pairs inside the fruit, with the flat sides facing one another.

The coffee fruits are called coffee cherries. Once ripe, they are picked either with machinery or by hand by plantation workers. The rough, mountainous terrain where most coffee beans are grown makes it impossible for the coffee cherries to be picked with a machine, so human workers are still prevalent in those regions.

Once the coffee cherries are harvested, the fruit needs to be removed so workers can get at the green coffee beans inside. One popular method involves spreading the coffee cherries out in a thin layer in the sun, mixing them frequently to prevent spoiling. In a few days, the husks of the fruit will have dried, leaving the coffee bean seed inside accessible.

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At this point, the coffee cherries are dried and milled to remove the last of the fruit clinging to the coffee bean seeds. The husked, dried beans are sorted into varietals depending on their quality and are ready to be exported and shipped.

The beans still have yet to be roasted when they are exported. Before they are purchased by coffee companies, often a miniature batch of the coffee beans are roasted by a “cupper.” The copper’s job is to use their expert palate to test the coffee beans for aroma and flavor. Many coffee companies also use buyers to ensure that purchased beans meet certain flavor and quality standards.

Once they are purchased by a coffee company, the coffee beans are roasted. Roasting takes place at 550 degrees Fahrenheit. The beans are constantly moved during the roasting process to prevent scorching and burning.

After roasting, the coffee beans are packaged by the company that will sell them. Then they are delivered to their final destinations or through distributors. Finally, the coffee beans are on the shelf at the store or behind the counter at the coffee shop, where customers will finally be able to buy them.

Now that you’ve followed coffee beans through their journey from seed to shelf, you know that coffee beans are not legumes. We also examined what exactly legumes are and the difference between legumes and beans, peas, or pulses. After reading this article, you’re a regular coffee bean expert!

Learn More About Coffee Beans

Differences Between Peas and Beans

Are Coffee Beans Actually Beans?

Legumes and Pulses

The Journey of the Coffee Bean — From Plant to Cup

Are coffee beans a fruit? Answered by Monsieur Coffee

What EXACTLY is a Coffee Bean?

Is Coffee A Legume – What is A Coffee Bean Exactly?