In the vast majority of coffee cherries, two seeds (or beans) grow opposite each other, creating the familiar elliptical shape with a flat surface.
The seeds of these cherries are harvested, processed, and roasted, before being ground and brewed as a regular cup of coffee.
However, in around 5-10% of cases, a defect or natural mutation means that only one of the seeds fertilises.
Known as peaberry coffee, these resulting pea-shaped seeds not only look different, but are often thought to have superior characteristics to regular “flat berry” coffee.
But is this really the case or is it just good marketing? And if it is superior, then how can roasters bring out its full potential?
To find out more I spoke with the 2021 German Brewers Cup Champion, Nicole Battefeld Montgomery.
What makes peaberry coffee different?
Peaberry coffee is a relatively rare type of coffee bean that occurs due to a natural mutation or defect in the cherry.
Not to be confused with a variety, it is characterised by its round, almost spherical shape, and is typically smaller, denser than “normal” beans from the same tree.
The reason peaberry coffee develops is still not entirely known. However, it’s thought that a combination of insufficient pollination and farming conditions are the main causes.
Although peaberry coffee can be found in crops from every coffee-growing origin around the world, countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Hawaii have become particularly associated with it.
For example, Kona peaberry coffee, which is grown on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in Hawaii, is one of the most expensive and sought-after on the market.
Yet while every farm has the potential to produce peaberry beans, not all go to the effort to separate these seeds from the rest of the harvest.
Therefore, when you see “peaberry” indicated on a bag of coffee, it means that the farmer has specifically separated the smaller beans from the regular flat beans to produce a bag consisting entirely of peaberry coffee.
Nicole tells me that many avoid this process as it can be costly and time-consuming.
“The producer will need a special sorting tray to make it easier,” she says. “They are very common in Kenya and Peru, for example.
“Most of the work is then done by hand and requires a very skilled and focused worker. This is because peaberry coffee is usually very small, and includes a lot of sorting and double checking.”
Does peaberry coffee taste better in the cup?
Specialty coffee suppliers tend to market pure peaberry coffee at a premium. While its rarity and labour-intensive sorting process naturally drive higher prices, they also suggest it has a superior cup profile to normal coffee beans.
The theories behind this superiority are wide ranging, from higher nutrient content to better uniformity of roasts. But is it truly reflected in the cup?
On the international stage, peaberry coffees have performed well against the world’s top coffees.
Most recently, a peaberry lot from the Gitwe region of Kenya finished fourth at the prestigious Italian Brewers Cup. It was described as being complex and clean with bright and vibrant acidity and a juicy body.
Nicole explains that whenever she has tasted peaberry coffees, the most noticeable differences have been linked to its body and mouthfeel.
“In my experience, peaberry coffee has a lighter body and can have a beautiful and very prominent acidity with a light florality,” she says. “Depending on the way it’s roasted, it can also have different levels of sweet caramel flavours.”
Some maintain that the sweetness and complexity comes from the bean’s exclusive access to the cherry, giving rise to higher sugar and nutrient content compared to normal beans.
However, others suggest that factors such as variety, growing conditions, and processing techniques have a greater bearing on the cup profile.
How to roast peaberry coffee beans
Peaberry coffee beans are typically smaller, rounder, and denser than regular coffee beans. As such, they tend to require a slightly different approach to roasting.
Nicole tells me that because smaller beans usually roast faster, it’s important to closely monitor charge temperature and the speed at which the drum spins.
“A while ago, I was roasting peaberry coffee and I realised I needed a higher charge temperature to open the beans and to reduce its moisture content faster,” she says.
“Because of their closed shape, heat can not travel inside peaberry coffee beans as easily [as normal beans]. But on the other hand, the outside is beautiful and round, so it can travel around the drum better and generally roast more evenly.
“The small beans roast faster so I tend to shorten my roast time and take them out right at first crack. I definitely wouldn’t recommend dark roasts or extended roasting times as these beans will taste baked due to their small size.
“However, if it’s roasted too lightly, it can sometimes taste quite grassy and underdeveloped.”
Once you’ve found the perfect roast profile for your peaberry beans, Nicole says it’s crucial to include brewing instructions to ensure your customers get the best out of the coffee.
“When it comes to the packaging I have realised that our customers really appreciate guidance on brewing,” she explains. “For example, how hot should my water be? What dose should I use?
“All this information helps the customer understand the coffee better and faster. If this information collides with your bag design, just add a QR code that leads to a brewing guide on your website.”
While peaberry coffee may look different to what most roasters are used to, its freshness and quality are still affected by the same external factors. Exposure to oxygen, moisture, light, or heat for an extended period of time will ultimately have a dramatic impact on its characteristics, leading to stale, rancid-tasting coffee.
To ensure customers enjoy your peaberry coffee at its best, it’s important to invest in sustainable high-barrier packaging. Not only will this preserve its freshness, it will also reduce your environmental impact.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable bags that can be fully customised with your branding. You can also choose from a range of additional components to maximise convenience, including BPA-free degassing valves and resealable zippers.