March 17, 2020

What Are Peaberry Coffee Beans? The Myths & The Reality

Peaberries are intriguing. Their name alone is eye-catching. They’re also considered to have a superior cup profile compared to regular coffee beans.

But is this myth something to be believed? We’re going to explore the world of peaberry coffee and discover what they are, whether they’re special, and how to roast them.

You may also like What Is a Coffee Bean? The Anatomy of The Coffee Cherry

Ripe Pacamara Cherries from Finca de la Montaña in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Credit: Finca de la Montaña

What Is a Peaberry & How Does It Form?

Inside a regular coffee cherry with no defects, you’re expected to find two seeds, with their flat fronts facing inwards, and their round backs facing outwards. The seeds of the coffee cherry are what is removed, processed, and roasted for consumers to enjoy i.e. coffee “beans”.

Peaberries are estimated to make up to around 5–10% of a harvest. They occur as a result of a natural mutation, or defect, inside a coffee cherry, where one ovule fails to pollinate. This results in extra space for the single developing seed. Within this space, a larger and rounder seed grows inside. This is a peaberry.

Not all one-seeded cherries can be defined as peaberries, as it’s possible for only one regular, flat-sided seed to develop inside a cherry.

Peaberries are usually sorted and separated during the post-harvest process. They’ll either be separated by size using a sieve or, alternatively, sophisticated machinery which quickly sorts by weight and size. 

Green peaberry beans, after screening. Credit: Eduardo Choza

Why Are Peaberries Considered Superior?

It’s sometimes believed that because the single bean of a peaberry does not need to share nutrients between two separated beans, it has a superior flavour profile.

It’s commonly said that peaberries can offer bright acidity, sweetness, and concentrated and complex flavours in a cup. Roasters report higher levels of density in peaberries. But with very limited research having been done on peaberries, it’s hard to say if this evidence is the result of the peaberries’ unique growing conditions or simply that the lots in question are high-quality ones, perhaps grown at high altitudes or cool temperatures.

It’s also worth noting that the peaberries on the market today under the brand of “peaberry coffee” are likely to have been grown under high-quality conditions. This would result in overall quality of the lot, and not solely the peaberries.

Close look at unroasted peaberry beans.  Credit: William Edgardo Sanchez

Should Peaberries Be Considered Superior?

Peaberries are interesting, that can’t be denied. But, whether they are superior to regular beans can be contested. 

Manuel Torres, who is the head roaster at Brew92 coffee roastery in Saudi Arabia, explains that peaberries “can be really good or can be regular coffee”. Andrés Salinas, coffee roaster at Cob’s Cafe in Colombia, adds that “like other coffee beans, you can choose good or bad quality”. 

A peaberry’s quality is affected by the same variables, such as variety, processing method, and altitude, as regular coffee beans. Manuel explains that producers need to ensure their farming practices are high quality as a whole – which will, in turn, produce high-quality peaberries. This should be the priority and producers should aim to be making the “whole process consistent” to ensure this quality.

The reported characteristics of peaberries such as bright acidity, sweetness, and complexity of flavours will, of course, be tasted in regular coffee beans. This is due to hard work by producers as well as a number of variables

The different steps in the journey from tree to cup also play a role in the final flavour profile. This includes transportation, roasting, quality control, and of course, the brewing

Assuming that all peaberries are superior, especially when there are so many steps that producers and roasters take to highlight special characteristics in all of their coffee lots, would be too simplistic.

On the left, Honduran coffee and on the right, Kenya peaberries. Credit: Eduardo Choza

How to Roast Peaberries

Whether superior or not, to get the best out of these rare beans, they must be roasted correctly. Here are a few different things to consider when roasting them.

First, it’s important to note that peaberries must be separated from regular beans before roasting. Although this is usually done during the post-harvest process, roasters should also check. Due to their difference in size and density to regular beans, heat is transferred throughout the bean differently. This results in a variance in how they roast and the speed of the roast.

Sample roasting is the first step to establishing which flavours to highlight. However, creating a roast profile for a peaberry can be more difficult than a regular bean. Andrés believes this is due to the “round structure and… density”, explaining that “uncommon beans need uncommon parameters”. This, therefore, may take more time if you don’t usually work with peaberries.

Once you’ve created a roast profile for your peaberry coffee lot, the rest of the roasting can be much easier than roasting regular beans. This is due to a number of factors. 

First, there is the shape. Birdie Chiu, owner of Hazel & Hershey Coffee Roasters in Hong Kong, explains that “the round shape of peaberries make them roll better in the roasting machines, especially the drum roasters”. Carlos de la Torre, head of Quality Control at Avellaneda Café in Mexico City, supports this, saying that this shape makes the “heat transfer really efficient”. 

Then there is the consistency of the shape. Luis Lopez, Quality Manager at ASCAFÉ in Colombia, suggests that “the homogeneity of the size helps…with the roasting”, making them good beans to practise with during roasting.

However, there are a few things to watch out for. Birdie suggests that peaberries can “have a relatively earlier and lower volume (sometimes even unnoticeable) first crack”, which therefore requires acute attention during this time in roasting. Carlos emphasises that because of the peaberries’ shape, roasters need to be aware that the heat from the roaster may “take longer… getting to the centre” of the bean. 

Freshly roasted peaberry beans. Credit: Roberto Carlos Argueta

Much like the four-leaf clover, peaberries are a fascinating, natural mutation. But does the four-leaf clover guarantee good luck and does a single-seeded cherry promise a superior flavour?

High-quality peaberry coffee does exist. This, however, will be a result of something more than solely its mutation. Coffee is special because of where it comes from, the people who tend to it, and the care throughout its journey, not simply because of its reputation.

Enjoyed this? Check out Roaster Basics: A Guide to Sample Roasting

Featured photo caption: green peaberry beans in a tray. Featured photo credit: William Edgardo Sanchez.

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