Whole bean or ground? Natural process or washed? Dark or light roast? Blend, or single varietal? Grocery store or online?
Looking at all those little bags can be a little confusing, with tasting notes and regions and roast levels- this post will guide you through the basic factors to consider as you pick out your next coffee.
In this, we're referring to "specialty coffee," and it's different from the mass-produced "commodity coffee" that dominated the market up until the 1960's, i.e., the canned coffee my parents made every morning.
Specialty coffee is the process of growing, selecting, and roasting the best beans to offer the best coffee possible to the consumer, combined with the goal of creating a more equitable supply chain. Only about 10% of the coffee produced in the world scores high enough to be considered specialty grade.
Ready? Let's go!
Specialty coffee will have a roast date on the bag- the day it was actually roasted. Coffee beans sold in the grocery store have a best before date, which is better for a big store that sells 40 different brands of coffee and doesn't have a quick turnover for their stock. That date can be up to two years after the actual roast date. And while you can drink coffee that's two years old, you probably wouldn't enjoy it.
Freshness is also something to factor in depending on how you brew coffee at home. For coffee brewed by filter, like pour over, or immersion, such as French press, having coffee roasted two or three days ago is fine.
But for coffee beans roasted for espresso, REALLY fresh beans aren't ideal. Roasting coffee beans traps carbon dioxide in them, which is what gives your espresso crema (science!), but too much carbon dioxide actually makes it harder to extract your espresso.
It's preferable to give that coffee a chance to rest a few days so some of that CO2 has a chance to dissipate- anywhere from 5 to 14 days. That roast date will help you remember just how long those beans have been kicking around.
Ground vs Whole Bean
Related to freshness is whole bean coffee. Think of it like buying whole spices versus those little jars of powder. The oils that make your pepper peppery and your espresso delicious are highly volatile, meaning you want to make your coffee right after you grind your beans, or your curry right after you toast all your spices- otherwise you start to lose all the compounds that make them taste vibrant.
Pre-ground coffee that sits on the shelf at the store doesn't do you any favors, even if it seems convenient. As soon as you open the bag, that ground coffee is going to start going stale- so unless you're planning on making a LOT of coffee at once, it's better to grind as you go.
Coffee beans aren't beans! They're the seeds of coffee cherries, and how the seed is removed from those cherries is a big influence on how they will taste, even before they're roasted. This is the quick rundown of the three major methods- we'll go into more depth in another post.
Natural or Dry: The most traditional method of processing, used all over the world. Cherries are left to dry in the sun with the seed intact for anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks, and then the seed is removed from the cherry. Leads to sweeter, fuller-bodied, and highly complex coffees with a strong fruity quality.
Washed: Also used all over the world, this requires perfectly ripe coffee cherries, which are then de-seeded. The seeds are then washed in tanks of water to remove any trace of pulp, and spread out to dry in the sun. Characterized by crisper, brighter notes, with a lighter body and a "clean" flavor with less fruit.
Honey: Developed in Central America, honey processed coffees are like a mix of washed and natural. The cherries are de-pulped, but allowed to dry with some of remaining fruit layer, known as the mucilage, still on the seed. This layer starts out golden and is sticky- like honey- before it dries. These coffees have a balance of fruity sweetness and body with some acidity and brightness.
The length and heat of the roasting process is what brings out nuanced aromas (or hides undesirable ones) in coffee beans. Those aromas affect what we taste in the coffee, because taste is so greatly affected by smell.
Roast level is also what contributes to someone's impression of "strength" in coffee. The darker a coffee is roasted, the more the flavor is affected by the actual roast versus the flavors inherent in the bean.
Generally, lighter roasts are thought to express more acidic, or brighter tastes, like citrus fruits, apples, and berries, with medium roasts veering towards nutty, caramel, and chocolate flavors. Darker roasts move into piney qualities, then black pepper and clove, and eventually carbon (probably too far).
Often, medium to darker roasts are used in making espresso, because they are more soluble in water- meaning it's easier to get the flavor out of darker roast beans. That doesn't mean you can't use a lighter roast, you'll just have to adjust your yield up a bit to pull out all the flavor notes of the coffee.
If you like coffee with lots of milk, you may want a medium to darker roast, as the milk might overwhelm a lighter roast. If you prefer to drink your coffee with less or no milk, you might look for a lighter or medium roast.
Blend or Single Origin
This could be an entire post on its own- but many people equate it to drinking a wine composed of a single grape versus a blend of grapes. Both are equally delicious, they just happen to express it in different ways, and depending on what you're looking for, you'll want one versus the other.
"Terroir" is a term used when talking about wine, and reflects where the grape came from: the weather, the altitude, even the specific vineyard, in some cases. We can use the same concept with coffee- single origins highlight the "terroir" of the bean.
Single origins have completely different flavors from one another, and will even vary from season to season, based on different climate patterns from year to year. These coffees are characterized with brightness, citrus, and floral notes, and are thought of as the "purest" expression of the coffee bean's flavor.
A blend, on the other hand, will be more consistent in flavor from season to season. Blends are made with a selection of single origins, meant to provide complex flavor notes that compliment each other, resulting in a coffee one wouldn't be able to find anywhere else. Blends for espresso need to be balanced for those that prefer to drink their shots black as well as those who like a milk based beverage.
Most blends are proprietary, so the blend you get from one shop or roaster will be specific to that place.
What Do All Those Tasting Notes Mean?
You've seen them.
Blueberry, Jasmine, Honeysuckle
Caramel, Hazelnut, Toffee
Dark Chocolate, Butter, Cedar
And then you drink the coffee and think, "I don't really get that blueberry."
Quick note: these aren't flavors added to the coffee. That's more of a novelty style of coffee.
Unless you decide to buy 5 different bags of coffee and brew them all at the same time, it might be hard to get all those flavor notes, as they come out of comparing a large collection of coffees together.
For you, the notes are more of a guide so you can have an idea of what to expect. A bag of coffee that has "strawberries" listed is going to be brighter and have more of a fruity aroma than one that lists "brown sugar," which you could reasonably expect to be a little heavier bodied and less acidic.
Traceability at its most basic is the ability to follow your bag of coffee along each step of the supply chain. That means being able to find out all kinds of information: from who grew it and how it was grown, to how the producers harvested it and what they were paid.
Historically, commercially grown coffee was, and still is, a traded commodity, and the most you knew about it was the country it came from: Columbia, Venezuela, Jamaica, etc. Commodity coffee beans are from from lots of different producers and regions, can be of varying quality, all get roasted to one level (dark), and all taste pretty much the same, no matter what those ads tell you.
This method of production leads to bad coffee in several ways. Workers and farms aren't able to advocate for themselves, and aren't able to get a fair living wage. Growers are put in a position where they have to cut corners to compete, meaning lower quality beans and wasteful processing methods- unsustainable for the environment and for the people growing coffee.
So when your coffee has a label that looks like this, it means people took the time to record exactly where it came from and how it was processed, and they want you to know it. It's one of the main ways to differentiate specialty coffee, as no one is going to spend time keeping track of all this information and relating it to you unless the coffee is worth it.
Traceability means better working conditions for coffee farmers, fosters innovation and a desire to be recognized for excellence, and helps encourage a more ethical coffee trade across the board.
Where Should I Buy Coffee?
Now that you have some basics down, where to go?
Grocery Store: The most convenient place is likely your local grocery store. They will have a lot of coffee to choose from, it's relatively inexpensive, and potentially will have some specialty coffee as well- but since there won't be a roast date on the bag, you won't know how fresh the coffee is (once I did see a roast date on a bag of coffee when I was getting my groceries, but it was four months old, so I didn't buy it).
Coffee Shops: Your favorite coffee shop is another option, and one I quite like, because you can often try a coffee or an espresso and then buy a bag of those beans. Or you talk to a barista, tell them what you like, and they can make suggestions or pick something out. The coffee turns over quickly, so it's fresh, but not so fresh that you have to let it hang out for a week, so it's ready to drink right away.
Bonus: I also like doing this while travelling because bringing home a bag of coffee from a cool shop is like extending the trip. Kind of.
Roaster: Then there's buying directly from the roaster, which is a great way to support a small business, and also means you're getting the freshest possible coffee, often arriving on your doorstep just one or two days after roasting. The options can be overwhelming (or exciting!)
It does require a little planning, and if you're brewing a lot of espresso you'll need to allow your coffee to rest a little before using it. But if your coffee intake is consistent, this can be a great option.
Choosing specialty coffee doesn't have to be daunting- once you know the basics it becomes a fun experience, and you can experiment with trying out different processes, resting your coffee for longer or shorter times, or comparing single origins from two different regions in the same country. Just don't buy coffee that's two years old.