Coffee Bean Buying Guide
When you’re ready to go beyond the selection at your grocery store and start buying high-quality beans, it can be hard to know where to start. It seems that no two experts agree on what makes a great bean. You also have to sort through a ton of jargon and subjective terms like “berry” and “roasted grain” that some reviewers use to describe coffee flavors.
Understanding something about the origins of coffee and how it is affected by processing, roasting and grinding will help you decide where to start. This guide will help you understand the information behind the coffee jargon. Below we will tell all the factors that will sort your way on Buying the Best Coffee Beans.
There are a number of factors that contribute to a bean’s flavor. Some are determined by the bean itself, while others are produced by processing, roasting and brewing techniques.
- Roast: How long the beans are roasted will affect every aspect of the flavor, aroma and appearance of the bean. Longer roasting produces darker, shinier beans while shorter roasting produces lighter, dried beans.
- Aroma: The first aspect of the flavor that will hit you, even before you drink the coffee, is the aroma. It turns out that our taste buds are not that sensitive to many different flavors, and most of what we think of as “flavor” is actually coming from our sense of smell.
- Acidity: A bright or fruity coffee will tend to be more acidic than a mellower bean.
- Body: What do people mean when they describe a coffee as full-bodied? Some coffees feel light in your mouth, while others feel more earthy and heavy. This impression comes from a combination of the aroma and other flavor characteristics.
- Balance: An extremely acidic coffee doesn’t taste good, nor does an over-roasted blend. When the various flavor parameters are properly balanced, the coffee tends to taste better and more complex.
- Finish: This refers to the aftertaste left behind after you sip the coffee. A very low-quality coffee may have a sour, acidic finish, while good coffee may have a finish that reminds you of fruit, nuts or chocolate.
Arabica or Robusta?
Arabica beans usually grow at higher altitudes. Although this is an over-generalization, they are normally considered to be better quality and are harder to grow than Robusta beans, making them more expensive as a result. However, the idea that Arabica beans are better is an oversimplification at best. There are excellent Robusta beans and low-quality Arabica beans, and it’s common for espresso blends to contain some Robusta because it produces more crema. Robusta beans are also used to boost the caffeine content in some blends.
More About Roasting
Not surprisingly, coffee beans get darker in color the longer they are roasted. A light roast that is roasted for a short time will have different characteristics from a darker roast.
Light roasts are referred to as Cinnamon, Light City or Half City. They tend to retain both their acidity and caffeine content and have a flavor that may remind you of roasted grain. They are roasted until the “first crack” when beans begin to make a popping noise at about 205 degrees Celsius.
Medium roasts are traditionally the most popular in North America. They go by names such as American Roast, City, Breakfast Roast or just Regular Roast. They are roasted to about 210 or 220 degrees Celsius, or just before “second crack.”
Medium-dark roasts are roasted to second crack, which occurs at about 225 degrees Celsius. These are more full-bodied roasts and the oil begins to appear on the surface. Full City and Vienna Roast are names sometimes given to medium-dark roasts.
Dark roasts are roasted beyond second crack to about 240 degrees Celsius. After about 250 degrees the beans start to taste more like charcoal and produce a thin-bodied coffee. Dark roasts go by names such as Italian Roast, Espresso Roast, French Roast, and New Orleans Roast.
Which roast you prefer is largely a matter of taste. Coffee connoisseurs like the fact that lighter roasts allow the unique flavor characteristics of the beans to shine through. Darker roasts are a good way to make lower-quality beans more drinkable. Starbucks is often criticized for roasting its house blend to the “charcoal” stage, but this roast works well for its signature sweet milky drinks. It’s also worth noting that caffeine tends to decrease the longer beans are roasted.
Wild coffee originated in Ethiopia, but the crop was first cultivated in nearby Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. Coffee is now grown all over the tropical world. Here are some of the biggest and best-known coffee-producing regions:
- Ethiopia: This is where it all started. Coffee is native to Ethiopia, and this country still produces some of the world’s best coffee. Ethiopian coffee has a high range of genetic diversity and is mostly still grown using traditional organic methods. Popular Ethiopian beans include Harrar, Sidamo and especially Yirgacheffe.
- East Africa: Many East African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe produce and export coffee. Kenya is the most famous coffee producers in the region after Ethiopia, producing bold coffees with a bright acidity and sometimes blackcurrant notes.
- Colombia/Central America: This region produces some of the most familiar coffees to American consumers. Coffee is grown throughout Central America, the Caribbean and tropical South America. The quality ranges from familiar grocery-store brands to Jamaican Blue Mountain, the most expensive coffee in the world.
- Brazil: Brazil is easily the largest coffee producing nation in the world. Gone are the days when Brazil produced only cheap coffees for grocery-store brands. Now there is a wide variety of both Arabica and Robusta grown in the country, from inexpensive beans to some of the world’s best espressos.
- Indonesia: This is a major coffee-growing country, and the island of Java has given coffee one of its best-known nicknames. Indonesia produces Java Arabica beans, a variety of Sumatran beans and the notorious Kopi Luwak (defecated by civets after eating coffee cherries.)
- Hawaii: This is the only US state that has the right climate for commercial coffee production. Hawaiian coffees tend to be mild, sweet and floral. The most famous (and the most expensive) is Hawaiian Kona.
Blends vs. Single Origin
When a roaster wants to create the perfect espresso with great Crema, Aroma, Flavor and Body, he or she will probably blend beans from several different origins together. Blending allows roasters to control the outcome, compensate for seasonal differences, and create a product with consistent quality.
A single origin coffee contains beans from just one source. No two single origins will taste quite the same. Coffee connoisseurs love to experience the unique flavor qualities of different single origin beans.
So, which is better: single origin or blends? It depends what you’re looking for. Blends are much more popular because they are more consistent and reliable. Single origins have a smaller but devoted following with connoisseurs. Why not enjoy both?
Green or Unroasted coffee beans stay fresh for up to a year if they are stored properly. A good roaster will buy only beans that have been harvested, processed and stored in such a way as to ensure optimal flavor and freshness. In most cases, the problem of freshness starts when the beans are roasted.
When you buy beans, make sure that the roasting date is written on the package, and use them within 2 weeks of the roasting date at the most. Beans taste best between 2 and 10 days after roasting.
You will get the best results by grinding your own coffee right before you brew it. If you have to use pre-ground coffee, buy it in small quantities from a shop that will custom-grind it for your brewing method. If you are making espresso, you won’t really get optimal results unless you invest in a decent grinder and grind right before you pull your shots. Pressurized portafilter baskets can produce something that looks like crema with pre-ground coffee, but you will taste the difference.
Ethics and Certifications
Coffee grows in the tropical regions of the planet, which include some of the world’s poorest countries. Poor countries are not always able to regulate coffee growers to ensure good environmental practices or ethical treatment of workers.
Fortunately, the best ethical practices – organic farming, shade growing, treating workers well – also tend to produce the best coffees. Certification boards exist to ensure that products are organic, shade grown, child labor-free, fairly traded or grown at altitude. These certifications are helpful, but it’s also good to do your own research as many non-certified coffees still meet these requirements. Ethiopian coffee, for example, is generally organically grown and Indian coffee farmers are usually well-paid and well-treated.
A word of warning about Kopi Luwak, or civet poop coffee from Indonesia: traditionally this was picked off the ground in coffee plantations where the civets were allowed to live freely. Now it more often comes from civets living in tiny cages in horrible circumstances. Unless you are very careful about the origin, these beans are almost always the product of animal cruelty. Most coffee experts agree that it is at best a gimmick in any case, and doesn’t really produce a better coffee.
Where to Buy Your Best Beans
Now that you know what to look for, start researching coffee roasters in your city. The best way to get the freshest beans is to buy them directly from the roaster. Roasters may also sell their coffee in local gourmet shops – always make sure to check that the roasting date is on the bag!
If there isn’t a good roaster in your area, you may choose to shop online instead. Just be careful to choose a roaster who can ship beans to you very quickly, as they are really only at their best for a maximum of two weeks after roasting.
It makes sense to order beans based on the location of the roaster. Here are some of our favorite roasters that sell online:
Coava Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon: This company specialises in Ethiopian beans, carefully choosing the single-origin beans after thorough research. Their inventory tends to change rapidly as they keep up with changes in quality from season to season.
Café Mam, Eugene, Oregon: If organic, fair trade coffee is your thing, this company sells European-quality beans while supporting Mayan farmers’ co-ops in Mexico and Guatemala. Café Mam generally ships beans on the same day they are roasted.
Crimson Cup Coffee and Tea, Columbus, Ohio: Named 2016’s Macro Roaster of the Year by Roast Magazine, this company sells a wide range of products and equipment in addition to beans. They specialize in sustainably-grown coffee and craft coffee.
Sweet Tree Artisan Roasters, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: This roaster focuses on single origin coffees and offers a story with every bean. If you want to know exactly where your coffee is coming from, this may be the roaster for you. They roast only in very small batches in order to preserve the unique quality of each bean.
Counter Culture, Durham, North Carolina: You may not recognize this brand name, but you have probably tasted their coffee. This wholesale company supplies some of the best espresso shops throughout the country. It’s a large company but has a commitment to sustainability and quality that rivals your favorite tiny local roasters.
At the end, we would also like to direct you to some of the finest coffee beans in the world that have been consistent and are the reputed ones. Please go through our article about the Best coffee beans in the world and you would discover what you might be looking for.
Now that you have a better understanding of what makes a coffee bean great, it’s time to have fun trying different beans and discovering your own preferences. At the end of the day, taste is your best guide. You may be baffled by the “black-currant notes” and other flavor characteristics that people claim to find in different blends. What really matters is your coffee tastes like really good cup of Joe and that will be all in all an answer to your question on buying the Best Coffee Beans.