An Introductory Guide To Specialty Coffee Beans

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Specialty Coffee beans

Have you ever had trouble buying the specialty coffee beans? If the answer is yes, don’t worry you are not the only one. Sometimes the information about the coffee can be very detailed which might make it tricky to know what to choose.

Learning to interpret the information on a specialty coffee bag of beans will help all consumers understand more about where the coffee comes from and what to expect from it when they brew it. This means that eventually you will start discovering your own taste and make the right decisions when you’re buying coffee beans.

But first things first, what is specialty coffee? In order to explain that, we need to talk about the three waves of coffee.

What Are 3 Waves of Coffee

Three Waves of Coffee
The Three Waves of Coffee

The three waves take us on a short journey through the recent history of coffee:

The First Wave

This wave refers to commodity coffee which focuses on convenience. Some examples of that include instant coffee with no focus on the flavor and no information about the coffee’s origin country or farm. 

The Second Wave

This wave of coffee is all about the experience. A pioneer of this wave is the famous brand Starbucks, which started educating the consumer about the origin country of the coffee beans but focused a lot on the overall experience of drinking the coffee rather than the quality of the coffee beans. For example, they would mix espresso shots with syrups or other sweet ingredients and create new drinks such as the Frappuccino. However, the coffee would still be dark-roasted and would still taste bitter. 

The Third Wave

This last wave of coffee focuses purely on the coffee beans. It emerged during the 1980s with the founding of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and quickly spread around the world. Not many people use the term ‘third wave coffee’ these days, instead everybody calls it ‘speciality coffee’. 

So, what makes speciality coffee different from the other two waves? It’s the dedication to quality throughout the coffee bean journey that makes the whole difference.

You might not have thought of this before but the coffee bean has made a very long journey to finally end up in your cup and there are a lot of people involved in this process. Let’s know them about too.

The People Behind Specialty Coffee

The Farmer

Everything starts with the coffee farmer and their family who has probably spent years cultivating their land and ensuring the best quality coffee beans are harvested.

Farmer pricking Coffee Beans
The Coffee Farmer

The Green Coffee Buyer

Once the coffee beans are harvested they move on to be evaluated by the green coffee buyer. These people are certified as quality graders and determine if the coffee bean’s quality is good enough to be sold as specialty coffee. They also develop the tasting notes of the coffee beans, for example if they taste more nutty or fruity.

Coffee Cupping
Green Coffee Quality Grader tasting coffee

The Roaster

The high-quality coffee beans are then transferred to the roaster who is responsible for creating specialty level roast profiles for the coffee beans. It is important to understand that not all coffee beans are roasted the same which is something more common for the first and second waves of coffee that favored a dark roast. Instead, specialty coffee roasters favor light to medium roasts for their beans, which enhance the bean’s flavor. If you prefer to roast via a home coffee roaster, you might be left with very few options. So don’t limit yourself to home roasting.

The Barista

Before the coffee reaches the hands of the consumer it’s up to the barista to make sure that it has been brewed to achieve the best possible outcome. As the last link between all the people involved and the consumer, it is the barista’s responsibility to be familiar with all the brewing methods and be knowledgeable about the coffee they are offering. 

Latte Art
The Barista is the link between the consumer and everyone else involved in the coffee chain

The Consumer

Last but not least, the consumer also plays a very important role in the coffee’s journey. It is up to all of you to choose to buy coffee from people that are dedicated to its quality. By making informed choices and letting your barista educate you about the coffee you are buying, you will discover delicious coffees and help maintain the quality standards of the specialty coffee industry.

Things To Look For When Buying Specialty Coffee Bag

Now that you know all this, it’s time to have a look at what a specialty coffee bag label looks like:

Coffee Label
The label on a bag of speciality coffee beans

As you can see for yourself there is a lot of information on it to help you determine if this is what you are looking for.

The Region

This part of the bag indicates what region the coffee grew in. This is important because the flavor and the aroma of your coffee is affected by the country and the region it has grown in. For example, you will eventually be able to identify if you prefer a coffee from Ethiopia better than one from Guatemala.

The Processing Method

This relates to the way the coffee cherry is extracted from the pulp. As we all know the coffee bean is not actually a bean, it’s a seed inside the coffee cherry and there are a few methods that farmers use to remove the cherry pulp from the seed. These different methods affect the coffee’s flavour a great deal and this is why they appear on the coffee bag label. They are also the responsibility of the farmer. Here are the methods:

  • Washed: For this method, the cherry pulp is removed from the seed using water and then the beans are dried. Wet processed coffee beans will offer you the coffee’s natural flavour profile since the flavour of the bean is not enhanced by anything.
  • Honey & Pulped Natural: For this method, the coffee beans are dried while there is a certain amount of cherry pulp still on them. The farmer decides how much so the result can differ every time. There is definitely an amount of extra sweetness because of the pulp. 
  • Natural: For this method, the coffee beans are dried with their pulp. Since the cherry pulp is naturally sweet, this method yields a sweeter and fruitier cup of coffee. 
Coffee Process
From left to right: Washed, Honey and Natural

The Variety

This is quite common to see on a coffee bag although it’s tricky to understand it. There are many coffee varieties that belong to different coffee species. The most common coffee species is the Arabica. Then there are varieties such as Caturra, Catuaí, Bourbon, Typica, Gesha, Pacamara and more. The funny thing is that the same variety can taste different if it has been processed with a different method. If you try a washed Bourbon and a natural Bourbon from the same country you will taste the difference yourself. 

The Notes

Another common addition to the coffee bag label are the tasting notes of the coffee you are about to try. These notes have been suggested by the green coffee buyers we talked about above and the coffee roaster has to make sure to choose a roast profile to enhance these notes. For example, coffee beans from Brazil will typically have notes of nuts and chocolate while coffee beans from Ethiopia will have ones of jasmine and blueberries. It is important to understand that these are not added artificial flavors but the natural flavors of the coffee beans. 

Coffee Tasting Notes
The coffee flavour wheel

The Roast Date

Last but not least, every speciality coffee bag should ideally have the roast date on it. Remember that when it comes to coffee, the fresher doesn’t always mean the better. I wouldn’t suggest brewing coffee that has just been roasted because of coffee degassing. That is the release of gases, including carbon dioxide, from the roasted coffee beans.

A lot of these gases will be released in the first few days after the coffee has been roasted and this will result in a lot of bubbles in your brew. These air bubbles will affect the way the water comes in contact with your brew and result in a cup with unbalanced flavor and aroma. Unlike fresh food, coffee can still be categorized as fresh after a couple of weeks since the roast date. I advise you to brew your coffee beans after a week has passed since their roast date.

What About Blends?

A blend refers to a mixture of two or more coffees. As you can see for yourself, there are many aspects to coffee and a lot of things to consider when buying coffee beans. All the above information refers to coffee beans from a single origin country.

Now imagine what will happen if you blend coffee beans from two or more countries in one bag. With so many variables at play it will take a very skillful coffee roaster to manage to bring two or more coffees together in a balanced way. This is why specialty coffee shops usually use single origin coffee.

Wrapping Up

However, there is always room for experimentation so we hope that you will see this article as an introduction to the various aspects of a coffee bean and try to make more educated decisions when you’re buying your next bag of coffee. Happy brewing!