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How to Choose Coffee Beans

Written by: John Beans | Last Updated on April 17, 2021

How should you choose the best coffee beans?

It's impossible to find an easy answer to this question: everyone has different tastes, different coffee makers, and most importantly, different experiences of brewing and drinking coffee.

However, you can find guidelines that will help regardless of these circumstances.

In this subsection, we will look at where it is best to buy coffee beans, what to look for when choosing, and also why ground coffee is not the best option.

Let's get started.

Where To Buy Coffee Beans

You can buy coffee online or by visiting the nearest store. Let's take the freshness of coffee as a guide. Freshness refers to how long ago the coffee beans were roasted.

This is the very first indicator you should pay attention to, because how aromatic and tasty your coffee is depends on its freshness. In this case, we'll start with local roasters.

Local roasters

Local roasters are the most reliable way to get fresh coffee.

The bottom line is this: You place an order, the roaster roasts the coffee and immediately sends it to you or you pick it up yourself. The best part is that you can choose the type of roast, which day you need delivery, whether you get ground coffee or whole bean coffee, and so on. Different roasters may have different complementary offerings.

There are roasters in every major city, and if you can't find one near you, you can find one that delivers. 

Online shopping

This is the most popular, but not the most reliable, option. The fact is that you won't always know how long coffee is stored in warehouses before being shipped to you. People often receive stale, odorless, tasteless coffee. You should pay attention reviews by customers who have already bought the coffee or check out our best coffee beans review.

According to Business Insider, here are the best places to buy groceries online:

  • Instacart
  • Boxed
  • Walmart
  • Amazon
  • Thrive Market

Local shops

Sometimes coffee stays on the shelves at your local shop for a long time. Before buying, look at the roast date. If it is more than two months ago, don't buy the coffee.

What To Look for When Choosing Coffee

These recommendations are general, so they can help you choose coffee from anywhere—online or in the store.

Types of coffee beans

This is a vast topic about which we could write an entire article. We will only consider this issue as it relates to buying coffee.

There are two popular varieties of coffee: Arabica and Robusta. There are also Liberica (Coffea Liberica) and Excelsa (Coffea Dewertii); however, coffee is usually made from either a blend of Arabica and Robusta or 100% Arabica beans.

Let's consider these two types in more detail.

Difference Between Types of Coffee Beans

Arabica (Coffea arabica)

Arabica is the main source of coffee beans.

Arabica has a large number of varieties and they all have different flavor descriptors, yield, disease resistance, and prices. However, they have one thing in common: a complex aroma and a pleasant, intense taste appreciated all over the world. In particular Arabica varieties from particular regions, you can taste the sweetness of berries, the acidity of citrus fruits, and the aromas of flowers and nuts.

Arabica is more expensive than Robusta because it's more difficult to grow, transport, and process. This also includes the cost of fertilizers and irrigation. In a bad year, Arabica can easily get sick, so the harvest that remains will be expensive.

Robusta (Coffea canephora)

Of more than 120 types of coffee, only Robusta is cultivated on a scale comparable to that of Arabica. It has great commercial potential: It is more resistant to disease and can grow in places where Arabica cannot.

However, Robusta has a big drawback—it doesn't taste as good as Arabica. It's tart and flat. It is simply impossible to achieve shades from it like you can from Arabica.

Then how is it used?

Classic Italian espresso almost always uses a heavily roasted blend of Arabica and Robusta. These blends are cheaper than pure Arabica and give the coffee its characteristic bitterness. In a cappuccino brewed from an Arabica-Robusta blend, interesting chocolate notes appear—some people like this coffee more.

Robusta is also used in instant coffee.

It is important to remember one rule: Good coffee is not just Arabica or Robusta. You can always find something good in coffee that has been carefully cultivated, processed, and roasted.

Single-origin vs. blends

These are two broad concepts, and it's difficult to say which option is better. It all depends on personal preference. Each option has its own pros and cons. Let's take a look.

Single-origin

These are coffee beans of the same type, grown on a specific plantation in a specific country, and harvested in the same season.

If you see the descriptor "100% Arabica" on packaging or on a coffee website, this does not mean that this is single-origin coffee. The bag may include Arabica beans from different countries or different varieties—or the label might just be a marketing gimmick.

However, you are more likely to get single-origin coffee from verified sellers or local roasters.

What is special about this coffee?

Single-origin coffee has an original taste, and you will not find two varieties alike. This allows you to constantly try something new. For example, single-origin coffees are used to sample coffees from different countries. Some coffee shops offer Ethiopian one week, Columbian the next, and so on.

However, single-origin coffee can taste unbalanced, and this problem is eliminated with blends. But this does not mean that such coffee is bad, just that someone might prefer a more balanced and predictable cup of coffee.

When buying single-origin coffee, pay attention to the following markers:

  • Processing method (washed/natural)
  • Growing elevation
  • Roasting profile
  • Roast date

This is the minimum information that should accompany a good coffee, but is not a guarantee in and of itself. The more detailed the information about the place of origin, the more trustworthy the coffee.

Blends

A blend consists of two or more coffees. Coffee can be blended either before or after roasting.

Why is this done?

Blending produces a flavor profile that cannot be obtained from a single variety. This is true for any brewing method, but it's a particular necessity for espresso blends because it is almost impossible to get a thick, full-bodied, expressive, balanced, aromatic espresso with a stable, elastic crema from single- origin coffee.

Blends can be permanent or seasonal. A blend can contain between two and fourteen types of coffee.

Blending is a kind of art. To hide the disadvantages of coffee varieties and emphasize their advantages, you need extensive experience in the use and preparation of coffee.

Type of roast

It is roasting that turns tasteless green coffee beans into the product we love so much. The darker the roast, the less acidity and more bitterness there will be in the coffee. To ensure that the taste of our coffee is always stable, roasters carefully select and control the roast.

As a rule, roasters choose one of three levels for each batch of coffee: light, medium, or dark.

Light roast (Cinnamon roast, Light city roast)

A light roast has an obvious acidity and goes well with milk. The coffee beans are light brown in color.

This level of roast allows you to fully display the delicate aroma and multifaceted taste of the beans.

Light roasts are suited for infusion brewing methods like cold brew and nitro cold brew, during which coffee is extracted for a long time.

Medium roast (American roast, City roast)

This is considered the traditional roast. The coffee beans are darkish in color with a dry surface. The taste is mixed, with predominantly bittersweet notes but also acidity. Medium roast coffee has a more intense aroma than light roast coffee.

It's suitable for drip coffee makers and the pour-over method.

Medium dark roast (Full City)

At this level of roasting, the useful essential oils have already been released—the surface of the coffee bean is more shiny and oily. Sweetish-bitter notes prevail, and the taste is rich and velvety.

It's suitable for almost any coffee brewing method.

Dark roast (French roast, Vienna roast, Spanish roast)

The beans are dark brown in color with a slight trace of oiliness, and the taste is less acidic than with previous roasts. With this level of roasting, essential oils are actively released, which contributes to a brighter, more saturated aroma that unfolds most fully. The brewed drink will be dark.

Dark roast coffee is good for espresso.

Freshness

We have already talked about how important it is for coffee to be fresh. This is the most important condition because old coffee tastes flat, expressionless, and unpleasantly bitter.

How can you choose fresh coffee based on the roast date?

In 2018, the Coffee Science & Education Center (CSEC) conducted a study. They found that the taste of coffee is revealed a week after roasting and peaks two weeks after roasting. This coffee retains an acceptable taste for two months.

So choose coffee that was roasted one to two weeks ago. If you have received freshly roasted coffee, we recommend that you let it sit for two weeks to get the best taste.

Fair Trade

Growing coffee is hard work, so this certification is intended to identify products by companies that donate a portion of profits to maintaining decent working and living standards for farmers and their families in developing countries.

Critics point to the impossibility of tracking the flow of money or even being sure that it will reach farmers and not end up in other people's pockets due to corruption.

But we hope that the Fair Trade system works as it should. You can find out more about this organization on the official Fair Trade website.

USDA Organic

This is the most popular, widespread certification. Its mission is to create controlled sustainable agriculture that produces products in harmony with nature and preserves biodiversity and soil fertility.

Obtaining this certification is not easy. One of the conditions is that the plantation must not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers for at least three years.

A company must develop an organic system plan and undergo inspections. If you see coffee with this badge, you can be sure that you are receiving organic coffee beans.

For more information, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture's official website.

Caffeinated vs. decaffeinated

Decaffeinated coffee is regular coffee that has been further processed to remove caffeine.

While none of the technologies used today allows us to completely get rid of caffeine, it is possible to reduce the levels of caffeine to negligible amounts.

If you choose decaf coffee, pay attention to the decaffeination method. There are three popular ones: the classic method, the Swiss Water Process, and the CO2 process. Below we will briefly talk about each.

Classic

During this method, the beans are soaked in water and treated with a solvent. Popular solvents are dichloromethane and ethyl acetate, both low-toxic and easily removable from the final product.

After processing, the solvent is drained and the coffee beans are washed with boiling water. This removes chemical residues. Next, the coffee is dried and roasted.

A significant drawback of this method of decaffeination is that some solvent still remains in the beans, which impairs the taste of the coffee and could affect health.

Swiss Water Process

This is a more expensive method. First, green coffee beans are soaked in boiling water. This removes caffeine but also other substances. The water is passed through a charcoal filter, which removes the caffeine but leaves the rest of the substances. It's now known as Green Coffee Extract.

The next batch of beans is placed in the extract and the beans release only caffeine, not other substances, because the extract is already saturated with those substances. Voila! The caffeine is removed, but the coffee beans retain their taste and aroma—all without the use of solvents.

CO2 Process

The most difficult method is the CO2 extraction process. Steamed beans are immersed in a container of supercritical carbon dioxide at a pressure of 73-300 atmospheres. Under these conditions, CO2 acts as a solvent. Then carbon filters remove the caffeine from the carbon dioxide.

This is considered the most natural and harmless method of decaffeination. It preserves the quality of the coffee beans as well as their taste and aroma properties.

Could decaf be an alternative to regular coffee?

Yes, if you want or need to give up caffeine for any reason, decaf can be a good alternative to regular coffee.

We recommend buying decaf from companies that sell decaffeinated coffee processed with either CO2 or Swiss Water technology, as these are the most environmentally friendly ways to remove caffeine from beans. If you're interested, we've already compiled a list of the best decaf coffee brands with reviews.

What About Ground Coffee?

If you want to save time and energy, it's okay to use ground coffee. Also, many people prefer to buy ground coffee if they aren't able to grind whole beans or aren't sure they can do it right.

However, ground coffee has significant disadvantages:

  • Ground coffee loses its freshness faster. The flavor profile of ground coffee will be halved within days of opening the package. This translates to a drink with poor taste and aroma. Your drink will be earthy, cloudy, and sharply bitter.
  • The taste may also be less pleasant due to the use of low-quality coffee in pre-ground coffee.
  • You need a different grind for different brewing methods, and pre-ground coffee doesn't let you customize grind size. For example, you need a coarse grind for a French press but a find grind for an espresso machine or cezve. It can be hard to find the right grind when purchasing ground coffee, and some manufacturers don't even indicate the grind size.

The conclusion is simple: If you have the opportunity, buy only whole bean coffee and grind the beans at home. Buy a coffee grinder. Even the most budget-friendly burr grinder be much better than buying ground coffee.

Recap

We've covered the factors that will help you choose the best coffee beans. Now let's summarize:

  • First, you need to consider the freshness of the coffee. Only fresh coffee will allow you to fully enjoy the aroma and taste of your drink. Therefore, we recommend buying coffee from local roasters.
  • Single-origin coffee or blends? It depends on your preference. Blends have a more stable flavor, while single-origin coffee will allow you to taste the original flavor of a particular variety.
  • Pay attention to the roast. The longer the coffee is in contact with water, the lighter the roast should be, and vice versa. For example, a light roast is suitable for cold brew, while a dark roast is suitable for espresso.
  • Coffee can have different certifications: Fair Trade, USDA Organic, etc. Whether you want to support farmers, preserve biodiversity, or simply get a quality product, coffee with these certifications is a good choice.
  • It's best to buy whole bean coffee, not ground coffee. And you need to grind the beans just before brewing. Otherwise, you risk getting not the best drink.

To find out which coffee is right for you, we recommend experimenting. Only then will you gain experience and begin to understand the nuances of origin, roast, brewing, and more.

The Team That Worked On This Blog Post

Patty-Cramer-Editor-Coffee-Consultant-at-MyFriendsCoffee

Editor & Coffee Consultant

Patty Cramer

I'm the coffee consultant at MyFriendsCoffee. I've been in the coffee business for over 21 years and still have a passion for coffee. My most important skill is that I know how to organize work processes.

John Beans Editor & Founder

Resident Editor-in-Chief

John Beans

I’m the resident Editor-in-Chief of MyFriendsCoffee. For more than 5 years I tried a large variety of coffees from different brands and master 7 ways to brew coffee and am not going to stop there. I switched my first coffee maker with a professional espresso machine and now my kitchen is filled with various coffee equipment.

Tessa Dixon – Beginner Barista & Content Creator

BArista

Tessa Dixon

I was born in Seattle, and this city has a strong connection to coffee culture, so it's no wonder I decided to become a barista! I’ve learned many ways of making coffee and now I know how to make any coffee delicious.