How To Choose Coffee Beans
There are a large number of coffee blends and single-origin coffees on the market. All of them have different qualities and properties. Therefore, when you are choosing the best coffee beans, you need to be attentive to detail and know just what you want.
Within each coffee variety, classic tastes are complemented by unique shades: fruits, honey, vanilla, and sometimes even tobacco or freshly baked bread.
We will teach you how to choose the best coffee beans so you can have a pleasant journey of discovery. All you have to do is learn about several basic selection criteria.
Where to Buy Coffee Beans
It all starts at local roasters—this is the best place to buy fresh coffee beans in order to enjoy delicious, home-made drinks.
If you do not have the opportunity to visit a local roaster, then you can always order from a roaster online. But only order from companies that roast to order.
If you buy coffee on Amazon, you'll be able to pick from a huge number of choices. But you have to make sure you're getting fresh coffee. Before purchasing, investigate the product and roaster to make sure they'll ship you the freshest coffee.
You can also buy coffee beans at a grocery store, but this coffee won't be very fresh. The roasting date is likely to be a mystery.
Many people prefer to save time and buy ground beans.
Ground coffee can sit for weeks in warehouses and then on a supermarket shelf, which completely deprives the coffee of its aroma and distorts its taste, and this negates all the advantages of high-quality grinding.
It turns out that pre-ground coffee is almost useless for coffee lovers. When brewed, it will be more bitter.
Without a doubt, the quality of a coffee drink depends directly on the quality of the coffee beans. We are deeply convinced that you need to grind coffee beans yourself in a coffee grinder just before brewing.
Buy coffee beans only.
How to Choose Good Coffee Beans
Many factors influence the taste of coffee beans; the amount of sunshine while growing, the air temperature while growing, and the country in which the coffee is grown are just a few of these factors. Coffee quality is greatly influenced by cultivation conditions.
There are four main types of coffee. Let's investigate their growing conditions, taste, and uses.
Types of Coffee Beans
Of the more than 125 species of coffee trees and shrubs found in the wild, only four are suitable for coffee as a drink:
- Arabica (Coffea arabica) – Originally cultivated in Ethiopia;
- Robusta (Coffea canephora) – An Ethiopian variety grown in central Africa;
- Liberica (Coffea liberica) – Originated in West Africa (found in the wild in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire) and grown in Africa and Asia;
- Excelsa (Coffea excelsa) – A tall (20 meters/65 feet) sub-variety of Liberica that is grown in small quantities on plantations in the Congo, Asia, and Colombia.
Today we know of a few dozen varieties of Arabica, which differ from each other in taste, aroma, and caffeine content. They all share a light acidity.
Arabica is rich in essential oils, but it has relatively little caffeine. Therefore, coffee from pure Arabica has a pleasant taste and aroma, but a moderate strength. To make a stronger blend, include 10-20% of Robusta beans.
Robusta beans are cheaper than Arabica, as the tree is easier to grow and gives higher yields.
Robusta contains more caffeine than Arabica, but it is very bitter. And bitterness is the only pronounced shade in Robusta's taste. Besides, Robusta has only half the amount of essential oils found in Arabica. Robusta is hardly ever brewed in its pure form. It's usually included in blends with Arabica, as they complement each other perfectly.
Liberica is very bold, earthy, and bitter. Its taste has been described as "liquid tobacco."
However, with the right light roasting of Liberica, experts from the specialty coffee industry note in the aroma notes of red wine, a little cocoa beans, a little caramel sweetness and a little raw (unroasted) peanuts.
Sometimes Liberica is added to Arabica blends.
Excelsa beans have a rich taste and aroma. But there are serious problems with cultivation and yield: it is impossible to predict when the trees will flower and they give so few beans that there is simply no pure Excelsa coffee on sale. Blends of Arabica and Excelsa are expensive and considered elite.
Arabica vs Robusta
The variety or blend of beans forms a drink's special taste and aroma The most refined coffee is made from Arabica beans, while the famous Italian espresso blends contain both Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica beans give the drink a stunning, sophisticated taste and a refined aroma. They are used in coffee to make the drink truly invigorating and soft, with the chocolate, nut, or cream aftertaste that we love so much in coffee.
The peculiarity of Arabica is its multi-faceted acidity, which can sparkle with hints of fruit and berries. There are many varieties of Arabica. The final product is influenced by many factors: where the coffee is grown, the elevation at which it's grown, how it's processed, and how long it's roasted.
A 100% Arabica blend is often a mixture of beans from different continents. This coffee will delight you with its soft velvety taste and pleasant acidity.
Robusta is good only if it is mixed with Arabica: it gives the drink density, bitterness, and the coveted crema. In its pure form, Robusta produces strong and bitter coffee with an earthy flavor. It contains three times more caffeine than Arabica. Expensive Robusta varieties have a specific taste, and some people do like pure Robusta.
A mixture of 90% Arabica and 10% Robusta makes a perfectly invigorating drink.
With 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta, a drink is distinguished by a slight acidity and subtle bitterness. The coffee is unusually dense and thick, just right for lovers of strong and invigorating espresso.
At 70% Arabica, 30% Robusta, the blend is not acidic. But the harmony of bitterness and sweetness makes the drink delicious. Plus, with a high caffeine content, the drink is strongly invigorating.
Pure Arabica is a good choice if you:
- drink coffee primarily for taste and aroma;
- drink coffee without sugar or milk;
- like pleasant acidity in coffee.
Mixes with a high percentage of Robusta are a good choice if you:
- want more affordable coffee;
- prefer stronger (more caffeinated) coffee;
- like more bitter coffee.
Single-Origin vs Blends
Single Origin coffee consists of beans grown on a specific plantation in one country and harvested in one season.
Blends are a mixture of several varieties of coffee.
Why are blends created?
Blending is an art form. Experienced masters blend coffees to hide the shortcomings of coffee varieties, to emphasize their advantages, and to improve the characteristics of the coffee. They also make blends to create new flavors and aromas.
Blends can contain anywhere from two to fourteen coffee varieties. They can be permanent or seasonal. Permanent blends always maintain a certain taste and aroma. Most well-known brands sell permanent blends.
In seasonal blends, coffee is mixed to obtain the optimal taste and aroma of the drink while maintaining the peculiarities of a particular harvest. This blending process produces a changeable product. Each subsequent seasonal blend will necessarily differ from the previous one.
Are blends or single-origin coffee better?
The advantages of single-origin coffee:
- Freshly roasted;
- each harvest provides a unique taste.
The advantages of blends:
- The opportunity to create new tastes and flavors;
- affordable without compromising quality;
- the possibility of maintaining and repeating the flavor characteristics of a certain blend.
It's hard to tell which option is better. It all depends on personal preference. For those who found a taste they love, blends are best. For those who love nuances and changing flavors, single-origin coffee is best.
Different beans react differently to the roasting process. For best results, different temperatures and cycle times are required for different varieties of beans.
Usually, lighter roasts have a sharper flavor and more acidity than darker roasts. Darker roasts have a fuller flavor and contain less caffeine. However, dark-roasted beans can have a burnt charcoal flavor.
Types Of Coffee Roasts
Light (Cinnamon, New England, Light, Breakfast, Half-city) - Light brown with few oils. Easy saturation of flavor. Brightly expressed acidity.
Medium (American, Medium Brown, City, Brown) - Rich, light brown color. Few oils. Light, sweet, and bitter notes. Lighter acidity, more intense flavor.
Medium Dark (Full City, Vienna, Velvet) - Rich brown. Slightly oily. More pronounced sweet and bitter notes. Even lighter acidity and more intense flavour.
Dark (Espresso, Italian, Continental) - Dark brown. Oily surface. Expressed sweet and bitter taste, minimal acidity.
Very Dark (French, Dark French, Spanish) - Very dark brown, almost black. Very oily. Sharp, sweet, bitter taste with no acidity.
Why Is It Important To Choose Freshly Roasted Coffee?
To brew good coffee, the beans have to be fresh. Old beans have a flat, inexpressive taste and unpleasant bitterness. This occurs because older beans have been in contact with air for longer.
In 2018, researchers from the Coffee Science & Education Centre (CSEC) concluded that coffee taste is revealed a week after roasting and peaks two weeks later. The coffee then retains its acceptable taste for two months.
These findings can be used as a guide: buy your coffee beans so that you'll be able to use them 1-2 weeks after they were roasted.
Acidity and Bitterness in Coffee
What Is Acidity?
The acidity of coffee is very important, as it is at the heart of coffee's rich taste. Coffee's acidity comes from the acids found in coffee beans. In this, coffee is no different from other foods—fruits, berries, vegetables, etc.
When you hear "orange notes" or "lemony acidity," you recognize that coffee cannot reproduce the taste of lime or orange. The point is that the perception of acidity in this particular variety will be similar to the perception of acidity in a specific fruit. Limes are more acidic than oranges, for example. Understanding the nature of acidity can help you determine taste nuances and shades.
Acidity is a necessary flavor characteristic of coffee, and it allows you to discover new notes in your coffee drinks, to enjoy you're drink's excellent quality, and to discover previously unknown taste preferences.
What Does Coffee's Acidity Depend On?
Acidity is a natural characteristic of coffee beans, but different beans have different levels of acidity.
Four main factors influence the severity of acidity:
- The elevation at which the coffee is grown - higher elevation leads to higher acidity;
- coffee processing - washed coffee is more acidic than a product processed using natural methods;
- the degree of roasting - darker roasts have less acidity;
- brewing method - acidity becomes brighter when brewing time is reduced, when grinding time is increased, or when brewing temperature is reduced. This is why acidity is more pronounced in espresso.
Coffee from Africa usually has high acidity and fruity or floral notes. Coffee from Brazil or Sumatra usually has low acidity and cocoa or nutty notes.
What Is Bitterness?
Bitterness is one of the main taste characteristics, along with sweet, salty, and sour. Bitterness contributes to coffee's balanced, rich flavor. If there were no bitterness in coffee, then it would be too sweet or sour.
During extraction, the substances responsible for acidity are released first, then the substances responsible for sweetness and, finally, the substances responsible for bitterness.
One feature of bitterness is that it can overpower the other flavors in coffee, which is why excess bitterness is a bad characteristic of coffee.**
But even bitterness can have completely different shades. It can have a pleasant taste like dark chocolate or grapefruit, or it can have the unpleasant flavor of grass.
Good bitterness balances the coffee, complementing the sweetness and acidity and making sure sweetness and acidity don't become too dominant.
The main thing is that coffee's bitter taste should not be its only characteristic and should not overpower the other flavors. If coffee is too bitter, it may have been poorly processed, roasted, or prepared.
As we discussed above, bitterness is released last, after acidity and sweetness. Grinding coffee too finely can lead to long extraction times, and over-extraction can lead to excessive bitterness. Over-roasting can also lead to bitter coffee.
How can you reduce coffee's bitterness?
Consistently take these steps:
- Increase the grind size;
- lower the brewing temperature;
- reduce coffee brewing time.
Specialty coffee is a category of high-quality coffee. It is the highest-quality Arabica coffee, which makes up less than 10% of all Arabica cultivated in the world.
Production of specialty coffee is the fastest-growing segment of the coffee industry. While considerable efforts in the coffee industry are aimed at selecting the best beans, the specialty coffee industry also pays special attention to transportation, storage, roasting, and packaging.
Specialty coffees are usually sold in packages that contain extensive information about the beans: region of origin, date of harvest, variety, and how the beans were processed. Choosing a specialty coffee is like buying wine: the taste is influenced by soil, elevation, and other climatic factors.
What's So Great About Specialty Coffee?
The most important features of specialty coffee are its unique. delicious flavors, its aromatic characteristics, and its quality. Specialty coffee can contain a variety of shades depending on the country in which it's grown, the way it's processed and roasted, and the quality standards developed by special associations.
Fair Trade Coffee
Coffee certifications help customers find coffee that has been grown and produced under certain conditions. There are many types of certifications, one of which is fair trade certification.
The objective of fair trade certification is to support working conditions and wages on coffee farms in developing countries. This certification can be applied to many products, not just coffee. It is particularly popular among buyers in developed countries with more conscious consumption habits, mainly in the USA and Northern Europe.
Fair trade certification means that children are not working on plantations and workers are paid decent wages in accordance with occupational health and safety requirements. The company regularly checks working conditions on its plantations.
The main feature of fair trade is that the organization guarantees the farmer a premium on the current price of coffee. This premium depends on the current levels of the coffee market, the situation of a particular country, and the farmer's compliance with his or her obligations to meet occupational health and safety requirements, to support the construction of schools for children, and to support other social projects.
Fair trade does not guarantee good taste and is mainly intended for mass consumption coffee.
This is the most popular and widely used certification. The purpose of this certification is to support farmers who conserve nature and take responsibility for sustainability. Organic production minimizes soil erosion and helps to improve the ecological status of the soil.
To obtain this certificate, plantations must not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers for at least three years, except for a limited list of substances. For example, farmers can use chicken manure or compost as fertilizer. In addition, if another crop is grown near a plantation in a non-organic manner, there must be a specific distance between that crop and the coffee crop.
Many countries have their own variations of this certification. They differ in small ways, but the general sense remains the same.
Caffeinated vs Decaffeinated
The secret to the invigorating effect of coffee lies in caffeine, an alkaloid that inhibits fatigue processes in our brains. In moderate amounts, caffeine is safe for a healthy adult who has no heart problems or other contraindications.
Decaf coffee is just like caffeinated coffee in terms of taste and aroma. It simply has no stimulating effect, because most of the caffeine has been removed. Therefore, it can be a great replacement for conventional coffee, especially for people who cannot have caffeine for health reasons. It's important to remember that it's impossible to remove 100% of caffeine, however.
We recommend buying decaf only from companies that sell decaf treated with either CO2 or Swiss technology, as these are the most environmentally friendly ways to remove caffeine from coffee beans. Caffeine is removed to the maximum extent possible, and the taste and aroma are preserved almost unchanged.
The Bottom Line: What Matters When Buying Coffee?
First of all, it is necessary to take into account the freshness of coffee and how it's prepared, ground, and stored.
Store your coffee in packaging that does not let light or oxygen in and that has a valve that removes carbon dioxide.
The aroma of coffee can tell you a lot about the quality of coffee. It can be strong or weak, but should always be clean and enjoyable. Any smell of rancid oil, dampness, or mold suggests that the beans are old or spoiled. Don't use these beans!
When brewing coffee, use a scale to precisely match the proportions of coffee and water. Keep an eye on the water temperature—it should not reach the boiling point.
It is best to grind coffee immediately before brewing. Do not buy pre-ground coffee if you have the option of grinding your own beans. We recommend buying a manual grinder that can regulate grind size. And don't use coffee grinders with supermarket blades. They grind unevenly.
Grinding is very important for the preparation of quality coffee. We will tell you more about milling and grinding in the next chapter.
What Kind Of Coffee Is Right For You?
There is no exact answer to this question, because everyone chooses the best coffee for themselves. But here are our recommendations and advice.
Coffee should be balanced: neither acidity, nor bitterness, nor sweetness should prevail,—these notes should form a harmonious, pleasant taste. Our experience shows that coffee lovers are very pleased with the acidic taste of the drink; you can and should try to taste the flavors of familiar fruits.
If you make coffee in a French press, Turk, or pour-over, we recommend the use of Arabica.
And most importantly, don't forget the roast. Many coffee experts prefer light roasts in the morning (due to their high caffeine content) and darker roasts later in the day.
Thanks to this article, you should now know what to pay attention to when buying coffee beans.
Our advice is to experiment with taste by trying different kinds of coffee. Drink dark roasts and light roasts, try a new variety of beans from South America or Africa or Asia, and see what delights your taste buds.