Buying Better Coffee.
Need help picking the best coffee for you? Want to understand what all of the many specifications and terms mean on the back of the bags? In this post, I am going to unpack the jargon, explain the fundamental variables and the deeper, often confusing acronyms, phrasing and terminology, so that you can better understand what you are looking for in your coffee and what you can then expect when you are brewing.
The points we will cover in this blog are - roast, process, variety/region, elevation, and cupping score.
If you would prefer a swift and condensed break down - scroll down to the bottom.
Firstly, it is important we discuss roast level. It will heavily depend on the roaster, if this is included on the bag and how it will be displayed. A lot, if not all of the bags we get in the shop, won’t include a roast guide. Normally, we would expect that the bags we buy in are roasted medium/light - a reliable staple of speciality coffee. As well as this, it is typical that speciality coffee bags are roasted specifically for filter, espresso or increasingly frequently - omni. Omni-roasts are a sensible middle ground between the two and can be used for both filter and espresso.
Generally speaking, the darker the roast, the deeper the flavour. We can expect a dark/ espresso roasted coffee would have notes of dark chocolate, praline, caramel and and a general nuttiness. You might see these labeled as 'Italian roast'.
We can also expect that a light roasted coffee - generally used more for filter coffee due to their acidity and brightness, we can expect fruit notes like peach and apple to florals like elderflower and jasmine. Light roasted coffee is less used for espresso based drinks as you can loose a lot of the bright, delicate flavours in milk based drinks.
Often perceived as daunting for the casual coffee consumer, processes will imperatively affect how the coffee will taste in your cup. There are 3 main processing methods which can be experimented with and, depending on the roaster, can be described in different ways.
Washed Processing - As the name would suggest, washed coffees have the sticky flesh (mucilage) washed from the seed before it is then dried. After the cherries have been harvested, they go through a machine called a depulper where outer skin is striped from the seed, the seed is then placed in a tank of water to ferment, which also aids in stripping the remaining mucilage from the cherry. Different producers use different amounts of water during the fermentation stage as well as different lengths of fermentation, often radically altering the taste of the bean. Washed coffees are typically very clean, you taste the coffee itself, the origin, variety and terroir - this is then coloured or embellished by the roasting after.
Recently, more experimental processing methods from producers have been appearing and increasing in popularity- Anaerobic processing. Anaerobic coffees involves removing oxygen from the fermentation tank. The processed coffee is placed in a sealed tank with a release valve, the oxygen is pumped out and the release valve allows the producer to control the build up of CO2. Anaerobic Naturals in particular have a much creamier body followed by punchy notes of fruit such as Pineapple, Cherries, Mango & Lemon.
Coffee varietals & region play a huge role in the final taste of your coffee - or rather the basis of what to expect from your coffee. The first coffee trees cultivated originated in Ethiopia where the same variety typica is still grown today. There is a huge array of varieties grown across the world, some, natural mutations and others creations of cross-pollination. Some of these varieties have characteristics of their own, while others take their characteristics from the terroir in which they are grown - much like wine.
For example, a very common variety - Bourbon, which is now grown over most of central America today takes a lot of its taste from the processing and its terroir and how the producer works with the harvested seed, whereas SL-28 - a manufactured variety grown in Kenya produces a distinct blackcurrant flavour.
As if there wasn’t already enough to consider when buying your bag of beans, we should also pay attention to elevation. Generally speaking, elevation has a direct impact on the size, shape and taste of the coffee. The higher the altitude, normally means the better the quality of the coffee itself. Higher altitude coffees (typically Arabica), if taken care of properly produce a more acidic, aromatic and flavoursome cup, while lower altitude (typically Robusta) coffees tent to be blander, with less acidity and earthy notes.
Finally, the last thing you might see on your bag is an SCA coffee score, this is a very simple premise, the higher the number, the better the coffee. Usually a lot of the coffees in speciality are 85+. Grading is a peculiar part of the speciality coffee community, the coffee will have been cupped and tasted by a Q grader, where they judge the coffee based on different categories which make up the final grade you often see on your bag.
ROAST - Most, if not all of the bags we buy in will have been roasted Omni, or filter - usually medium/light, unless specifically roasted for espresso where they will be medium to medium/dark.
PROCESS - Natural process coffees are usually more funky, they have pleasant fruit notes and a decent body. Washed process coffees are more reliant on the terroir of where they are grown, they are clean, light bodied and can be complex with florals and fruit notes. Honey processed coffees are a good middle ground between the two, they exhibit similar fruit notes and can be very sweet and complex, but have a heavier body like a natural process.
VARIETY & REGION - This plays the second biggest role in determining what your coffee will taste like. There are many factors but if you like fruiter, juicy coffees look at Kenyans, Ethiopians, Rwandans and the surrounding areas but if you prefer something chocolatey, look at areas like Brazil, Colombia and Peru.
ELEVATION - Generally speaking, the higher the altitude, the better quality of the coffee. Brazilian coffees are grown at lower altitudes and that attributes to the more heavier bodied, chocolatey and nutty characteristics, whereas higher altitude coffees from Ethiopia can exhibit more complex fruit and floral notes.
SCA SCORING - A somewhat oblique part of the speciality coffee community, but generally speaking, the higher the number, the better the coffee.
Above all though, we highly recommend reading the tasting notes and making a decision based on how appealing you find them. Go with what you like tasting and if you ever want a recommendation, one of our friendly baristas will always be more than happy to help you choose the best coffee for your needs.
- Adam Musitano