Coffee selection guide: How to choose the beans that are right for me?
We have all been there at some point — staring at a wall of consumables and not knowing where to start. It could be wine, chocolate, potatoes, cheese, you name it. Just staring at all the possibilities and options before you almost paralysed by choice . A world of new exciting taste sensations and discoveries await your ultimate selection, before you finally submit to “Ah I dunno, I will just grab a Savvy B and some Brie, they were ok before”.
Coffee is no different. A world of information to sort through, choices galore, and not everyone is able to guide you through choosing the right coffee you are looking for. Today we will walk you through some key factors to take into consideration when you are next making that important choice for yourself or a loved one. Whether that’s purchasing some delicious beans or staring at a coffee menu, get ready to make the most important decision of the day.
10 second expert: Fresh is best. I only drink the best.
One of the great all time myths about coffee is that it keeps forever. The opposing myth that coffee goes ‘bad’ and can’t be used after 2 weeks is also somewhat misleading.
So what is the deal? There really is only one choice here. Coffee is a fruit, a cherry in fact, and it’s a carefully grown processed agricultural product. So fresh is always best.
So how are we going to know what fresh looks like? Look for beans that have a clear printed roast date on them. Any coffee that can’t tell you this information, probably doesn’t want to. So be very wary of any packaging that uses a ‘best before’ or has a ‘2014’ printed on it.
So when should I look to buy and finish my coffee by? Buy it as freshly roasted as possible and look to use it all up no later than three weeks after the printed roast date for maximum enjoyment. The ideal ‘peak’ flavour times are usually found between day 7 and 14, which will be the norm for most of the great cafes you visit. You can still potentially look to use beans for up to 4 weeks, but most of the time, after day 14 the quality and flavour intensity will start to fade and leave you with some very flat cups and sad faces.
Espresso roast for espresso machine
Filter roast for manual brewing!
10 second expert: Espresso roast for espresso machines, filter roast for manual brewing.
This is where your preference for brewing method kicks in. No wrong answers here, just choose what you like to drink best.
Espresso roast vs Filter roast. As the names would suggest, coffees proudly displaying these tags have been roasted with specific brewing equipment in mind. An espresso roast coffee has been developed in the roaster further increasing caramelisation and body, which suits being prepared on an espresso machine to extract delicious elixir. A filter roasted coffee has been less developed in order to retain more of the sparkling acidity that a filtered cup of brew desires. So if your coffee is being prepared manually via a pourover or an immersion brewer like a Clever Coffee Dripper or Aeropress, then you should be seeking bags with a filter roasted label on them.
Blend or Single Origin
10 second expert: Blends for milk, Single origins for black.
This is potentially very murky territory here so I am using a broad brush to make this choice as easy as possible. If you want to drink your coffee with milk, choose a blend. If black coffee is your thing, choose a single origin.
With a blended coffee, most of the time, specific single origins have been chosen to use in that blend that create a complex and balanced espresso while still having a milk based beverage in mind. The coffees have been carefully selected to provide increased body, some delicious brown sugaring flavours, or to simply add some floral complexity in order to help balance the espresso. For more awesome information on this check out this article; Blends — more than the sum of their parts.
A single origin coffee is from a single known geographic location, such as a farm or estate. This allows the coffee drinker to appreciate the specific nuance that a particular growing region provides. So if you are a black coffee drinker you will be more likely to perceive and enjoy this subtlety of flavour easier without milk masking it.
Having said all that, can a single origin work well in milk? Absolutely. Can a blend work as a black? You’re darn tootin’. It all depends what single origins are being used. Let’s read on…
10 second expert: Central and South American for clean and sweet, Africa for fruity and complex, Asia for earthy and luscious.
Growing conditions and economic factors vary greatly across the planet and so it’s no surprise that coffee grown in one country will be different from the next. Wine drinkers have a long-held appreciation for this phenomena, having come to expect to see specific flavour and aroma characteristics from a French wine that may be clearly distinctive from an Italian or something grown in Australia. Coffee prefers to grow in the warmer latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. This band of latitudes is often referred to as the ‘coffee belt’. Within this band a vast array of variables exist including altitude, rainfall, soil conditions and sunlight, all of which will alter the outcome of how your coffee will taste.
So how do I narrow this huge offering down to what I might like best? If you are seeking fruit driven flavours and floral aromas, starting with blends that contain African coffees is a great choice (think Hi Fidelity blend). Many coffee drinkers swoon at the thought of excitedly opening up a bag of Ethiopian beans to deeply inhale the complex berry and wine like aromas. Or salivate at the thought of slurping on a juicy stone fruit influenced coffee from Kenya.
South and Central American coffee might be your thing if you are looking for clean coffees exhibiting delicate sugar browning sweetness, like chocolate or buttery pastry, accompanied with a softer fruit character. As most of the world’s coffee production hails from this area, it’s highly likely that you will find a winner here. Brazil is well known for producing coffees with a heavier body and peanut character (think Crompton Rd blend). While further north in Colombia these flavours a mellowed and typically present more so as chocolates, caramels and toffees (think Dark Horse blend). Sounds delicious! Do I even need to look elsewhere?
Perhaps if you prefer a coffee to be heavier bodied and earth in character, selecting from the India and Indonesian region is for you. Often exhibiting a luscious syrupy body combined with herbal and savoury flavours, these tend to be the most dividing in personal preference and definitely sit in the ‘Love or Hate’ bracket.
Coffee Family Tree, by Cafe Imports
Yellow Bourbon, Brazil
Typica hybrids, Bali
Different varietals – all grown at Santa Fellsa Estate, Guatemaia
10 Second expert: Take note of the coffees I like, it’s a good chance they are similar varietal.
Since coffee is a fruit, apples are always one of the best examples to give as to why varietal plays a part in terms of preference. Most people like apples, (is there anyone who doesn’t?) that’s a safe bet. But preferences are wildly different when selecting the varietal of apple. A ‘Fuji’, ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Pink Lady’ , or my favourite the ‘Jazz’, will often result in a strong difference of opinion as to which is best (the answer is ‘Jazz’).
Common coffee varietals are Bourbon, Typica and Caturra. While many countries will tend to favour growing a particular varietal, it’s not uncommon to see some varietals transplanted into different growing regions. The Geisha varietal is one of the most sought after on the planet. It’s saturated sweetness, clarity and vibrant flavours can range anywhere from dark berries to mangos or even peaches. Geisha coffees will usually come with the appropriate price tag, but if you have a coffee lover in your life who needs a gift, this is a no brainer.
Washed coffee drying at La Florencia in Nicaragua
Natural process coffee drying, Ethiopia
Yellow honey (left) and black honey (right) processed coffee at Minor Esquival’s farm, La Pastora in Costa Rica.
Experimenting with different processing methods at Santa Felisa Estate, Guatemaia
10 second expert: ‘Washed’ for clean, bright and sweet, ‘Natural’ for bold fruit and wine.
When selecting a coffee you will note that often its processing method is communicated. This will usually be via a simple ‘washed’ or ‘natural’ (unwashed) on the coffee menu or bag. This is worth noting as you will get a distinctively different coffee experience because of these factors, even when it’s the same coffee!
A washed coffee, or ‘wet processed’, has had the outer pulp of the cherry removed, then placed in fermentation tanks before being washed and placed out to dry. The result is often a coffee with a great clarity of flavour while exhibiting a bright complex acidity to match. A very popular method with producers as the fermentation process is controlled and leads to less defects.
A natural processed coffee is a coffee that has been dried with the cherry still remaining on the bean and parchment throughout the drying process allowing the fruit flesh and sugars to impart upon the seed. The result is often a ‘fruit bomb’ with a spectacular aroma and wine like characters. These are the two more common methods available but many others exist, such as Honey Processed (somewhere between Washed and Natural) and Wet Hulled.
10 second expert: The higher up you go, the more sweetness and better acid.
This useful morsel of information helps inform us a little about growing conditions. Coffee growing altitude has a significant impact on the sweetness and acidity found in a particular cherry. Sugar is a valuable energy source for a coffee plant and, when it is faced with unfavourable conditions, will draw upon this resource in order to help it survive. Smart move for the coffee tree, less tasty for us. Coffee prefers average temperatures between 18˚C – 23˚C and, in order to maintain that while still getting enough rain, higher altitudes are often preferred.
So what numbers should I look for? Anything growing above 1500 masl (meters above sea level) is quite a high growing region, and will generally exhibit a refined sweetness and acidity (remember those tasty Kenyan coffees we talked about earlier?). While lower down at 1000masl – 1250masl the acidity is mellowed significantly and more earthy tones are found, think Brazil or India.
So there you go folks, next time you are looking to select a coffee to drink or buy to use at home, have a glance at the information that you are given and see what common characteristics turn up on the coffees you love to drink. It may help you to make better decisions ongoing when faced with a broad range of offerings or hopefully will open you up to a new world of flavours you never thought possible in coffee.