When it comes to coffee, there really is no limit to the beans you can choose from. Light roast, dark roast, medium roast. Earthy. Fruity. Floral. Brazilian. Ethiopian. Mexican. Sumatran. Take all the various options and multiply them all together, and you have probably millions of different coffees to choose from. And then let’s not even get started on the myriad of methods to brew a cup, and the factors that go it into that, like weight, freshness, tamper, you name it.
Overwhelmed? How is one to know what the best coffee beans really are?
Needless to say that much of what makes a coffee bean “the best” is personal preference. And before we even get into bean origins and roasts, there’s some important rules-of-thumb, guidelines and tips for making sure you get only the highest-quality, freshest beans in existence.
To help you make sense of the wide, confusing world of coffee and get you pointed in the right direction, we’ve compiled this quick primer of different coffee beans and origins, and a guide on how to choose the best, freshest available to you. Pour a cup and join us for the ride.
If we could sum up brewing the perfect cup into one simple, catchy rule, it would be: Fresh Matters.
Freshness is the most important part of brewing a good cup of coffee, and there is no way around that. Without fresh beans, you’ll have a stale, boring cup, lacking in the bold flavor that coffee should offer. So even before origin and roast, you should be looking for the freshest beans possible.
If you aren’t grinding your own beans, you need to start. Pre-ground beans will go stale and dry long before whole beans, so you should always purchase whole beans and grind them yourself – right before brewing. It’s harder to find whole beans in the grocery store, but any reputable coffee shop or roaster will sell only whole bean. They will retain their moisture and natural oils much longer, locking in the flavors and ensuring they make their way into your cup.
Again, the fresher the beans, the better. Not all brands will have their roast date on them – especially not anything you find in the grocery aisle, but whenever possible, buy recently-roasted beans- no more than a few days old. They’ll have all the flavors and oils you need for good taste, which tend to disappear the older the coffee gets. You can essentially ignore “Use By” dates – they have no real correlation to freshness and will often be months after the roast date. AKA, months after it’s gone stale.
The sooner the better, but if you can, try to get coffee roasted within the past week. Pour-overs require fresher beans, while espresso and cold brew have a bit more leeway.
We’re not saying you can’t find any good coffee in the local grocery store near you, it’s just a lot harder. You can definitely good stuff in specialty, high-end grocery stores. Avoid the massive, pour-your-own beans displays; while they might be okay at specialty stores, they’ll often be filled with stale, out-of-date beans.
But, if you want to find the freshest beans possible, you should be buying directly from local roasters, where you will pat a bit more, but know exactly when your coffee was roasted – often the same day, or no more than 24-48 hours before you buy it.
If there aren’t any local roasters near you, you should be able to find fresh-roasted at high-end coffee shops, or you can order it online. Many coffee clubs, roasters and subscription boxes will ship coffee the same day it is roasted, and often by Overnight or 2-Day shipping, ensuring the beans show up fresh, oily and ready to brew.
The most basic distinction you will see between coffee beans is Arabica and Robusta. You want Arabica. Arabica beans are grown at higher elevation, producing a much higher-quality, flavorful beans. They’ll be smoother and make a far better cup.
Robusta beans, on the other hand, are cheap and easy to grow, producing high-yield crops that are less fickle and sensitive to weather and disease. They’ll also have more caffeine than Arabica beans. Due to their lower price, they’re usually used for cheaper, low-quality coffee and instant blends. Think 7-11 coffee.
No doubt you’ve heard of “dark roast” or “light roast”, and maybe have a preference. Roasting is a huge part of the coffee process; fresh, unroasted beans are green, soft and fruit-like, and not all like the dark brown beans we associate with coffee. Roasting them at temperatures between 365 F and about 475F will transform them into a brewable bean.
It’s also important not to mix up “roast” with whether or not a coffee is “Strong.” You can make an exceptionally strong cup of light roast coffee, or a weak cup of dark roast.
Light roast coffees tend to be a very light brown color, with little-to-no oil on the outside of the beans. They are usually roasted at 356°F – 401°F, where they have just begin to crack, and thanks to their light roast, maintain most of their original flavor from the terroir. For this reason, they tend to be fruitier, earthier and more organic in taste. They will also have the most caffeine, as this is lost slightly in the roasting process.
Medium roast coffees are heated to about 428F, cracking a bit more than light roast coffees and as a result, having even more oil, a darker brown color, and thicker taste – with stronger aromas and more acidity than light roast. You might see Medium Roast called Regular Roast, and this is what most people will think of when they think of coffee.
As the name implies, Medium-Dark Roasts bridge the gap between Medium and Dark roasts, having a bit more oil and bitterness than a medium roast, without being as strong as a true dark roast. Heated to a temperature of about 446F, they tend to have a very heavy body. An example of a medium-dark roast would be a Full City roast.
Dark roast coffees are very dark brown in color, and very oily. They will taste very heavy and bitter, even a bit smoky – think French Roast or a shot of strong Italian espresso to jumpstart your morning. In fact, many European roasts are Dark Roasts – Vienna Roast, Continental Roast, and New Orleans roast. They are roasted somewhere between 464F and 475F, which reduces their caffeine content somewhat, and also means they lose a lot of their earthy, floral, fruity notes, and those from the origin, instead being much more bitter, with less acidity but an overall stronger “coffee taste.”
Now we’re getting into the good part. No origin is better than another, but like with wine, each is known for it’s unique properties and flavor. And since more than 50 countries grow coffee beans, there’s quite a few to choose from – and too many to cover here in detail.
Single Origin Beans come from, as you might have guessed, a single origin, meaning they come from one single growing region (not necessarily from one farm). Blends, on the other hand, mix together many kinds of beans from different regions, to achieve a certain flavor or style. When blended well, blends can be as good as any single origin bean.
Best Coffee Origin?
Again, this is a matter of taste, but many consider Colombian coffee to be among the best coffee beans in the world. The South American country is the third-largest producer of coffee in the world, and most of it is produced by small farms owned by those who till the fields themselves. Thanks to the country’s high elevation, consistent, favorable climate and attention-to-detail, Colombian coffee tends to be smooth, a bit mellow, with caramel sweetness and a bit of nuts. When you think “good coffee,” Colombian is probably what you think of.
Kona coffee, grown on the Big Island of Hawaii, is the only American-grown coffee. But it really is a kind all of its own. It’s intensely aromatic and floral – like the tropical island it grows on. It’s also expensive, as their isn’t a large crop and the island can only grow so much every year.
There’s no one single flavor of Ethiopian coffee, and you can expect to find dozens if not hundreds of different rich, flavorful beans.
Ethiopia has such biodiversity and variance of growing regions, in fact, that there are countless unnamed, uncatalogued varieties of beans, each with its own unique terroir and flavor. There are also two ways of processing beans in Kenya; they can either be “natural”, where the fruit is allowed to dry around the bean for some time before being taken off, or “washed”, where the cherry is stripped from the bean within 12 hours of picking.
Each process imparts unique flavor; natural Ethiopian coffees are more fruity and thick, while washed tend to be lighter and drier – more tea-like.
The most popular Ethiopian origin is Yirgacheffe. Ethiopia is often considered the birthplace of coffee, and Yirgacheffe is uniquely delicious, which is why it’s one of the most common coffee beans you can find. Yirgacheffe is usually light-bodied and intensely floral, often described as tea-like and fruity.
Kenyan coffees tend to be similar to Ethiopian coffee, but bolder and richer. They are usually grown in the high-elevation areas surrounding the capital, Nairobi, often in areas from 1400 to 2000 meters and in volcanic soils around Mt. Kenya. The sunny, dry climate means they are usually grown without much shade, and they’ll have strong, floral notes, fruity and sweet flavors, berries, some lemongrass. Like Colombian and Ethiopian, they tend to be widely appreciated, by aficionados and everyday drinkers alike.
We certainly can’t leave out Sumatra, either. Indonesian coffees, in general, are only becoming more popular recently, compared to, say, Ethiopian or Colombian. But thanks to their sweet, full body and low acidity, they present a very smooth, pleasant drinking experience, but rich all around.
Sumatran coffees use a unique processing method called Giling Basah, or wet-hulling, which means the bean retains much more moisture and results in a very earthy, natural, spicy flavor, with low acidity – which gives it that smooth, drinkable experience. This also means that Sumatran coffees tend to be roasted very dark to bring out the flavor even more.
And since it is located in the tropics, Sumatra has consistent weather that almost never changes and allows for year-round growing and harvesting – meaning no matter the time of year, you should have your pick of fresh Sumatran coffee.
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