The Coffee Lover’s Guide To Buying Coffee Beans
Farmers are refining their techniques, roasters are developing new approaches to roasting coffee, and coffee lovers everywhere are waking up to a world of coffee beans that are diverse, flavourful, and fascinating.
There’s more variety in coffee than there ever has been at any point in history. Exotic coffee growing countries, new vibrant flavours, and evolving definitions of coffee roast levels have exploded what we call the specialty coffee industry around the world.
But all these options come with a downside: buying coffee beans isn’t as straightforward as it used to be.
How to Choose Coffee Beans
To help you wrap your mind around the many things you have to think about when buying beans these days, we’ve created this detailed guide. By the end of it, you’ll have an exceptional knowledge of coffee beans, flavours, and origins—and you’ll have a much better idea of what coffees will better suit your taste preferences.
There’s A Whole World Of Coffee Flavour
Coffee used to just taste like coffee. It was fairly straightforward, generally one-dimensional, and often bitter. But things are not as they used to be.
In the 1980’s, a handful of roasters around the world were discovering that if they departed from common practice and roasted the coffee a little lighter, that they could bring out some really unique and tasty flavours in their coffees. They soon realized that coffee beans often have much more flavour to offer than we could have imagined, and the specialty coffee movement was launched.
Ever had coffee with subtle tasting notes of blueberries, flowers, or pine?
Thanks to passionate farmers, skilled roasters, and better coffee brewing techniques, flavour notes like these are actually fairly common. Sure, the underlying ‘coffee’ flavour is always there, but these hints of other things pop out and add to the experience.
We believe it’s worth it to pursue these high-quality, skillfully roasted coffee beans than to settle for whatever’s on the shelf at the supermarket. The wide world of coffee flavour is fascinating, and there’s much to discover within it.
However, those supermarket beans probably won’t help you get there anytime soon.
Fresh Is Always Best
Coffee beans are an agricultural product. They are the seeds of a small fruit (often called a ‘coffee cherry’) that grows on a shrub-like plant. They’re harvested and processed on a farm—not a factory.
Like all agricultural products, coffee beans are best when fresh. The flavours are clear and distinct, the acids are crisp and balanced, and the aromas are vibrant. Because of this, we recommend a coffee subscription based on your consumption so you've always got the best beans available to you.
However, it doesn’t take long for those flavours to start decaying into a singular ‘muddy’ flavour, for the acids to break down into bitter compounds, and for the aromas to evaporate away. In fact, coffee beans only have 2-3 weeks of peak freshness and flavour once they’ve been roasted.
Guess how long ground coffee has… 20-30 minutes. That’s right—that bag of coffee grounds may be fresh when you first open it, but by the next morning, it’ll be on its way to stale and dull.
This is why it’s always best to buy coffee beans from a source that sends you beans that were roasted in the last few days. Buying off the shelf at grocery stores almost certainly means buying beans that are two, four, or even six weeks past roast.
Now that we’ve established that there’s some mind-blowingly amazing coffee out there and that those stellar flavours can only be had when the beans are freshly roasted and ground, let’s move onto some other things you’ll want to consider when buying coffee beans.
Battle Of The Species: Arabica VS Robusta
There are dozens of coffee plant species, but there’s really only two that are used in commercial coffee growing: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (often called ‘Robusta’). These two species are pretty distinct, and there’s—for the most part—only one you should be concerning yourself with.
Robusta coffee plants have lots of branches, yield many coffee cherries each season, and look big and strong. They’re resistant to disease, climate change, and harsh weather. They’re forgiving to grow, but it’s also what makes them not so delicious.
Having so many branches and producing so many cherries, each individual coffee bean doesn’t have access to much nutrients, which causes the brewed coffee to be less flavourful. The plant naturally produces a lot of bitter caffeine to ward off pests and diseases, but it also impacts the coffee beans.
Robusta coffees tend to taste very bitter and uninspiring, though they do have 50-75% more caffeine than arabica coffees. There are a handful of specialty-grade robustas in the world, but generally, robustas aren’t used by the specialty coffee industry. Most robusta coffee goes into low-grade blends, artificially flavoured coffee, and instant coffee.
Arabica coffee plants, on the other hand, don’t have as many branches and don’t produce as many cherries. Frankly, they tend to look pretty scrawny. They’re not so great with climate change, are fairly susceptible to diseases, and don’t really like the harsher weather.
However, with so few branches and cherries, each individual coffee bean gets a lot more nutrients, which leads to more complex and diverse flavour profiles. The plants also produce less caffeine, which makes the coffee less bitter, but also leaves the plants with fewer defenses against pests.
Arabica coffees can have all kinds of flavour profiles, from fruity to floral to earthy and beyond. There’s a ton of diversity among arabicas, which is why they’re beloved by the specialty coffee industry. Of course, not all arabicas are delicious, but if you’re after quality, you’re after arabica.
Notable Coffee Varieties
Coffee’s own family tree doesn’t stop at Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora. There are dozens of “varieties”, the familial layer below species. Generally, most varieties taste very similar—only a few have really distinct flavours.
The most common varieties are bourbon and typica. These are a couple of the oldest arabica varieties, which makes them the source of many newer varieties. Either by natural mutations, natural hybrids, or hybrid cultivation, these two varieties have created dozens of others.
The gesha variety is a popular one. The variety was collected in Ethiopia and brought to Panama, though it since has become its own distinct variety from the original. This plant variety is known for its exotic acidity and vibrant floral notes that are unlike any other variety’s.
The new starmaya variety in Central America is the only first generation hybrid to be propagated by seed, rather than through expensive biotechnology. Created in 2017, it has received awards for its exceptional flavour and high yields.
In the 1930’s in Kenya, Scott Agricultural Laboratories created the SL14, SL28, and SL34 varieties. The goal was to cultivate a plant variety that could handle Kenya’s extreme drought. They did achieve that goal (SL28), but they also created the other two varieties that had exceptional flavour quality and complexity.
Roast Levels: Light, Medium, Dark, And Beyond
Like we said earlier, coffee roasting has changed a whole lot in the past forty years. The standard is no longer a black-as-night dark roast. Instead, it’s much lighter, and much more flavourful. These days, roasters find a roast level that’s right for each individual bean—and sometimes that takes several trial and error roasts. So learning how to pick between roasted coffee beans is a handy skill.
Let’s take a look at the differences between the modern roast levels of the specialty coffee industry.
Light Roast Coffee
Essentially, light roast coffees are closest to their original plant origins. Though they don’t taste ‘green’ or ‘vegetal’ like they do unroasted, these coffees do still taste natural, acidic, floral, and sometimes even fruity. These coffees, more than others, are more likely to retain unique characteristics from their origin farm and region.
Light roasts are often characterized by a vibrant, crisp acidity. This acidity adds life to a cup of coffee and can enhance the flavours and aromas. But not everyone likes this higher-level acidity; some find it too bright or sour. However, what it has in acids it lacks in bitterness. Light roast coffees are rarely bitter, since the beans weren’t roasted long enough to create many bitter compounds.
Light roasts generally have a dark tan appearance and never have any visible oils on the outside of the beans.
- Characteristics of origin
- Bright acidity
- Rich aromatics and flavours
- Dark tan appearance, no oils visible
- Lacking bitterness
Medium Roast Coffee
Once roasted a little darker, coffee beans take on more of a deep brown colour. At this stage, the acids start to calm down and are balanced out by the increased presence of natural sugars. These sugars tend to give medium roast coffees notes of caramel, honey, or molasses.
The beans do still have some of the unique characteristics of their origin, but the rougher edges are smoothed out by the deeper roast. These beans tend to be a little more forgiving to brew than light roasts and are more well-rounded in general.
- Fewer characteristics of origin
- Well-rounded acidity
- Increased sweetness
- Rich aromatics and flavours
- Deep brown appearance, possibly light sheen of oil
- Minor, balanced bitterness
Dark Roast Coffee
Once light and medium phases are passed, coffee beans take on a dark brown colour and a light layer of oils is often visible on the surface. Dark roasts tend to have the fewest characteristics of their origins, but that doesn’t mean they’re all uniform or unexciting.
Dark roast coffees can still be fairly diverse and flavourful. The rough edges of the origins are smoothed out by a satisfying sweetness, the acidity is mellowed out significantly, and that rich sweetness stays present. These beans can still be aromatic and flavourful.
Bitterness is also a typical characteristic of darker roasts. Skilled roasters don’t allow a ton of bitterness—just enough to add that ‘umph’ to the lower notes. Often notes of chocolate, spice, earth, and nuts also appear, complimenting the origin flavours that are still able to be tasted.
- Even fewer characteristics of origin
- Mellow acidity
- Mild bitterness
- Deeper flavours appear
- Pleasant sweetness
- Dark brown appearance, light oily sheen
Other Roast Levels
Roasting darker than these three roast levels tends to be more harmful for the beans than helpful. French roasts, Italian roasts, Vienna roasts, and others of similar intensity nearly erase all the flavours of the beans and replace them with a deep bitterness and carbon-y flavour as the fibers of the coffee beans literally start turning to ash.
For this reason, we generally suggest staying away from super dark (black-as-night) beans.
You’ve probably noticed that blends aren’t the main coffee bean type available anymore. Single origin coffees have really exploded in popularity around the world. Here’s a quick look at how they are different.
- Single origin coffees are simply coffees from a single farm—or sometimes a small lot on a single farm. Since they’re not blended with any other farm’s coffee, they make it easy to taste the origin farm and region’s unique characteristics.
- Blends are simply a mixture of complimentary coffees from different farms, regions, or even countries. Blending helps take the edge off any one coffee by pairing it with one or two others. This also can create unique flavour experience if done carefully.
There’s a lot of diversity among single origin coffees. Coffees from Peru taste different from coffees in Kenya. And even on a smaller scale, coffees from Northern Guatemala taste different from coffees from Southern Guatemala. Buying single origin coffees gives you the chance to enjoy coffee flavours down to the farm level.
Blends don’t give you as much flavour clarity when it comes to tasting individual farms or countries, but they do have their own advantages. The biggest is that they’re typically well-rounded and more approachable to coffee lovers who may not enjoy some of the more exotic single origins.
Coffee Growing Regions Of The World
We’ve already hinted at this, but different areas of the world grow some dramatically different coffee. While every coffee has that bit of classic ‘coffee’ flavour in the back, there’s a lot diversity that comes with the geographical origin of a bean.
This is due to a variety of factors, such as the soil composition, rainfall, altitude, UV-ray intensity, humidity, and even local insects.
For this section, we’ll be doing a lot of generalizing. There’s amazing diversity among these regions, but for time’s sake, we’ll only skim the surface.
Central / South America
The Americas received coffee plants via foreign colonists in the 16 and 1700’s, though not all at the same time. Coffee grows pretty well in the subtropical and tropical climates of this region of the world. From the highlands of Guatemala, to the Panama straight, to the upper Andes Mountains in Peru, coffee growing is a common occupation for locals.
Generally, coffee grown in Central and South America often has a crisp acidity and satisfying sweetness. In Guatemala, this often materializes a red apple acidity and sugary sweetness. In Ecuador, this may taste more like a crisp floral note and a honey-like sweetness.
Of course, there are always outliers. Brazil’s low altitude tends to produce coffees with a mellow acidity, gentle sweetness, and rounded chocolate and nutty flavours. Mexican coffees are often similar, featuring pleasant notes of earth and spice.
Africa And Arabia
The birthplace of coffee and coffee culture, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are among the most diverse growing regions in the world. This is largely due to the intense biodiversity of coffee varieties. Though other areas of the world were initially brought three or four coffee varieties, Ethiopia is home to not hundreds, but thousands of local varieties.
African coffees are often beloved for their intense fruity flavours. Ethiopian coffees especially are known for rich blueberry aromatics that provide a coffee experience like none other, though other fruits like apples, strawberries, and even peaches can be tasted in well-grown coffees.
In other Eastern African countries, like Kenya and Rwanda, coffees often have a sweet earthiness and spiciness to them, as well as crisp floral aromas. Burundi, though not producing much coffee currently, is known for growing coffee that has a ‘cola-like’ acidity and complexity.
To the West, countries like Sierra Leone and The Ivory Coast grow mainly robusta beans.
Asia And The Pacific
Asia’s coffee growing scene is pretty diverse as well, but that’s largely because it’s more spread out. Coffees from this area of the world can’t really be generalized because, well, Asia is the largest continent on the planet.
Indonesia was one of the first countries to be given coffee plants to grow by Dutch settlers in the late 1500’s. Coffee from the Sumatra and Java islands often have a sweet earthiness, spice notes, and woody notes (like pine or spruce). Other Pacific Regions & islands produce similar coffees, though on much smaller scales.
In India, most robusta beans are grown, though there’s a surprising rise of specialty-grade robustas coming out of the country. Vietnam, the world’s 2nd largest exporter of coffee, grows mostly robusta as well.
Buying coffee isn’t as simple as it used to be. There are options—many different types of options. You can get blends, you can get coffees from all over the world, and you can get beans roasted to a variety of levels.
We suggest trying a variety of coffees, paying attention to how they taste, and learning what you like and don’t like. Be mindful, taste carefully, and keep track of what pleases you and what doesn’t. And, at the very least, keep these things in mind:
- Specialty-grade beans are the highest quality beans in the world
- Always buy whole bean coffee and grind just before brewing
- Buy from sources that send you coffee roasted just days before
We hope this thorough guide has helped you process the many options you’ll come across in your search for the right coffee beans. Now it’s up to you to start tasting, exploring, and learning what you enjoy.
To take your first steps as a savvy coffee buyer, check out our coffee selection.