When buying a coffee it can be hard to know which one to choose. Faced with the array of choices on-line or even in a supermarket aisle, it can be a little overwhelming as a wall of coffee choices stares back at you! But if you know the key things to look for, it can make the dilemma much easier to deal with. Not all coffees are labelled the same but there are some key bits of information that a good coffee will have on the label.
UK food labelling law requires the producer to let you know what country the product is from, so this at least will be indicated somewhere on the label. A decent coffee will also let you know which particular region. Some will even go into details of which particular farm and maybe which particular mill the coffee was processed in. This might be considered information overload but if you are keen on a particular region this will be great information for you. You might have enjoyed a coffee previously from that region and this would be a good indicator of a similar coffee.
The ‘Roasted on Date’.
This is a really important information for a high quality coffee. Most supermarket coffees will not state this and you'll likely only get a best before date. This gives you precious little idea of when the coffee was actually roasted. Only a roasted on date lets you know just how fresh the coffee is. The fresher the better and coffee beans are best consumed within 6-8 weeks of roasting.
Altitude or Elevation.
You may not find this on all coffee labels but if it's there it's because the producer is aware of the importance of altitude. High quality coffees are typically grown from at least 1000 m above sea level. Higher altitude growing conditions can make 2 things occur:
- The more challenging conditions slows down the growing process creates denser and more complex coffee.
- The temperature cycling of cold nights followed by warm days that occurs at high altitudes generates complexities in the sugars developed in the coffee cherries.
So if the coffee states the altitude and it's above 1000m this can be a good sign. There are some exceptions (just to complicate things!). For instance Hawaiian Kona Coffee produces complex flavours at lower altitudes, but this is a coffee grown at more northern latitudes, which creates cooler conditions, that also contribute to slower growing conditions and complex coffees.
Tasting notes or ‘in the cup’ is an interpretation of the flavours imbued in the coffee. If you know you like a particular characteristic in your coffee, the tasting notes are a valuable resource. Whether you like chocolate and nutty flavours or prefer acid and fruit this is a good place to look for an indication of the characteristics of the coffee you'll be getting. Sometimes the roaster can get a bit carried away with the prose, and of course this is a subjective area. You may not concur with the interpretation of the person who wrote the cupping notes, but a decent coffee producer will try to give an honest appraisal of the coffee.
If you’re buying ground coffee it’s important to try to get coffee ground for your particular method of brewing. Faster methods such as Espresso or Moka Pots should be ground fine. Slower methods like cafetiere/french press or pour over methods should be ground more coarsely. Some packs will state what method the grind in the pack is best suited for. Sometimes supermarket packs will say ‘suitable for all coffee types’. This is misleading and will probably be a medium grind which will most likely suit a pour-over filter or aeropress, but will not be great for espresso or cafetiere.
There are 2 main species of coffee plant used in the coffee industry. The first is Aribica. High quality coffee is typically of the Aribica type. There are many sub-types of the Arabica bean that have been developed and hybridised over the years to suit different growing conditions and impart particular flavours. The second type is the Robusta. This is of lower taste quality and is used by some producers for one or more of the following reasons:
- It’s cheaper to farm producing greater yields at lower altitude.
- It has a higher caffeine content per gram. This imparts a bitter flavour to the coffee.
- It is more amenable to processing for the purpose of making instant coffees.
In short, try to find coffee with 100% Aribica beans. Needles to say at The Little Coffee Roastery we only use Aribica!
As you become more familiar with the language and detail of coffee labels, you’ll be able to make more informed choices and improve your chances of picking out a coffee you’ll enjoy. Hopefully you’ll move away from basing choices on cool label designs, funky names or whats on special offer that week, although I guess we’ve all done that at some point!