How to Choose Your Coffee Beans
With so many coffees to choose from, understanding the characteristics of different types of coffee will immediately help you decipher what the roaster has put on the pack and by following this guide, you will know what to expect just by looking at the differences between bags of coffee.
We will look at the types of species available, where they are grown, how they are dried out and processed, all the way to how they are roasted and brewed at the very end, all of which has a different impact on how the coffee will taste, the limitless possibilities and variations of making great coffee at home makes for a thoroughly enjoyable rabbit hole.
What types of coffee beans are there?
There are many different varieties of coffee beans, but the entire coffee industry essentially grows from two different species of coffee.
Arabica - The type of coffee we will 95% of the time be exploring and tasting will come from the Arabica species, which has a more delicate flavour, is harder to grow and more inclined to take on the flavours of the surrounding environment, Arabica coffee beans tends to provide more variety and complexity in their taste, making them more interesting for the budding barista.
Robusta - These beans that are used for mass production also happen to be much easier to grow, use less waster and will taste consistently the same, although there are some growers out there doing interesting things with Robusta varieties, these are reserved more for the mass grown, freeze dried varieties you will find pre-canned at the supermarket.
Blends - You will find many coffee blends the provide the subtle complexities of arabica, with a desired bitterness and fuller mouth feel of Robusta, is becoming more common.
Eugenoioides Coffee - An experimental and highly specialised variety of beans native to East Africa, low yielding and non-traditional taste mean this is very expensive and difficult to get hold of.
Where is the coffee grown? And how does it affect taste?
When you see the country of origin of the coffee you are choosing, that will give you some pretty good hints to what the coffee is going to taste like when you come to drinking it. There are several regions that make specialty grade coffee and different regions will have a fairly consistent over arching tasting notes that can be described as the following;
South America - These are your Brazilians, Columbians Peruvians that create really accessible, perfect for espresso coffee beans. You will usually find they have subtle tasting notes, and a more subtly earthy and caramel taste, an accessible acidity (depending on the processing technique) and are some of the most popular varieties from our shop. These are usually grown at high altitude and can take on hints of surrounding fauna making it a near never ending search for great espresso from this region.
Central America - Guatemala, and Ecuador generally create a more subtle an gentle tasting profile than those found slightly more southern. These are usually great for that light taste and sometimes more suited to a filter coffee than in a relatively high pressure espresso machine. These generally have a more nutty and fruity taste.
Asia - Countries like Vietnam and Thailand have always had a very strong coffee culture but are only recently starting to become a key exporter of specialty beans, where traditionally the mass produced Robusta has given countries in Asia a bad reputation, but the culture there is strong and artisan growers are fighting this outdated perception. Growers are using high quality Robusta coffee beans varieties and if you like the full body and bitterness of coffee then perhaps trying a Vietnamese coffee might be an idea with it's more earthy tasting notes.
Africa - Another up-and-comer in the world of coffee, the conditions in some African countries are absolutely perfect for providing a richer, fruitier and more floral than any of the other locations, if you haven't ever tasted a filter or pour-over coffee from Ethiopa, you will be instantly surprised by the blueberry tones in the taste.
How does the way the beans are harvested and processed affect the taste?
Harvesting the cherries can be done either by hand through selective picking or, as you can imagine in this industrialised world, via heavy machinery stripping the whole tree. As you know, if you've grown pretty much anything, fruits of trees grow and ripen at different times, so every specialty coffee you'll find will be hand picked to ensure only the cherries that are ready will be selected.
The coffee bean is actually grown from a plant that produces cherries, and the coffee bean is the seed that comes from the inside of that cherry. These cherries are much like you'd expect, a mostly vibrant red skin called a parchment with a soft mucilage layer, the two seeds that come from a single cherry need to be separated from this cherry, and the method in which this is achieved can provide a variety of different effects on the final taste and come under the following three categories;
Washed (Wet processed) - When the cherries are harvested they are washed to remove any excess material, a pulping machine is then used to remove the seeds from the cherries, where they will be placed in a fermentation tank. The excess pulp will then be washed off again, and the beans transferred to a silo for the remainder of the drying process. This process will give a coffee a much consistently cleaner taste and is the prominent method in areas with an abundance of water due to how much water it takes to process the beans.
Semi washed (Honeyed or Hybrid processed) - This method takes the best of both worlds and can combine the use of pulping machines with providing the interesting flavours by letting the seeds ferment in the part removed pulp of the cherries.
Natural (Dry processed) - The natural process of drying coffee cherries is the traditional method where the cherries will be laid out and dried using the natural climate, this takes longer and is more labour intensive as the cherries require periodically turning. This is a far more environmentally friendly method and as the fermentation happens whilst the seed is still in the cherry, this is how you can get some bold and fruity flavours.
Almost all specialty coffee will detail how the coffee beans were processed in order to further inform the drinker how the coffee may taste.
How do different roast profiles affect the taste of my coffee?
These next few variables that can affect coffee taste are away from the farm and usually in the country where you will be drinking the end product, (if it's not, find a more local roaster to save them travel miles where possible), here the roastery will have their methods and recipes to stick to based on the type of roaster they have and all the variables mentioned above to decide, after a few QC checks, to finally roast the beans. Beans don't take a long time to roast, usually between 10 and 15 minutes depending on a number of variables, so the timing is everything.
The artisanal process of roasting coffee beans
Roast profiles are then down to the roaster and the task is then his or hers to bring the very best of the beans out, the roaster will be finely tuned into the smells that caramelising the coffee beans produces and will be able to adjust accordingly. It really is an art and we'll have more to say about that in the future, the techniques for producing coffee are much less guarded with transparency and inclusion encouraged. The secret of great coffee is often the difference of the skillset of the roaster and the sourcing of quality coffee beans.
Where do you Buy the Best Coffee Beans
The best coffee comes from the people that love coffee, the people that love coffee are the hundreds of independent roasters in the UK, there are many to choose from, but if you have a coffee shop that you know makes great coffees, ask them what coffee beans they are using, some may even roast their own beans, many will use a roaster.
An independent coffee roaster will use high quality beans, have incredible knowledge and expertise and most importantly, will roast their coffee beans fresh to order. Find a local roaster that ticks these boxes and get tasting. Most local roasters will have websites that you can order from and you will still be getting the same high quality and fresh coffee beans as though you went to their coffee shop. Try to buy from a website that is the roaster, some companies will re-sell other brands of coffee, and the issue here, is freshness.
There are a number of coffee subscriptions that will send you a coffee of the month, these will sample some of the best roasters around the country and send you a subscription straight to your door. Many will have a few questions for you to answer so that they can send you coffees that are suited to your tastes.
Where should you not buy beans from:
If we're aiming for freshness, then the places to avoid buying them from are the supermarkets, many wholesale retailers (Bookers and the like) and of course, Amazon. Some supermarkets are getting better and companies like Union Coffee Roasters that now supply Sainsburys. But even then, they are treated to prolong shelf life.
How to Choose The Best Whole Bean Coffee
Now you know where the best beans come from and where to find them; now you can learn between all the different options that are available to you.
There are a couple questions you need to ask yourself in the search for coffee beans, knowing the answer to these questions will help narrow down your search a great deal.
What is your brew method?
The first question is almost entirely dependent on what equipment you already have, if you don't have any equipment at all and you are just starting out then check out our guide on how to make great espresso at home. There are some cheap and cheerful ways to get into the world of espresso, or with a bit of investment and practice, you can be making great quality coffee at home
Practice will make perfect whatever your brewing process, and learning what beans will match will take time, but here are some good starting points to match coffee beans up with the equipment you have.
Choosing the coffee beans that are suited to your brew method is the best way to ensure you are going to have a consistently great coffee. But depending on your tastes there are several other considerations to make regarding your bean selection.
What flavours are you looking for?
You might not know this yet, but broadly speaking you can expect that beans from different countries have similar tasting profiles, so knowing whether you want a dark Italian style roast, or a lighter Columbian will dictate where you start. If you are brewing an espresso or using a French press you can always start in the middle with a medium roast and see whether you want it darker or lighter.
But if you have certain flavour preferences, then these are some great starting points:
Other Considerations and questions to answer
There are any other number of different circumstances that might change the way you choose your coffee beans, there might be dietary requirements, equipment limitations or nootropic enhancements that may interest you that little bit more.