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A Crash Course In How to Buy Coffee Beans

If you’ve ever taken the time to look at the colourful coffee bags your favorite cafe sells, you’ve probably been a bit overwhelmed by the small labels that are crammed with information about the roast level, flavour notes, origin, processes, and altitudes. I’m here to try and demystify coffee labels and teach you how to buy coffee beans that perfectly match your preferences!

Roast Level

There are generally 3 roast levels you’ll see on coffee bags: light, medium, or dark. This indicates how long beans spend through the roasting process, and has a significant impact on the flavour profile of your beans.

Light roasts are known for their delicate and subtle flavors. These beans are roasted for a shorter duration, allowing the true characteristics of the coffee’s origin to shine. Often described as having floral, fruity, or citrusy notes, light roasts preserve the acidity and brightness of the beans. A light roast might be perfect if you enjoy a crisp and nuanced cup with a gentle caffeine kick.

Medium roasts strike a balance between acidity and flavor development. With a medium roast, the beans go through a bit more roasting compared to light roasts, resulting in a slightly darker color and a more caramelized flavor profile. You can expect a cup that combines bright acidity with notes of chocolate, nuts, and a touch of sweetness.

Dark roasts are generally what people imagine when they think of coffee – think diners, and most typical coffee chains like Starbucks, Tim Hortons, etc. Dark roasts undergo an extended roasting process that provides a robust body and a pronounced smoky or charred taste. The natural characteristics of the beans are transformed into bittersweet and earthy flavors, often with notes of chocolate, caramel, and even hints of spice. If you prefer a strong and intense cup, with less acidity and a lingering aftertaste, a dark roast might be your preferred choice. You may also see different roast levels to dark roast, such as Vienna roast, French roast, and New Orleans roast, all of which indicate a different length of time spent in the roasting process.

Most specialty coffee roasters will primarily offer light roast coffees to show off the coffee’s unique origin’s characteristics, but they’ll often have some darker roast offerings as well. Here are some great light, medium, and dark roast offerings from Canadian coffee roasters.

Flavour Notes

Coffee flavour notes are mostly subjective associations with the flavour profile of a coffee bean. These are not added flavours, and there’s nothing wrong if you can’t explicitly taste the exact flavours printed on the bag! A coffee’s flavour profile is determined by every step of the process, from the origin, altitude, acid present in the coffee, soil-grown in, processing, roasting, and everything in between. They can, however, point you in the right direction in finding a coffee that suits your taste. 

Notes like chocolate, nuts, and caramel generally indicate a more balanced, smooth cup, while green apple, red berry, and grape indicate a brighter, more acidic, complex cup. For the keeners, perfectdailygrind.com has a great article on how acidity in coffee affects its flavour.

Origin

Origin is where the coffee is grown. Single-origin coffees are, as advertised, grown in a specific region so that you can experience the exact nuances that a particular region offers, while blends are usually a mix of different regions/origins with complementing profiles. While two coffees from the same origin can have vastly differing flavour profiles based on all the listed factors from seed to roast, but here are some common traits of popular coffee origins:

Ethiopia: Light and fruity
Brazil: Nutty and chocolatey
Colombia: Chocolate, caramel, citrus

For a more detailed overview of more origins and their associated flavour profiles, check out Pact Coffee and Cameron’s Coffee posts.

Process

Coffee processing refers to the steps taken to remove the coffee seed from the cherry, and there are generally four ways this is done: washed, natural, wet-hulled, and honey process. For a detailed look into how these processes work and how they’re different from each other, check out this blog by beanbeancoffee.com

For the spark notes:

  1. Washed/ Wet Process: In this method, the coffee cherries are depulped to remove the outer skin, and the beans are then fermented and washed to remove the remaining mucilage. This process results in a cleaner and brighter cup with higher acidity and a lighter body.
  2. Natural/ Dry Process: In the natural process, the whole coffee cherries are dried with the beans still inside. This allows the beans to absorb the natural sugars and flavors from the fruit, resulting in a coffee with a heavy body, intense sweetness, and often fruity or wine-like flavors.
  3. Honey/ Pulped Natural: The honey process involves removing the skin and some pulp from the coffee cherries, but leaving some of the fruit mucilage intact. The beans are then dried with the mucilage still attached. The honey process can result in a coffee with a balanced acidity, medium to full body, and flavors that range from sweet and fruity to caramel-like.
  4. Wet-hulled: In this process, the coffee cherries are pulped to remove the outer skin, but the beans are dried with the mucilage still intact. The parchment layer is removed when the beans are soft and pliable, resulting in characteristic flavors. Wet-hulled coffee typically exhibits earthy and herbal notes, with occasional undertones of spices. This processing method often leads to coffee with low acidity and a full-bodied nature.

Altitude

This generally isn’t a huge factor when deciding what coffee beans to buy, but it’s good to know its significance anyway.

Altitude is measured in MASL (Meters Above Sea Level), and is relevant for the simple reason that altitude affects the growth process of coffee plants, thereby affecting how the cherries develop and flavours they produce.

Coffees grown at high altitudes grow slower, giving them more time to develop. They, tend to produce brighter fruit-like, floral flavours as a result of their higher acidity content.

On the other hand, coffees grown at lower altitudes develop quicker and exhibit more balanced notes like chocolate and nuts.

Twochimpscoffee.com has a great post that dives deeper into how the altitude coffees are grown at affect their flavour profile.

Conclusion

Hopefully, I was able to help you decode coffee labels a little better so that you can get a step closer to finding your perfect cup. While there is so much more to learn about these factors, having a base understanding of these factors should set you up well for holding your own in the coffee aisle. 

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