Odds are it’s been a while since the last time you saw the break room coffee machine, or even ordered a cup from that barista who’s really nice, but whose name you can never quite remember. These days, it’s your home coffee set-up that’s been getting all the action, and you may have even begun wondering how to step up your brew game. But before you run off to spend $4,000 on a new machine, or take classes to become a Q Grader, there’s a much more basic first step to take: Choosing the right beans. At the end of the day, the single most important element for brewing an excellent cup of coffee is, well, the coffee itself.
To help, we’ve put together a guide covering the three basic elements to consider when choosing beans. We asked Jose Lepe, Director of Sourcing for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco, to assist in breaking things down.
If nothing else, be sure you’re buying fresh coffee. Just like you wouldn’t buy month-old orange juice, or eggs past their expiration date, old coffee beans mean a stale brew. “The first thing I’ll do is flip over a bag that looks interesting, and see when it was roasted,” Lepe explains. Whether you’re buying coffee at Target or at a cafe, most bags will list their roast date either on the bottom or back. Try to find beans roasted within the week, but up to three weeks is still fresh. Avoid anything roasted over a month ago as it’s lost most of its flavor, and stick to whole beans rather than pre-ground. According to Lepe, pre-ground coffee will taste flatter because, once the coffee is ground, it begins to lose its aromatic compounds quickly.
If you’re a Starbucks or Dunkin regular, then you’re familiar with darker roasts like French and Vienna. These tend to mask a bean’s natural flavors (especially its brighter notes) for more burnt and bittersweet ones, yet it gives the coffee more body. “Once [you] break out of the Pete’s or Starbucks realm, everything’s gonna be a lot lighter roasted than how those companies prepare their coffee,” Lepe says. Most specialty coffee roasters will stick to a medium or medium-dark roast that highlights the bean’s unique characteristics, and a true light roast will showcase the full flavor profile of a bean but have a thin body.
Just like growing region and terroir dictate so much of a wine’s flavor profile, where your coffee was grown and whether it’s a blend or single-origin will decide so much of how the final cup will taste. Of course, coffee being the complex beast that it is, there are plenty of nuances here from variations within regions (even within a single farm!), to how the beans are processed (dry or washed). As a general overview, however, see below for the main regions of coffee production, their flavor profiles, and what beans to try from each area.
“These are going to be more simple and sweet,” Lepe begins. Coffee from this region of the world may not overwhelm you with complex, fruity notes, but could have some light nutty or even marzipan flavors—think a heavily-toasted piece of bread, or a square of milk chocolate.
Colombian beans are traditionally rich in chocolate and fruit notes. Peruvian and Ecuadorian beans, while less common, resemble Colombia’s juicy, complex flavors. If you like chocolate-covered blueberries, then this flavor profile is for you.
Because Brazil accounts for more than 36% of the world’s coffee production, the variations within it can be large. However, according to Lepe, Brazilian coffee is usually soft, sweet, and lightly acidic (think of a smooth white wine). If you take your coffee black, this may be a good option as the subtler flavors will be able to shine.
This includes coffees from Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. These coffees tend to be “absolute fruit bombs,” says Lepe, with juicy, bold notes of stone fruit, berries, and persimmons among others. Think of a cup of coffee with a plate of fresh cherries or blueberries.
“For people who really like coffee and want something a little bit more unique, I would almost always say drink Ethiopian coffee,” Lepe states. The flavor notes from this region are intensely floral and acidic (think citrus). If you like pale ales or earl grey tea, Ethiopian coffee may be right up your alley.
Indonesia and Papua New Guinea
Coffee from this region is known for funkier flavors like tobacco and bacon courtesy of how the beans are processed. Fans of semi-sweet chocolate and chocolate-covered almonds may enjoy coffee from this region. We recommend Revel’s Sumatra Pantan Musara and Uncommon Coffee Roasters’s Sumatra
Single Origin Versus Blends
Single-origin, as the name would suggest, means coffee from a single location. Blends, on the other hand, mix beans from multiple countries and regions—say a simple, sweet Guatemalan bean as a base, with a more bright and floral Ethiopian bean on top to round things out and add dimension.
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