The Best Coffee Beans: How To Buy Guide

What You Should Know Before You Buy

Coffee houses offer a wide range of delicious drinks. From lattes to cappuccinos, macchiatos to espresso shots, most of us can’t make these drinks at home. But sometimes, a fresh brewed pot of drip coffee at home is all we need in the morning. Most people have their own coffee makers at home, but the machine is only half the battle. The deep, rich flavor of coffee comes from the beans used for brewing.

Most people don’t put too much thought into buying coffee beans. It can be easy to settle on a 1-gallon tin of pre ground coffee, or to buy whatever roast is from Columbia at the supermarket. But there’s actually a lot to know about buying coffee beans. The flavor of different beans can vary greatly from blend to blend, so knowing about the coffee market will help you buy a roast that will make your morning cup of joe the best it can be.

There are a few areas to understand when it comes to buying coffee beans. Understanding the way they’re grown and processed, what region they’re from, and how they’re roasted are the basics of getting the best beans. Also make sure to consider where you’re getting them from, and what brewing method you plan on using.

Types of Coffee Beans

Just like any plant species, there are a couple of varieties of coffee beans. The coffee market primarily gravitates towards Robusta and Arabica beans, so make sure to pay attention to which one you’re picking up.

Robusta

robusta coffee beans

Robusta coffee makes up just under 40% of the world’s coffee production. It is primarily grown in the eastern hemisphere in regions like Vietnam and eastern Africa. This variant of coffee is prized for its durability, being able to thrive even in poor crop years. This makes it much cheaper than Arabica, associating it more with budget brands.

Robusta coffee is more bitter than Arabica, and has a more pungent flavor. Many people prefer the sharp taste, but others prefer a more forward body like with Arabica. The major claim to fame that Robusta has is that it has nearly double the caffeine. This makes it a go-to for high-volume needs like offices or parties.

Arabica

arabica coffee beans

Arabica beans are more popular, making up over 60% of the world’s coffee market. These beans are grown around the world, and require intensive care and processing. The plants are much more delicate, making the beans more expensive. This premium doesn’t go to waste, and the odds are your local coffee shop is using Arabica beans.

Because these beans are grown around the world in a variety of climates, there’s a much wider range of flavors in different blends. Arabica coffees tend to have a more pronounced “coffee” flavor, and are aromatic, making for an excellent addition to any morning routine. These beans are best for coffee aficionados who are more interested in flavor rather than the caffeine.

A Quick Overview of The Coffee Industry

The coffee market spans the entire globe, with dozens of different methods for farming, processing, and distributing beans. While some of this information be tough to find for each blend you purchase, many local roasters will gladly tell you how their coffee was produced. Each of these steps has a distinct effect on the flavor of the bean, so keep that in mind when buying them.

The history

Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia in the 11th century, and was thought to have medicinal properties. For the next few hundred years, coffee spread through land trade routes. Once it reached Europe, demand skyrocketed, and the predecessor to the modern coffee industry was born. By the mid 1600s, there were plantations around the world with complex distribution networks transporting beans to homes and coffee houses in Europe and the Americas.

Coffee houses have been around for centuries, and people have been home brewing for just as long. But in the mid-20th century, espresso and drip-coffee machines created today’s coffee market. Now the coffee market is heavily industrialized, with major farms putting beans on supermarket shelves and in coffee houses.

Coffee farming

coffee farming

Coffee is a tough bean to farm. While it’s possible to get beans from massive plantations, most of the beans worth buying come from smaller farmers and families. Coffee plants will start producing berries after a few years, which is when the plant is harvested. Depending on the quality of the farmer, these berries will either be stripped off en masse, or will be selectively picked depending on the quality of the berry.

Processing

Once the berries are picked, they have to be processed, and the method used affects the flavor quite a bit. Larger farms will use the washed method, where the beans are pulped and fermented for a day, and then washed with fresh water. They are then set to dry for up to 90 days, resulting in that classic coffee flavor.

Traditional coffee beans will be dried inside of the fruit. Then they are hand pulped to remove the dried berry skin, and then sent off to be roasted. This processing method will create a much more complex and fruity flavor since the bean dried out inside of the berry.

Roasting

coffee roasting

The final step is to roast the beans. This is where the “coffee” flavor comes from. During the roasting process, the beans will pop twice. If the roaster wants a light roast, they’ll pull the beans out after the first pop. To get a dark roast, the beans must be roasted until after the second pop. A medium roast will be sometime between these two pops, while an extra dark will be roasted well after the second pop.

Distribution

Once the beans are processed, they have to be taken to the roaster. This actually impacts the flavor, since transportation time and conditions can vary. If you’re buying more premium coffee, it was likely flown in from the farm to the roaster, making it as fresh as possible. Sometimes, it’s driven by truck if there’s a land route, which can cause the coffee to age, adding a bit of complexity to the flavor.

Most coffee is transported via cargo ship. This ages the coffee quite a bit, adding to the classic coffee flavor. In fact, some roasters age their coffee in wooden barrels to get a rich, winery flavor out of their beans. In the early days of coffee, all beans were aged, since it took months to transfer them from farm to roaster.

Which Coffee Beans Are The Best

Of course, everyone will have their own answer as to what the best coffee beans are. But understanding how each variable affects the flavor of the beans will let you pick your perfect blend.

Farming conditions

The way a coffee beans was farmed and processed will change the flavor. Popular coffee regions like Columbia and Indonesia have a lot of volcanic soil, which adds depth and body to the flavor. The humidity and temperature will greatly change things, with places like Costa Rica having a slightly lower average annual temperature than somewhere like Ethiopia.

Regions

Besides the roast, the region where the coffee was grown will have the biggest impact on flavor. Some regions have such a distinct profile that they become a selling point, like Kona coffee or a Guatemala blend.

The Americas

Coffees grown in the western hemisphere typically have a bright, citrusy flavor with a lingering acidic finish. Coffee from regions like Columbia and Hawaii are incredibly popular, and for good reason. The humid, hot climate of the caribbean and South American biomes are perfect for coffee plants. These conditions set up the beans to have a full, high quality flavor, with mostly Arabica beans coming from these regions.

Africa

African coffees tend to be earthy with floral overtones. Ethiopian coffees especially have a brightness to the body and a fruity finish that makes these coffees highly coveted. Robusta beans primarily come from the eastern hemisphere, and so share the African continent with Arabica beans. African coffee is still grown in tropical regions, but they’re typically hotter, and not quite as humid, adding to the earthy flavors.

Indonesia

Indonesia was once so synonymous with coffees that we still call it “java,” after the island. These coffees deliver that classic “coffee” flavor. They are smooth, bold, dark, and well rounded, with a mild finish. Indonesia has an incredibly humid climate, with volcanic soils that make give these beans there powerful flavor. You can’t go wrong picking up a Sumatra or Java blend at the store.

Roasts

dark medium light roast

At the end of the day, the roast is what makes coffee taste like coffee. Once the beans have been picked out, it’s up to the roaster to transform the dried seed into a flavorful, evenly toasted coffee bean. This is where preference really kicks in, since each roast has a completely different experience.

Dark

Dark roast is the most popular way to have coffee in America. This roast actually caramelizes the sugars inside the coffee bean, giving it that burnt, toasty, decadent flavor. This style coffee brings out the darker tones of the beans, and works best with Indonesian and African coffees, though many American coffees are excellent when roasted dark. One thing to keep in mind is that the roasting process removes caffeine, so dark roasts have very little caffeine compared to light or medium roasts.

Medium

Medium roast is an all-around crowd pleaser. It’s approachable, mellow flavor makes it perfect for anyone, regardless of their roast preferences. It has just the right kick of caffeine, and it’s flavor balances the deeper and fruitier flavors of the blend. Any bean can be enjoyed at a medium roast, so unless you particularly want a dark or light roast, you’re safe going with a medium.

Light

Light roasts have become extremely popular over the past few decades. This style of coffee emphasizes the natural fruity flavor of the coffee berry. A skilled roaster will create a light roast that pops with citrus, floral, and fruit overtones. Light roasts pack a punch with caffeine, and are excellent with American and some African coffees. Be careful though, since a poorly made light roast will taste like watered down dark roast.

Is Single Origin Better Than a Blend?

Most of the coffee we buy is a blend. All that means is that different beans from different regions are mixed together. This allows coffee makers to finely craft each blend to have a complex flavor profile. The citrusy overtones of a Costa Rica bean may perfectly balance with the chocolatey flavor of this year’s crop from Sumatra. When it comes to blends, you really need to try the roast to know if it’s right for you.

Single origin just means that the beans are all from the same place. These flavor profiles are simpler, more consistent, and finer. Because in a blend you run the risk of impurities, single origin roasts might be the right choice for you. Plus, it tastes the same every time, since there’s only one bean affecting the flavor.

Should I Buy Coffee Beans Whole or Ground

Nothing beats a cup of fresh brewed coffee from beans that were roasted last week. Freshness is essential in making a good cup of joe, but it can be tough to go through a pound of beans before they start to turn. And of course, getting whole beans means you have to have a good quality coffee grinder to prepare your beans.

Coffee stays potent for months, but it begins to sharply lose flavor after a month if its been ground. By keeping your coffee whole bean, you can preserve your coffee for longer, and enjoy a fresher cup every time you grind.

If you do buy your beans pre-ground, pay attention to the expiration date and the packaging. If it’s vacuum sealed, you have more time to enjoy your coffee before it starts to go bad. Paper bags won’t keep your coffee good for long, so if you do get it in a paper bag, make sure to buy smaller amounts.

To preserve your coffee as long as possible, make sure to keep it in an airtight container at room temperature. Some people freeze their coffee, but this actually changes the flavor of the coffee, so don’t do it. Like with any perishable good, the best way to ensure the freshness of your coffee is to use it within a few weeks.

Where To Buy Coffee Beans

Now that you know how coffee beans are made and which beans to buy, you can begin to look at where you should get them. Traditionally, you’ve had to rely on your local supermarket or coffee shop to buy beans, but online shopping has changed the market. Of course, there are pros and cons to each one, so weigh the options carefully.

In stores

buy beans in coffee shop

When buying in stores, you’re able to easily check for defects, expiration dates, and you can even smell the beans. Supermarkets will have a very standard, but consistent, selection, while smaller coffee stores can offer higher quality beans. Of course, with a coffee house, you actually get to taste the coffee before you purchase it, which is the most important part of buying coffee beans. Plus, you get a chance to support your local coffee industry.

Online

With the online shopping comes access to beans from around the world. If your friend from Boston raves about a local roaster, you have the opportunity to buy it. If you miss the beans from a store in your hometown, you can still get ahold of that without having to visit home.

The major drawback, of course, is that you have to sacrifice freshness. When you’re buying local, there’s a good chance that those beans are only a few weeks old, while shipping can take up to a few weeks.

Subscriptions

Some services actually allow you to subscribe to receive coffee beans. Depending on the service, you can receive them weekly, or less frequently, and you can get the same or different beans sent to you. This is a fun way to expand your palate, try new things, and explore what coffees you like. Most of these services are online, so look up more about what’s offered to find out if it’s right for you.

Which Beans Work For Which Brew Method

Another important thing to keep in mind when buying beans is how you plan on making your coffee. Not only does each brewing method require a different machine and grind size, but can also pair well with different beans.

Press pot

french press

Press pots, or French presses, are the simplest method for brewing coffee. Coffee beans are ground coarsely and then soaked in boiling water. Once they’re done steeping, they are then strained.

This method of coffee brewing really picks up on the earthy, muddy flavors of coffee. Because of this, dark roasts, Indonesian, and African coffees are best. Of course, many people like the acidic punch of a light roast or American coffee, so a french press might work for balancing that lighter flavor.

Drip coffee

drip coffee

Drip coffee is the most popular brewing method in America. Everyone has at least one coffee machine at home, and beans are ground medium-course by default in big stores. Drip coffee preserves each flavor profile of a coffee, including the darker body and the acidic overtones, making it perfect for most beans.

Coffee from any region works with a drip machine, while dark and medium roasts brew the best. Light roasts don’t always work with drip machines, since the water doesn’t have enough time to pull out the citrusy, fruitier flavors that make light roast so good.

Pour over

pour over coffee

Pour over rigs are becoming more and more popular. These setups are similar to drip coffee, but are hand poured over a cone filter. Because the beans are set in a deeper filter, the water has more time to react. Pour over works best with medium-fine ground coffee.

Nearly every roast and region of coffee works with a pour over system, so you can’t go wrong with any coffee bean purchase if this is your go-to. However, light roasts work especially well with pour over brewing. Because there’s more contact time with the water, and because the beans are more finely ground, this brew method really highlights the fruity, bright flavors found in light roast.

Espresso

cup of espresso

Whenever you buy a latte at a coffee shop, you’re having espresso. This rich, potent coffee has a resilient, robust flavor that’s more about the body of the coffee rather than the overtones. Espresso beans are finely ground, pressed down, and have hot water pressed through them. This causes gives espresso a unique flavor profile, if you have a home machine.

Because espresso has such a forward flavor, medium roasts aren’t ideal. While you can get a nuttiness out of a medium-roast espresso shot, you’re better off using a dark or light roast. And because of its versatility, any region’s beans should work for espresso. A dark Indonesian espresso shot will have a rich, bold, powerful presence, while a light African espresso will be brilliant, fruity, and bright.

Making An Informed Purchase

Now that you’re equipped with everything you need to know about coffee beans, you’re ready to make an informed purchase. Not all of this information will be available to you about each bean you want to buy, but you should be able to get a good idea of how each bean is processed, where it’s from, and what it’ll taste like.

Explore all of your options, whether it’s a supermarket chain, online retail, or your favorite local coffee shop. Don’t be afraid to explore and experiment, and definitely don’t be afraid to ask your barista for their opinion. Keeping all this in mind will set you up for purchasing the best beans for what you want.

Coffee drinking is such an enjoyable part of anyone’s day, so take the time to maximize the rewards. Finding the perfect beans for your preferred brew method will improve your coffee game without any more effort.

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