Buying the best coffee, a Chief Coffee Judge’s Guide
Buying the best coffee
As a chief coffee judge I’m constantly asked “which is the best coffee to buy?” I always struggle to answer because coffee is so subjective. I know what I like and what constitutes a good coffee. But, this may not be the taste you expect. So, let’s move on into the world of coffee. We’ll delve into the factors that contribute to a coffees unique flavour identity. And finally know what’s the best coffee beans to buy.
The World of Coffee – Brief overview
Buying the best coffee isn’t as simple as it seems. It can be quite daunting with many brands now displaying endless technical jargon. Below you’ll find all you need to know to decipher the jargon and understand how to purchase the best coffee for you.
- Acidity – the pungent resonating texture.
- Character – the defining identity. Eg: fruity, acidic, earthy, chocolatey.
- Complexity – The result of great coffee. Combination of dimension, zest, sweetness, aroma & acidity.
- Altitude in masl – meters above sea level
- Origin – Country source where the coffee comes from.
- Processing – Processing of the raw (green) coffee beans performed at origin.
- Varietals – Belonging to a specific bean (seed) variety.
- Crema – The thick golden brown foam found in espresso coffees.
With just over 50 coffee producing countries worldwide buying the best coffee seems impossible. Each country produces excellent coffee with their unique flavour characteristics. For example, African coffees are renown for their bright zesty character. Whereas Brazilian coffees are enjoyed for their smooth round earthiness. I must say that although both these coffees are vastly different in flavour, they’re both good tasting coffees.
So, now you know why I struggle to answer people’s query regarding buying the best coffee.
Factors that contribute to each coffees characteristic
- High altitudes between 1,300 – 2,500 masl = aromatic, sweet, zest, acidity.
- Low altitudes 800-1,000 masl = earthy, bold, strong, neutral.
Coffee tends to prefer warmer climates. Hence, is predominantly grown between the tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This warmer band of latitudes is often referred to as the “coffee belt.” Amongst this belt there’s varying climatic factors. Such as, rainfall, altitude, soil composition and temperatures. All these contribute to each origins unique characteristics.
Unfavourable or inconsistent climatic conditions cause the plants to react for survival. Less fruit is developed and reserved energy is consumed. This adaptation will impact flavour quality but not it’s character. For instance, let’s say we’re blind tasting seven lots of Colombian coffee from various farms. They’ll all have the incredible nutty, brightness and sweet molasses characteristics, but in varying ways. Two may taste flatter (less lively), four will be really nice and one will be a stand out. That’s the one we want.
Altitude has the biggest effect on the coffee origins flavour. For example the higher the altitudes the sweeter and more zesty flavours. Such coffee zones include Africa, Central & South America. Whereas coffees grown at lower altitudes display heavy earthy flavours. For instance coffees from Brazil, Asia, India and to a lesser degree Indonesia.
So, now you can appreciate that the different environments have an impact on the overall flavour.
What’s the best coffee beans to buy, Arabica or Robusta ?
- Arabicas = Aromatics of fruit, nuts, spice. Diverse flavours between origins. Lively rich characters.
- Robusta = Heavy body, thick mouthfeel, strong, earthy aromas and quite bold neutral smooth flavours.
On top of the 50 plus origins we have two main coffee species traded throughout the world, arabica and robusta coffee. The flavours and appearance between the two species are quite contrasting.
The arabicas have an excellent aroma. They’re slightly acidic yet sweet in flavour as found in our Original “TOFFEE & FRUIT” blend.
These attributes are highly favourable and represent notes of berry-like fruit, nuts and caramel. The arabicas require a cooler climate, hence are grown at higher altitudes. You will find arabicas generally above 900 masl and up to 2000+ masl.
Robusta coffees are hardier and resilient, thus can grow at altitudes below 900 masl. Robustas tend to have a slightly astringent flavour but low acidity. You’ll find heavy bold and earthy flavours with almost double the caffeine content. A good example is our Special Italian “BOLD & EARTHY” blend. Musty, woody, earthy and peanut like aromas are common in robustas.
Both species are available in washed and natural processing. Look at them as far apart as red and green apples. Both are coffees, yet dissimilar in taste.
Are Robustas any Good?
Now for the coffee world’s most debatable question. Are robusta coffees any good? Many roasters will say yes and many will argue the point. Let’s just go back to the birthplace of espresso coffee – Italy. Up until early 2000 most espresso recipes roasted in Italy had percentages of robusta.
Even till today these recipes still exist. For obvious reasons such as smooth and low acidity. They make an excellent ‘crema’ and yes can taste chocolatey.
The interesting fact is that many people find coffees with a high acidity quite unpleasant. This may even be you. They’ll comment and say the coffee tastes bitter, or sour with milk. Where as more subdued or sweeter acidity tends to be more palatable. In saying that, many coffee lovers response towards coffees with a balanced acidity is “WOW” that’s a coffee. And as I stated earlier, coffee is very subjective.
So, buying the best coffee beans is starting to become personal.
Coffee passes through so many processes before it ends up in a cup. Hence there are many variables that can have an impact on the flavour. Bean varietals is one of them.
I’m touching on varietals because you’ll find them stated on many single origin packs. The minute differences between most varietals is incredibly difficult to taste or identify. So, don’t concern yourself too much about them. For this reason at Mocha Master Roasters we tend not to include them on the pack.
As in any horticulture varietals main purpose is to see which type best survives in a certain climate. Farmers are forever trying to improve quality and yields. Hence, the breeding of cultivars. However, the most common ones are Mundo Novo, Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai and Typica.
So, let’s move on to coffee processing.
Getting the Raw coffee ready for roasting. Firstly the removal of the sweet cherry pulp that nurtures to coffee beans (seeds). This happens on farms or estates that have the processing facilities.
It’s quite interesting because the varying processing methods do influence the final flavour. For example, if we processed two coffees from the same estate, washed one and sundried the other. They will differ in taste. The ‘Washed’ coffee will have a brighter acidity and crispness. Whereas the ‘Sundried’ coffee will taste more complex and sweeter. The two most common processes you’ll often see on a pack are ‘Washed’ and ‘Natural’. This let’s you know what flavours you should expect.
- Washed = clarity, lively, crisp acidity.
- Natural (sundried/unwashed) = complex, body, character, sweet.
The washed process highlights the acidity and gives the coffee a more fresh citric aroma.
The pulped beans are placed into controlled open fermentation tanks to remove the fruit pulp. Once the right amount of fermentation is achieved, the coffee is washed thoroughly and dried off.
The natural process adds more complexity, body, character and a sweetness to the coffee. As a result the coffee has more depth of flavour. These coffees blend really well in espresso blends. As you’ll find in our Smooth Espresso “MALT & CREAM” blend.
This process involves the whole cherry being sun dried on concrete patios or raised beds. As a result, the beans have extensive contact during the fermentation of the fruit sugars and proteins. So, you can expect a more complex fruity flavour.
Offshoots of these processes include pulped ‘Natural/’Semi-washed’ and ‘Honey’ processed. Which also involve removing the pulp prior to sun drying.
Most recent innovations are ‘Anaerobic Fermentation’ and ‘Carbonic Maceration.’ However, they’re still in experimental stages. They’re produced in small batches due to the infrastructure costs, time and risk. Overly sweetened fruit flavours are common due to prolonged fermentation achieved by using sealed tanks. Again very subjective views.
I know, you’re thinking too much jargon. Hang in there and don‘t worry. We’re getting there, and at the end you’ll know where, how and what’s the best coffee beans to buy.
- Single origin – a coffee sourced from a single coffee producing country.
- Coffee blend – a recipe with a combination of single origin coffees.
- Tasting notes – the flavour description of the coffee eg: Sweet, nutty & spicy.
The term referred to as “single origin” is simply a coffee from a particular coffee producing country. For example Brazilian, Colombian, Ethiopian etc. Each region has a distinctive character/flavour profile which we’ve grouped below:-
Three main flavour groups
Before you choose a coffee, it’s important to have an idea of what flavour(s) each respective region presents. So, we’ve simplified these great coffee flavours into three main categories:-
- Fruity, complex & wine-like flavours are generally found in African geographical regions.
- Nutty, sweet & lively flavours are exhibited in Central & south America regions.
- Earthy, chocolate & herbaceous flavours are found in Indian, Asian, Brazil and Indonesian origins.
I gather now you’re still thinking that’s all great but what’s the best coffee beans to buy? Ideally, choose what sounds interesting to you. Try a single origin. This will give you an indication of what great flavours to expect from coffees within that region. From there your curiosity will lead you into the blends arena.
Although you can enjoy single origins with or without milk and in any coffee maker. However, when adding milk they tend to lack complexity. So, ideally they’re better off enjoyed as black coffees. In saying that, there’s no reason you can’t indulge in single origins if you prefer milk with your coffee.
The skill behind a coffee brands identity. ‘Create something unique and do it consistently’. A master blender will add specific single origins and create a unique blend. This blend will have more dimension, depth and complexity than the individual origins.
So, when a coffee packet states, blend composition:- Colombian, Guatemalan and Brazilian coffees. You should conclude that this is quite a good coffee. It will will taste quite lively, sweet and nutty, as in our Maria’s Choice “RICH & NUTTY” blend.
Roast Development and Freshness
- Lighter roasts (higher acidity) are generally preferred in filter & plungers.
- Coffee made in stove tops & coffee machines is generally preferred using medium to darker roasts (lower acidity).
- Coffee tastes great in 14-21 days from the roasted date.
As we explained earlier the favourable arabica species have a high level of acidity. So, this doesn’t mean it’s a bitter or sour coffee. It’s actually quite the opposite. Properly roasted arabicas will have quite a sweet succulent flavour.
Keep in mind that a single origin say Guatemalan can have a totally different flavour and level of acidity between two individual coffee roasters. So, don’t just ride off a coffee because of a bad experience.
Finding the sweet spot
Here’s where the magic happens, the “ROAST.” A master roaster has the technical skill and palate to roast coffees into what we call the “sweet spot”. This is where the acidity within the coffee is transformed into a well balanced palatable coffee.
There’s a general rule that applies to lighter roasted coffees. That is that they’re more suited to filter and plunger style coffee makers. However, a lighter roast does display a higher level of acidity. Again, this is also very subjective. The opposite generalisation applies to espresso made coffees.
“Espresso a global phenomena. It’s the pressure sensitive extraction that amplifies the intensity of all the tasting elements found in this amazing art – ‘Espresso’.” Paul Mannassis
In espresso preparation, the coffee produced has a very strong concentrated body and flavour. This is why coffees with lower acidity are generally preferred. For example medium to dark roasted coffee. Again this can be subjective.
At Mocha Master Roasters we roast our coffee to the ‘sweet spot.’ This allows you to enjoy any blend or single origin in a stove top, plunger, filter, Aeropress or an espresso machine.
It’s important to buy freshly roasted coffee. Coffee packs will have a ‘roast date’ on them. This is the actual day the coffee was roasted. Although brewing fresh roasted coffee is important. We recommend a resting/degassing and maturing period of 14 days. There is nothing wrong with enjoying coffee straight from the roaster. Or even within a few days of roasting. The flavour is quite nice and delicate but tends to lack development.
By following our recommended resting period, you’ll enjoy a refined flavour with more clarity and complexity. This is also important in espresso preparation. Too fresh a coffee creates difficulties in the extraction.
How long does coffee last
Once coffee is ground, the surface area is greatly increased. Hence, increases the rate of oxidation. For this reason it’s important to invest in a good grinder. Grinding your coffee fresh makes a more richer and livelier coffee. It also helps improve aroma, flow and the ‘crema’ on your espressos.
So, once the pack has been opened, its best to grind the coffee fresh and consume it within a month. I personally really enjoy coffee three weeks after the roast date. The sweetness really shines and the coffee is well refined, evenly balanced and has good depth of flavour. For your curiosity, I have also thoroughly enjoyed coffee 2 months after the roast date.
Now that you have a better understanding of what’s the best coffee beans to buy, you need to know how to make each coffee. See our “How to make…….guides.”
So, to sum up and answer your question “What’s the best coffee beans to buy?’
As I mentioned earlier coffee is a very personal preference. By now you would understand that the answer to “What’s the best coffee beans to buy” is a process of elimination. Hence, I would recommend trying a single origin coffee that you find interesting. Try it in different coffee makers and also with and without milk. Be sure to use the correct grind setting for each coffee maker.
From there also try a contrasting flavour. For example, let’s say you start off with a lively Ethiopian berry like flavour. A contrast would be a smooth earthy Brazilian coffee. If you preferred the Brazilian, then try a Brazilian based blend such as our ‘MALT & CREAM’ Smooth Espresso. This will allow you to taste how the coffees dimension and flavours change with added origins.
Quick guide to buying the best coffee.
You’ll now be able to isolate what coffee flavours you prefer and make excellent coffee at home. You may even end up preferring one as a black coffee and another with milk. Or one as a plunger coffee and the another as a flat white. The beauty is that it’s endless and everchanging. And remember, it’s your coffee break, enjoy it the way you like it!
- Fruity, complex & wine-like flavours are generally found in African geographical regions. Arabicas above 1500 masl.
- Nutty, sweet & lively flavours are exhibited in Central & south America regions. Arabicas above 1200 masl.
- Chocolate, earthy & herbaceous flavours are found in Indian, Asian, Brazil and Indonesian. Arabicas & Robustas below 1200 masl.
Follow our 4 step easy guide to “What’s the best coffee beans to buy?”
Step 1. Choose a single origin that interests you.
Step 2. Brew it in a plunger, espresso and filter. Try it with and without milk.
Step 3. Compare a contrasting single origin as above.
Step 4. Try a blend consisting with one of the origins you like.