Coffee is excellent, and there are tons of options to choose from when buying it.
If you’re just beginning to explore the world of specialty coffee and you feel a bit lost, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to buy coffee like a true connoisseur.
Buy coffee beans at the coffee shop
Picking up beans from your favorite cafe is the best for a lot of reasons:
- You can taste it first
- A good barista can help you pick the right coffee
- They keep it fresh
- Social interaction (good and bad)
Buying coffee online from your roaster
If you live somewhere where you don’t have access to a great cafe, buying coffee directly from a roaster online is the next best way.
Roasters always have fresh beans. A lot of smaller roasters even roast to order a couple of times a week, so you know you know you’ll always end up with fresh beans.
Also, a good roaster can tell you a lot about the coffee you’re buying. If you have any interest in the origin, farming or processing style, or any other background info on your coffee, talking to your roaster is an enlightening experience.
Curated coffee subscriptions
It’s like Netflix for coffee. Sign up for one of the many subscription services available, and they’ll send you a new bag of coffee at regular intervals, so you always have fresh beans in the house.
Some of the better subscription services even offer tools to help you dial in your flavor preferences, which lets them select coffee specifically for your tastes.
Buying Coffee from Grocery stores
Chain supermarkets are by far the worst possible place to buy coffee. There is no possibility of getting fresh coffee from a supermarket shelf. The requirements for efficiency of space in big chains means you won’t get any information at all about the origin of your coffee, who roasted it, or any of the other fun stuff.
Buying coffee from a chain supermarket is a bad idea!
The only exception to the no-grocery-store-coffee rule might be independent specialty grocers.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a place that still has a real independent grocery, talk to the proprietor about their coffee offerings. You never know, they might secretly be a specialty coffee geek like yourself!
Buying coffee online from Amazon or other merchants
Buying coffee directly from your roaster is excellent, but most roasters don’t offer that sweet-sweet Prime shipping.
The most significant advantage of buying coffee from Amazon is also its biggest downside. Getting access to hundreds of different coffees is great if you know what you’re looking for. If you don’t know exactly what coffee you want, though, all that variety can be overwhelming.
Read on for a look at the most critical factors in choosing a coffee. Following these guidelines will help you make sense of all the options and ensure that you always end up with the best coffee possible.
Always Buy Whole Bean
Buying coffee in whole bean form is essential. If you don’t follow any of the other advice in this guide, buying whole beans will give your coffee game a considerable boost.
There are a few reasons that buying whole beans is better.
During the roasting process, oils form inside the coffee bean. These oils add body and texture to your coffee when it’s brewed.
Keeping your coffee whole until it’s time to use them will help keep the oils protected and locked inside the bean. If you grind the coffee ahead of time, those oils can be lost, and you might end up with a thin or watery cup of coffee.
Buying whole bean coffee also helps you judge the roast level. When coffee is roasted dark, the oils are driven to the surface. This creates a glossy sheen on the outside of the bean. If you buy ground coffee, the oils are mixed into the grounds making it harder to judge the roast level.
Oxygen is bad for coffee flavor.
When you grind the coffee, the oils and flavor compounds locked inside are suddenly exposed to oxygen.
When coffee oils and other compounds are oxidized, they can become rancid and produce off-flavors when the coffee is brewed. At the very least, heavily oxidized coffee can taste flat and uninteresting.
Volatile Aromatic Compounds
Once your coffee is ground, the volatile aromatic compounds that make up the most exciting flavors are released with in the first few minutes. This is good if the coffee is brewed immediately because those aromatics will end up in your cup as flavor.
If you grind coffee more than a few minutes before brewing, the volatile aromatics will escape into the air and be lost.
If you’ve ever had a cup of coffee that was uninteresting, flat, or tasted like cardboard, the coffee had likely been ground long before brewing.
You’ll need a good grinder
The one downside of buying coffee whole bean is you’ll need a good grinder. How to select a coffee grinder that’ll do the job is a whole other discussion, but as long as you look for a burr grinder instead of a whirly-blade grinder, you’ll be okay.
If you read much about coffee quality, you’ll probably notice that freshness comes up a lot. That’s because freshness is one of the most critical factors in determining coffee quality.
One of the most frequently asked questions about coffee quality is how long coffee stays fresh after it’s roasted. Unfortunately, proper research on this topic is a bit scarce. The best resource available to understand coffee freshness is the Specialty Coffee Association’s Coffee Freshness Handbook.
The science behind coffee freshness is big and fascinating, but the gist is that fresh coffee tastes good, and stale coffee doesn’t taste quite as good.
So, how do you know if coffee’s fresh before you buy it? There are a couple of things to look for.
Maybe this seems obvious, but when you buy coffee in a store or cafe, take a look at the bag and see if there’s a roasted-on date.
Most small and high-end roasting companies will stamp the date the coffee was roasted somewhere on the bag. If it was roasted within the last two weeks, you’re golden.
The best coffee bags have a one-way valve that allows gases to escape while preventing oxygen from entering (oxygen is the enemy of flavor in roasted coffee).
If you see a bag that’s got a one-way valve, it’s a signal that the roaster put at least minimal care into their coffee. Those valves are expensive, so lower-quality roasters will stale their coffee before bagging to avoid the need for the valve.
If you see a bag without a valve and it’s all puffed up like a balloon, that could be a good sign too. It means that the coffee went into the bag fresh before all the gases and volatile aromatics escaped.
Avoid Vacuum-Sealed Bricks
If the coffee is packaged without a one-way valve and it goes in the bag before all the good stuff escapes, the bag will puff up with CO2 and other gases. Sometimes the gas build-up is so intense that bags without valves will explode on the shelf or during shipping.
So, if freshly roasted and properly packaged coffee will puff up the bag, that should tell you something about those grocery store bricks from companies like Maxwell House and Chock Full o’ Nuts.
To vacuum-pack ground coffee, it has to be pre-staled before it ever goes in the package to keep that brick from puffing up. That means there’s no chance that you’ll get fresh coffee from a vac-packed brick.
Understand Where Your Coffee Comes From
Knowing where your coffee comes from won’t tell you exactly what it tastes like, but it can give you an idea of the general flavor characteristics you can expect.
Understanding what happens at coffee’s origin is relevant and interesting for other reasons, too.
Most people in coffee consuming countries have little or no idea of how coffee is grown, or who coffee farmers are. By arming yourself with only a little basic knowledge about farming and processing, you will be able to win any coffee conversation.
Here’s the information about origin and farming practices to look out for when you’re buying coffee.
Country of Origin
Coffee is grown around the world in the tropics and a few other places (notably California has just begun producing coffee). The various countries where it’s grown are divided up into a few different regions that are loosely associated with particular flavor characteristics:
- Africa is the home of coffee and boasts tens of thousands of different heirloom varieties in Ethiopia alone. Coffees from Africa are expected to have flavors of citrus, florality, and black or green tea.
- Central America has some of the most prized growing regions in the world, including Huehuetenango Guatemala, and Boquete Panama. From the spicy florality of Panama Geshas to the green apple and nuts of Huehuetenango, Central American coffees are usually thought to be clean, crisp, and light-bodied.
- South America produces a lot of coffee. Brazil is the largest producing country in the world, shipping over 7 billion pounds of beans each year. South American coffees generally present nutty, sweet, and chocolatey flavors.
- Asia is big and has a ton of different growing regions, all with their own flavor characteristics. When people talk about Asian coffee, though, they usually mean Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The coffees from these island nations tend to be earthy, funky, heavy-bodied, spicy and wild.
Farm or Co-op
The flavors associated with growing regions are only a very general rule of thumb. There are coffees fitting every different flavor profile from every growing region on the planet.
To pinpoint specific flavors based on location, you need to go beyond the country-level and talk about the particular micro-regions and farms where the coffee is grown.
In the Kona region of Hawaii, for example, there are over 800 farms within the 30-mile long strip that makes up the core of the region’s “coffee belt”. Each of these farms has the potential to produce radically different flavors based on farming techniques, soil composition, terrain, and countless other factors.
How Was it Processed?
The way the fruit is processed after picking and the method used for drying might have more impact on flavor than other steps that take place at the farm level.
Differences in processing can make a single coffee taste either fruity, spicy, chocolatey, or floral.
The best roasters will print the processing method on their packaging along with other information like roast level and country of origin.
Find a Good Roaster
All the farming knowledge and careful processing in the world won’t make your coffee taste good if the person who roasts it doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Roasting is a combination of art and science that takes lots of training and years of experience to master. The best roasters are a combination of engineer, sensory scientist, chef, world traveler, and artist. When you taste coffee that’s roasted by a top roaster, you will immediately know the difference.
There are a lot of people roasting these days, though, and not all of them are experts. How do you see through the marketing hype to find the best roasters?
The reputation of a roaster can tell you a lot. Start by asking around among your coffee drinking friends to see who they like. If that doesn’t get results, blogs and educational sites within the specialty coffee industry are an excellent resource for learning about the roasters to watch out for.
How do the Beans Look?
Reputation can only get you so far. Looking at the beans is important too. Learning a little about specific defects that can be caused by lousy roasting will help you immediately spot inferior coffees.
Some of the most common roasting defects you’ll encounter are:
- Scorching: Small patches of burned material on the sides of the bean that usually come from trying to pack too much coffee into the roasting machine.
- Tipping: Burned marks on the end of the bean that come from applying too much heat during the roasting process.
- Under-development: When a roaster tries to hit a light roast level, they sometimes go a bit too far. An underdeveloped coffee will often taste like vegetable broth, raw peanuts, or grass. Spotting an underdeveloped coffee bean takes some practice, but watch out for beans that are light-brown or tan, have tightly closed creases down the middle of the flat side, and have mottled dark and light spots on the curved side.
- Over-roasting: Everyone has a different preference for roast level, so it’s hard to pinpoint what the darkest dark roasted coffee should be. In general, if your fingers feel oily after you touch the bean, the coffee is likely going to taste like charcoal. If that’s your thing, then go for it. If you want a more vibrant and lively coffee, avoid the oily beans.
Taste is the Decider
Everything about roasting comes down to taste. There’s no one right way or wrong to roast coffee.
The only reliable way to know if you’re going to like a coffee is to taste it!
Buying the Best Coffee Means Buying Coffee You Like
Unless you have the chance to taste it first (like when you pick up beans from your local cafe), buying coffee that you like is often a matter of trial and error.
You can take some of the guesswork out by finding roasters you like and sticking with them. But even that isn’t a guarantee.
Coffee is a seasonal agricultural product, which means that even buying coffee grown on the same farm and roasted by the same roaster doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the same flavor from one season to the next.
The only way to know that you’ll like a particular coffee is to taste it. Fortunately for you, coffee is delicious, so that’s easy work.