A Beginners Guide to Choosing Your Next Coffee Bag
As a relative newcomer to the specialty coffee scene, I’ve come across a vast amount of topics that are confusing, complex, and sometimes just unnecessarily complicated. This time last year, I was working in a totally different industry, and although coffee was in my life at the time, it wasn’t a huge part by any means. It’s only when I stumbled upon the Eight Ounce showroom and bought my first bag of specialty coffee, did I realize how much I was missing out on all these years. My lack of coffee knowledge really motivated me to soak in as much information as possible, hence leading me to this journey I am on today.
A constant part of the journey is an adventure to find my next great cup of coffee, which really forced me to address one of the big elephants in the room–how do I even choose my next bag? The words on each bag were seemingly a different language at some point, and felt like “coffee lingo” that I was not aware of. Additionally, there was a lack of consistency in how different roasters labelled their coffee bags, making things even more complicated. As a result, I turned to what the vast majority of coffee drinkers do, and I bought bags purely based on their listed flavour notes. All things aside, this is not wrong or a bad way to select a bag of coffee, and is actually very common, but it can sometimes lead you in the wrong direction. This approach got me through a few months of great coffees, but eventually I felt that I was missing a component of insight in my purchasing decision. It puzzled me when I would buy a few bags of coffee that were supposed to taste like blueberries but somehow tasted so different from each other. I was happy to expand my knowledge with every bag, and the more I learned from people in the industry, the more I started to see a pattern of certain specific qualities. Between general flavour notes, regions, and processes, the dots finally started to connect. As I narrowed down my preference for specific qualities, it became clear to me that baristas and coffee professionals alike were mainly looking at three specific categories when looking at a bag of coffee: Origin, Process, and Variety.
As a small disclaimer, I still consider myself new to the coffee scene, but from where I’ve found success in recommending coffee, these guidelines have kept me happy, and more importantly, it’s kept my recommendations consistent! There are plenty of books (James Hoffman’s World Atlas of Coffee, Coffee Collective’s Fundamentals of Excellent Coffee) that go further in-depth with each of the following qualities, but here is a compilation of my general understanding for each topic.
The origin of the coffee, simply put, is where the coffee was grown. With the vast majority of the coffees we carry at Eight Ounce being single origin, it was a little easier for me to distinguish between regions. The wine community has a familiar term that the coffee community uses called terroir. Terroir refers to the combination of factors such as soil conditions, climate, and terrain that are unique to the region, which ultimately affects the taste of the crop. Although not a definitive regional correlation, I’ve found Brazilian coffee, which is typically grown at lower altitudes (800-1200masl), to express more chocolatey and nutty flavours. I tend to recommend Brazilian coffees to people who are looking for an approachable coffee that they can enjoy with milk or cream. On the flip side, when I look at Ethiopian coffee, which is typically grown at a much higher altitude (1600-1900masl), you can normally expect notes of florals, black tea, and berries. In general, if you want smoother, chocolatey, and, nutty coffee, I would start looking for lower-altitude regions such as Mexico, Brazil, or Hawaii. If you are looking for a more adventurous, fruity, and vibrant cup, I recommend looking to higher-altitude regions such as Ethiopia, Colombia, Kenya, and maybe even Guatemala.
The way a coffee is processed is a massive factor in the actual flavour of the coffee. It is arguably the most decisive factor when looking at a new coffee to purchase. Processing just refers to how the coffee bean is removed from the cherry. One of the most confusing aspects of coffee was the vast amount of coffee processing methods. You could imagine my surprise when I saw bags of washed coffee beside carbonic macerated coffees beside a forest shade anaerobic coffee. I had no idea where to begin, and I felt overwhelmed just after reading a few bags, let alone the entire shelf. This led to me discovering the need to simplify the processing methods in order for me to categorise things internally. I recommend starting by dividing the different processing methods into 2 simple categories: comfortable and adventurous. From there you can start adding certain processes into the spectrum between the two.
The first 2 processes I discovered are Washed and Natural processes. With Washed coffees, the bean is “washed” with water post-harvest to remove the pulp and mucilage before being dried and shipped to roasters. This typically displays itself as a cleaner, more lively and aromatic cup. Most of the washed coffees I’ve tasted fall within the “comfortable” part of the spectrum. A Naturally processed coffee, on the other hand, refers to when the cherries are left intact and allowed to dry before the removal of the pulp. This causes fermentation to occur, which allows the bean to take on more of the flavour characteristics of the fruit. This displays itself as very fruit-forward coffee, that is sweet, with a bold mouthfeel. The majority of natural coffees I’ve tasted fall into the “adventurous” side of the spectrum.
Understanding these processes is a great start, and once you have become familiarised with how they taste, you can then start to experiment with other methods such as a Thermal Shock Anaerobic fermentation, as made famous by Diego Samuel Bermudez of Paraiso Farms in Colombia. With this processing you can find bags with very adventurous flavour notes (depending on the roastery) ranging from gummy bear, mango lassi, to even red Kool-Aid.
Personally, I find this to be the trickiest out of the three characteristics to understand without actually tasting the coffee firsthand. First and foremost, the variety of coffee is just a classification term that falls beneath a species. In other words, coffees such as Caturra, or SL-34 are just different varieties of the species Coffea Arabica. In a lot of instances, the variety’s characteristics are carried over despite their processing method, but these flavour notes are usually quite subtle.
The most recognizable variety, at least in the specialty coffee community, are Geishas or Geshas. These coffees are special as they are known to have an outstanding sweetness, tea-like aroma, and hints of tropical fruit, along with a huge price tag. One of the most commonly used, and one of the most approachable varieties I’ve seen throughout my coffee journey, is the Bourbon variety. It is one of the oldest varieties of coffee, starting in Yemen, brought to Bourbon Island (now La Réunion), then to Tanzania and Kenya, and eventually making its way across the ocean to Brazil. As mentioned earlier, there can be a wide spectrum of what a Bourbon can taste like depending on the origin and processing, but if you are looking for a solid, mostly approachable coffee, a bourbon is usually a safe choice.
I found this to be a great starting point for those just beginning their journey into coffee, or for people that just want to find the perfect holiday present for that special “coffee enthusiast” in their life. This was the extent of my knowledge for the longest time, but even after some self-reflection, this is still the basis of how I choose my coffee. The biggest advice I have for those looking to expand their understanding is to be curious and talk to your local barista or coffee professional. They will ultimately be the ones guiding you through the purchasing process, and can give some insights that can only come from someone who has tasted and worked with that coffee first hand. And finally, enjoy the process! What might be a bad cup of coffee to you, might be someone’s favourite coffee, and you would never know if you had never tried it in the first place. The fun part of this journey is taking your taste buds on an adventure, which will have its ups and downs, but at the end of the day, you cannot appreciate a sunny day, without some rainy ones.