How to choose high quality coffee beans is a great question to ask, and in my opinion, not enough people ask it. So good on ya for being one of the relatively few people to ask this question.
Pondering the question how to choose high quality coffee beans, shows that you understand that one of the keys to better cup quality, is better quality coffee beans, and while this may seem obvious, it doesn't always appear to be.
I know from exchanges with customers and readers, that many people don't consider the quality of the coffee beans as the most important factor in increasing their cup quality.
I've heard from people who have gone through a number of different brewing methods and have invested lots of money but still just can't get a cup of coffee they're completely happy with, and when I've asked them what coffee they're using, they've told me they've been using the same coffee from the start, and they've changed just about everything but the coffee beans.
Anyway, clearly this isn't you, you're reading this post about choosing high quality coffee beans, so you're on the right track :-).
This isn't to say, of course, that gear isn't important - or, maybe more specifically, using the right gear for the right beans, but more on that a bit later on in this article.
What are good quality coffee beans?
When we say good quality coffee beans, what we really mean is coffee beans that we're going to get a great cup of coffee from. Well, I hope that's what most of us are looking for, if not then it seems a bit of a pointless quest.
If someone told you that there was a certain coffee bean which was factually the very best quality coffee bean on the planet, but it happened to taste like vomit, would you buy it?
I don't think you would, so I do think most people will agree that what they mean by quality coffee beans, is coffee beans that will result in amazing tasting coffee.
So now that we've established what the goal actually is here, to find coffee beans that will give us a cup of coffee that we find really enjoyable, let's have a look at the various elements that we need to consider if we're to succeed in this noble quest:
The first thing to keep in mind is that we're all individuals, and none of us have exactly the same palate. I love green olives, I don't mind black olives, I love dark chocolate, I love red wine, I don't like white wine, I love marzipan, I love Marmite.
I'll bet that even with this small list of likes and dislikes, you differ on some of them?
That's simply because we all have different palates, and our palates don't remain the same all our lives, either, they change as we go along, I remember as a kid I couldn't stand olives or dark chocolate.
So the first thing we need to understand is that we have a specific palate, so there will be some coffees we like more than others, and this isn't necessarily going to be same as me, or someone else reading this article, so just because one person thinks a particular coffee bean is fantastic, doesn't mean you will.
The great news is there is such a huge variety of flavour profiles to be enjoyed from various different coffee beans, thanks to the different coffee varietals, different origins, different processing methods, different roast profiles and different blends, you'll be able to keep trying different coffee beans and slowly building an idea of what you like and what you don't like, and over time you'll start to see a pattern emerging which you can use to seek out other coffee beans that you like.
For example you may find that you like low acidity coffees, or that you generally prefer washed process coffees to natural processed, or vice versa, and you might find that there's something about coffee beans from a particular origin that you particularly enjoy.
This does take time, but it doesn't exactly take effort ;-), you'll just have to drink lots and lots of coffee, what a hardship ;-).
Another thing to keep in mind, is that different coffee beans react differently depending on how they're brewed.
I'm not talking about coffee beans being specific for a particular brew method, what I'm talking about is coffee beans being compatible with the specific equipment being used, and this is mainly when it comes to the more entry level espresso machines.
When it comes to espresso, darker roasts profiles have been traditionally used, and blends have been very popular, including blends of Arabica and Robusta.
As the third wave of coffee has progressed, more and more people have started working with lighter roasted coffee beans, and many roasters these days do what's known as "omni roasting" meaning that they don't categorize roast profile to a particular brew method.
This is fine, but when people who're new to home espresso come along, it's very common for them to end up using lighter roasted beans for espresso, without fully understanding that what they're actually trying to do (get good extraction with a lighter roasted coffee bean) is really quite a tall order.
This can lead to frustration, with coffee lovers blaming their skills, the beans or their equipment for the fact that all they can get from the coffee they're working with is poor tasting (often sour tasting) espresso, when all that's actually happening is that they're using a bean too light for their equipment to handle.
If you're using an integrated grinder machine such as one of the Sage Barista range, or something like the DeLonghi La Specialista, or Breville Barista Max - or an entry level espresso machine and grinder set up, and especially if you're using a bean to cup coffee machine, then keep in mind that if you try to use anything lighter than what I'd refer to as medium dark, you're likely to struggle to fully extract it, and as a result you'll probably experience poor quality shots.
This doesn't mean the coffee beans themselves aren't good quality, it just means they're not compatible with your setup.
It takes fine, precise grinding to properly extract a lighter roast, and it tends to take a higher brew temperature, too. Bean to cup coffee machines don't usually have the grinding precision or the control over brew temperature that you'd need to get decent results, neither do integrated grinder espresso machines and many more entry level setups.
So just keep in mind that especially where espresso is concerned, the lighter roasted you go, the harder it's going to be and the higher level a setup is likely to be required to get good results.
Similar is true of other brew methods, for example if you're brewing with a V60, you may find it more challenging to your abilities and to your grinder (depending on what grinder you have, how well it performs in terms of particle uniformity and how small the adjustments are) the lighter roasted you go.
OK so with these elements dealt with, remembering that the goal is a great tasting cup of coffee, how do we choose high quality coffee beans?
Commodity coffee beans vs high quality coffee beans
What many people don't realize is that there are essentially two types of coffee, there's commodity coffee which is grown and traded as a commodity just like wheat, salt or sugar, and then there's high quality coffee.
If you enjoy the taste of this kind of coffee, it's cheap and it's accessible so why not?
You probably don't enjoy that kind of coffee, though, or you wouldn't be here reading an article on how to choose high quality coffee beans, in fact you're probably here specifically because you've realized that you don't enjoy that kind of coffee and you've realized that you do actually have a choice, you don't have to drink that kind of coffee.
Coffee traded as a commodity is a different business than high quality coffee beans. High quality coffee beans change hands via a more old fashioned relationship based business, the pricing is based on quality, the price of the coffee is usually quite a bit higher, and prices tend to be a lot more stable.
You may wonder, then, why all coffee farmers don't focus on high quality coffee beans, and this is simply because growing high quality coffee beans is quite a challenge.
It requires the right kind of land in the right area at the right altitude, so it's a bit of a post code lottery in that respect. The land the producer has to work with in most cases is all that they have, and they don't have the opportunity to simply up sticks and go buy land where they can grow a higher quality coffee bean.
It also requires investment, so even if you have a coffee farm in the right area to produce high quality coffee beans, many farmers just won't have the money to invest in doing this, there's quite a lot to it.
How to ensure that you're buying good quality coffee beans?
1: Buy from coffee specialists
The main route to ensure you're buying high quality coffee beans is to buy your coffee from specialists, rather than buying from big business.
If you buy your coffee from a supermarket, don't get me wrong there are some high quality roasters these days working within the FCMG industry, but more often than not the coffee you'll pick up with your weekly shop will be just "coffee", in the same way that your sugar will just be sugar and your rice will just be rice - it's a commodity.
When you buy from specialists, like here at The Coffeeworks for example, or from any of the hundreds of other high quality coffee roasters and websites, you're buying your coffee beans from people who're genuinely interested and usually passionate, about coffee.
The good news here is that there are so many specialist coffee suppliers now, you're spoilt for choice! I say "specialist" by the way as I'm referring to people who specifically work with coffee beans, I'm not referring to buying coffee which is officially sold as "Speciality" coffee beans, as I'll discuss that shortly.
2: Look for a "roasted on" date
A good way to tell if you're buying high quality coffee beans or not, is the presence or lack of a "roasted on" label.
When you buy coffee from a super market, it'll usually come with a best before date which can be a loooong time in the future, and it doesn't really matter, how quickly you drink that kind of coffee in relation to when it was roasted isn't really going to make much of a difference.
When you're buying high quality coffee beans, though, you're buying coffee which has been treated very differently from start to finish (from sapling to roasting) and the whole point of investing more money on coffee beans that have been dealt with in this way, is that they give you a much more enjoyable cup quality, that's the goal.
So you wouldn't want to buy a bag of amazing quality coffee beans that has been sitting in the bag for months and has gone stale to the point that that lovely flavour the beans have to offer has flattened right off, and all you can taste is a general "coffee" taste - if you were going to do that you might as well have bought "normal" coffee beans while picking up spuds, cat meat, pasta & kitchen roll.
I do actually think that some people take the roasted on date too seriously, in terms of how quickly the beans are likely to deteriorate. There are some who believe that high quality coffee beans should never be sold more than 2 weeks after roast date, for example.
While I see a roasted on date as a sign of quality, and the lack of as a similar sign - personally I think that as long as they're well stored, most great quality coffee beans will taste great for a few weeks after roast date, and I wouldn't personally turn my nose up at a bag of coffee that was roasted five or six weeks ago.
Most of the coffee we sell here at The Coffeeworks is dispatched within 2 weeks of roasting. We do state that the maximum roast date we'll dispatch is 4 weeks, but it's rare that we end up with coffee for that long, we usually sell out each batch within one or two weeks, often far quicker.
3: Look for info
When you pick up a bag of coffee beans from a supermarket, you'll often find the packaging to be quite scarce when it comes to information, like:
This tells you what specific Arabica varietal is used for the coffee in question. It's normal to get this info when buying quality coffee beans.
This relates to the metres above sea level that the coffee was grown. Generally speaking, higher grown coffee is associated with a higher quality coffee, because the conditions tend to be more suited for growing better quality coffees at higher altitudes.
Sometimes this will be the name of the farm, and will often include the name of the farmer(s), while in some cases its the name of the coop.
This refers to the way the coffee beans (seeds) are separated from the flesh of the coffee cherry, and this can make quite a difference to the taste.
Region / sub region
When you're buying high quality coffee beans you'll usually find info on the packaging relating to the specific sub region the coffee is grown, rather than just the country of origin.
The reason you don't tend to find this kind of info on coffee that is traded as a commodity, is that most/all of this info is simply not known, and may change from one batch to the next.
4: Look for an SCA score
For coffee to be sold certified as "speciality coffee" by the SCA (Speciality Coffee Association) an SCA Q grader has to have scored it at least 80/100.
Generally speaking, the higher it scores, the more it costs, so a coffee scoring 84 or 85 will usually cost you slightly more than one scoring 80, or 81.
I do think it's worth noting however that while all SCA certified coffee is high quality, that doesn't mean that all high quality coffee is SCA certified.
In other words, all coffee that scores 80 or higher is going to be high quality coffee, but there's a lot of high quality coffee beans that are simply aren't scored, so the lack of an SCA score doesn't necessarily mean it's poor quality.
The producer has to pay for the costs of grading, and many producers just can't afford it.
Let's say there are two producers in the same region, farming next to each other, and one has the resources to be able to pay for their coffee to be graded by the speciality coffee association, and the other doesn't.
The one who can afford to go through this process may end up with a high scoring coffee bean which they can officially trade as "speciality coffee" and which may lead to them being paid quite a bit more for their beans than their neighbour who may be producing just as good coffee beans, but just doesn't have the funds to pay for the grading.
This is where coops come in, as coops work by a number of producers working together to share such costs, but again it can be a post code lottery in terms of having your land to farm in an area where there's a coop you can join.
There are many coffee farmers who're producing very high quality coffee beans in a region where they don't have a coop available to join in order to combine the grading costs, who simply just can't afford to have their coffee graded, and there are many roasters and agents who have relationships with farmers like this who know from their own cupping, just how high quality their coffee is, and who choose to buy the coffee on this basis, regardless of the fact that there's no SCA score with this particular coffee.
So I'm not saying that the lack of an SCA score is the sign of a poor quality coffee bean, but certainly the presence of one does indicate that you're buying a high quality coffee.
What is speciality coffee?
Many people use the word speciality coffee to describe high quality coffee beans, however technically speaking to be "Speciality" coffee, it needs to be graded by the SCA (speciality coffee association), and to score at least 80/100.
SCA graders have amazing palates, and it's not that they're looking for a specific taste, a lot of it is concerning the lack of taste defects. Graders are first and foremost looking for taste defects, if there are none then it's likely to make the 80+ required, and to score higher than this it needs to impress the grader where things like sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel and balance are concerned.
By the way, it's this lack of taste defects that allows a coffee to be roasted to a roast profile which brings out the very best from that particular bean. Coffee with taste defects can be roasted dark to mask them, and this is why you'll notice that the majority of jars of instant coffee are dark roasted.
Is Arabica coffee the best variety?
Arabica coffee is actually a species of coffee plant, of which there are many different varieties, usually referred to as "varietals".
There are a number of other species of Coffee, but the only other one which is really used commercially is Robusta. There are high quality Robusta coffees, but generally speaking Robusta is very bold in flavour.
A lot of Robusta coffee beans can taste particularly astringent, and it's used more often than not, by being blended with Arabica to give the coffee a kick & to improve the crema (as Robusta often provides a thick crema).
Nearly all of the coffee on the market, including instant, will either be Arabica, or mainly Arabica and with some Robusta blended with it.
Why does high quality coffee taste better?
You're not necessarily going to like all high quality coffee beans, you may find for example that some are too acidic, too fruity, too dark, too light, and as discussed earlier, we all have different palates so I might love one that you can't stand.
But the main thing about higher quality coffee that differentiates it from the coffee that most people are used to drinking, is that it can be roasted to a profile which brings the best out of it.
The same isn't generally true of coffee traded as a commodity, as it's common for taste defects to be present that only roasting particularly dark can hide.
What this means is that when it comes to high quality coffee beans, there's a real variety in flavours. Not only this but because of all of the info you'll usually get about the coffee, you'll usually know what it is about this coffee that is giving it the specific taste you particularly enjoy.