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How to Select Coffee Beans

Most of the time, you’ll be choosing coffee beans before you have a chance to try them. That may seem a bit daunting, but you can greatly improve you chances of selecting something you’ll like. And you will get better at it with a little experience. Here we give you the tools you need to make an informed decision, and enjoy the process. It’s not really so complicated. Just follow these guidelines and remember that what’s important is what tastes good to you!

“Because 3 things really matter, when it comes to coffee nirvana:  the quality of the bean, the quality of the roast, and how fresh those awesome beans are.”

– West Coast Roasting Company –

Freshness

When we talk about freshness here, we’re referring to the length of time since the beans have been roasted.   The roasting process is what brings out the flavors and aromas we love so much.  But the roasted beans do have a limited lifespan.  There is a period after roasting when the taste of the beans continues to develop, then they reach peak flavor, and after that they deteriorate, becoming stale and useless for making coffee.

Catch the flavor at its peak. Freshness is invaluable to a great cup of coffee, but that doesn’t mean you need to drink it immediately after roasting.  In fact, roasters will tell you that beans need to “rest” a bit.  Most coffees peak somewhere in the range of a few days to a few weeks.  So don’t rush or be concerned about a matter of hours or a few days.

  • You'll get the best flavor most beans have to offer within 2 weeks after roasting, and should try to use them within about 3 weeks.
  • Look for coffee with an exact roast date on the package ... not only a "best by" date or year.

Whole Beans vs. Ground Beans

For the best flavor, buy whole beans and grind them yourself just before brewing.  Hands down, this will get the most out of your beans. We know, no matter how many times you hear this, you may not really believe it until you experience it yourself.  So give it a try and we think you’ll agree!

But that’s not to say you need to give up your favorite pre-ground coffee.  After all, what matters is what tastes good to you.  If you are shopping for pre-ground coffee, try to get it within a week of when it was packaged.  The fresher the grind, the less flavor you’re missing.

See our Coffee Grinders page for detailed information about grinding your own coffee.  It really can be easy, inexpensive and fun.

  • Aim for whole beans, ground immediately before brewing.
  • If you choose pre-ground coffee, be sure it is sold in a vacuum-sealed package.

Roast Level

The quality of the roast is really, really important to flavor and aroma.   But the variety of roast levels and roast names have become confusing to a lot of coffee drinkers, who aren’t quite sure what they mean and how to use them.  There are no real standards here, which is part of the confusion, because things vary somewhat from roaster to roaster.  However, if you get to know the basics it will go a long way toward giving you the information you need to be a smart coffee shopper and drinker.   And remember to keep an open mind.  Finding a roast level that you enjoy is great, but don’t let that keep you from experimenting outside your comfort zone.

Light Roasts

Appearance:  Light brown with no visible oil on the surface
Flavor:  Retains the most natural flavors from the beans. Often are not well-balanced, so one flavor may be prominent.  Can tend to have a slightly sour taste.
Examples:  Light City Roast, Cinnamon Roast, Blonde Roast, Half City Roast

Note:  Lighter roasts have the most acidity, least bitterness and most caffeine.

Medium Roasts

Appearance:  Medium brown with no visible oil on the surface
Flavor:  More body and more balance of flavor, aroma, and acidity.  The characteristics of the natural flavor are still clear.  Traditional American coffee is a medium roast.
Examples:  Regular Roast, American Roast, City Roast, Breakfast Roast

Medium-Dark Roasts

Appearance:  Rich, dark brown with some visible oil on the surface
Flavor:  Heavier body and begins to take on more taste from the roasting.  Slightly less acidic with some bittersweet aftertaste.
Examples:  Full City Roast, After Dinner Roast, Vienna Roast

Dark Roasts

Appearance:  Very dark brown or black, with a shiny, oily surface
Flavor:  Bitter, smoky or even burnt taste. Original flavors are completely overwhelmed by the roasting process.
Examples:  French Roast, Italian Roast, Continental Roast, Spanish Roast
Note:  Darker roasts have the least acidity, most bitterness and least caffeine.

OK, so far we've talked about the top three things to look for when shopping for any kind of coffee: Freshness, Whole Beans and Roast. If you're ready to go deeper, read on. Remember, the more you know, the better choices you can make, which means great coffee sooner and less money spent on coffee you're not crazy about.

Flavor

Although there’s a complex interplay of factors that result in a coffee’s flavor, our cup is where it all comes together.  There are a lot of terms used to convey the experience of drinking coffee.  If you’ve ever read a coffee review or description, you already know this.   Being able to communicate precisely is important because coffees can exhibit so many different subtle flavors.  In 1995, the Specialty Coffee Association of America published the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel to help standardize the coffee tasting process.  It has become iconic in the industry and was just recently updated for the first time in 2016.

Let’s look at some basic coffee tasting vocabulary:

Flavor

What you experience when you drink the coffee, a combination of taste and aroma.  See the updated flavor wheel for examples.  Not everyone is sensitive to all flavors, which is why professional coffee tasters must have very fine-tuned palates.

Taste

What we sense with our tongue:  sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. The original version of the flavor wheel is a good illustration of coffee tastes.

Acidity

A desirable sharp and pleasing taste.  A tangyness that is experienced mainly on the back sides of the tongue.  Other terms used to describe the range of acidity from least to most include:  flat, soft, sharp and bright. This is not related to the pH of the coffee, only the taste.

Aroma

The smell of brewed coffee.  Some common coffee aromas include floral, wine, chocolate, spicy, tobacco, earthy, and fruity, but there are also many more.  Aroma is closely related to flavor.  The original version of the flavor wheel is a good illustration of coffee aromas.

Body

How a coffee feels in your mouth.  A full-bodied coffee feels pleasant and creamy, like whole milk, while a light-bodied coffee would feel thinner and more watery, like skim milk.

Balance

Describes whether there are any prominent flavors or aromas that stand out from the others.  A balanced coffee has relatively even levels of all its flavors.  A coffee that is not well balanced has a dominant flavor characteristic.    Neither of these is considered good or bad because people have different preferences.

So how do you use this information?   Start with something familiar and work from there.  Pick a coffee you like (or one you don’t) and note its characteristics.  Is it more bitter or acidic (sour/tangy)?  Is it well-balanced or is there a prominent flavor?   Is it full-bodied and creamy or does it feel watery and thin?  If you can answer a few questions like these, you’re on your way to narrowing down your choice of coffee.

  • A roaster should provide a good description of a coffee's flavor. Understanding these basic coffee tasting terms will make those descriptions more useful.
  • Use these terms to describe a coffee you're familiar with, so you know what you like.

Certifications and Philosophy

For many people, its important to do business with a company that shares common ideals.  In the coffee industry, this often takes the form of sustainability initiatives (fair trade, organic farming, habitat protection, eco-friendly products, etc.), or financial contributions to particular causes, or commitment to certain business principles.  It’s good to feel positive about what your purchases are ultimately supporting.

  • Businesses are open about what is important to them. If there's a cause that is important to you, its easy to do a search for a coffee company that supports it.
  • See our list of 100+ Certified Sustainable Coffee Companies.

Where To Look For New Coffees

There’s a BIG world of coffee out there, so fortunately you’ve got lots of choices.  Here are some great ways to find them.

Fellow coffee lovers:  Friends, family, co-workers
Local roasters and coffee shops in your area
Top roasters online:  For starters, see award winners herehere (pdf will download) and here.
Certified companies:  See our list of 100+ Certified Sustainable Coffee Companies
Coffee reviews: CoffeeReview.com has thorough reviews and a ton of great information.
Google:  Do a good old-fashioned search
Amazon:  Find some top roasters and a lot of customer feedback.

  • With even one of these sources, you're bound to end up with quite a list of companies you'd like to try.

Pro Tips

  • Ideally, buy only enough coffee that you'll consume within a few weeks. Realistically, you may end up keeping beans longer, so be sure they are stored carefully.
  • Found a roaster you want to try, but can't decide which beans to order? Ask what their bestseller is, and start there.
  • Keep a few notes on what you like and don't like about the coffees you try. Don't rely on memory.
  • Order a sampler pack of different beans to limit your investment and try a wider range of coffees.
  • Consider single origin (instead of a blend) to learn more about the unique flavors of different beans.
  • Even after you find coffees you really enjoy, continue to go beyond your comfort zone and try different beans, origins, roasts, etc.