Last Updated on January 28, 2022 by brewthatcoffee
Looking for tips on finding good quality coffee beans? Here’s what you need to know.
Coffee beans are unarguably one of the most important factors in making a fabulous coffee drink. The problem is that it can be difficult to tell the difference between coffee brands, especially through all the marketing noise. Coffee companies want to sell you their beans and use any hype they can to make it happen.
By learning the telltale signs of good and poor quality coffee, you can set yourself up for success. Here is everything you need to know about coffee beans and what you should pay attention to when making your next purchase.
Common Coffee Bean Terminology
There are many terms used to describe coffee beans, which do not necessarily indicate quality. As with all other industries, marketing jargon is used in the coffee world to convince you to purchase their products.
Some of these terms may resonate with a particular moral value of yours, which is great. Causes can be just as important when choosing to buy something. However, since we focus on just quality for this article, we will help you recognize coffee descriptors that do not equate to quality beans.
Single-origin coffee beans are the beans of a single region or country, and they are roasted together to deliver a cohesive set of flavor notes.
For example, if you ordered a Sumatra at your coffee shop, these beans would likely be from Indonesia. If you’re looking for coffee made entirely with just Guatemalan beans, this is how they would be labeled.
The advantage of single-origin coffee is that it delivers very defined flavors and has the potential to offer more complexity than blends. Single-origin beans tend to have a cleaner taste and a smoother finish than any blends that may be mixed.
However, this does not mean that single-origin is always better. Just like in wine culture, blends get a bad rep because they are regarded as low-quality, leftover beans that get mixed up together. It is sometimes assumed that this is done to cut costs and reduce waste.
It’s an unfortunate assumption since there are many great multiple-origin coffees that are mixed with great deliberation. Positive and negative coffee attributes are mulled over so that beans can be mixed to complement one another. Where one coffee bean lacks, the other can pick up the slack and offer balance.
A sustainable coffee farm is a farm that makes an effort to conserve natural resources while producing coffee. They use eco-friendly practices, such as minimizing water waste and energy consumption.
They have a long-term goal of producing quality coffee without impacting the environment. Sustainable farming requires more attention to detail and precision to not contaminate the soil by chemicals or pesticides used to produce crops.
A small-batch production is a coffee that is less than 50 pounds in weight. They are typically roasted and sold right away. It’s rare to find small-batch coffee on the shelves of your local grocery store because it’s intended to be served fresh.
This type of coffee has an advantage since it can be brewed of higher quality without concern for shelf life or flavor degradation.
However, with good quality coffee comes a higher price point, which may deter some buyers from going with this option.
Certified organic coffee is grown with strict guidelines that prioritize sustainable farming practices and the conservation of natural resources. To earn this certification, farmers must sign up for a certification process that proves compliance with a set of national standards.
Organic coffee ensures that the soil and surrounding environment is not contaminated with harmful pesticides used to produce crops.
However, it does not necessarily ensure better quality than non-organic coffee since many other variables determine bean quality. Since organic farming requires more attention and resources, it may be more costly than regular coffee-growing practices.
Keep in mind that different labels are implying organic beans. Labels aren’t heavily regulated, so that you might see alternate labels such as ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic products.’ Be wary of labels like these since they do not necessarily comply with the ‘certified organic’ standards.
Small farm coffee implies that the beans were grown on a family-owned and operated farm. This type of coffee is more expensive, and there may be limited quantities available to purchase, but it is worth it for those looking to support smaller businesses.
Fair Trade coffee is coffee that has been fairly traded. The fair trade designation means that the coffee beans have met certain criteria for quality, environmental sustainability, and economic equity. This designation ensures that the farmers are compensated fairly for their beans. Farmers who sell their beans through an international trading organization are guaranteed to get paid for what they produce.
It’s not enough to grow high-quality beans since you also have to ensure that the people who are producing them are being compensated fairly. Countries in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia can benefit from fair trade practices because it guarantees an equitable income for the rural populations.
Gourmet and premium are a couple of examples of buzz words used to get you to purchase. There are no certifications that go into these labels, and they are used to imply connoisseurs developed the beans.
Reading & Understanding Coffee Packaging
Signs a bag of coffee is good quality
Roasted On date
When coffee is roasted, it will have a date on the bag. Roasted on date is when the beans were roasted, not the day that they are past their freshness date. The next time you go to purchase coffee, check out the roasting date first before buying it.
Detailed flavor profile
Proud coffee roasters love including all the little details about their coffee tasting notes. You can expect specific descriptors such as lemongrass, papaya, caramelized hazelnut, etc.
One-way valved bags
One-way valved bags provide a more airtight seal than traditional ziplock design bags. One-way valves, also called one-way degassing valves, release pressure and allow oxygen to escape without letting it back in. This prevents flavor loss and allows for slow oxidation.
Trustworthy coffee companies will let you know exactly where your beans come from. You can expect a lot of detail about the country, region, and even farm that it came from.
Specialty coffees are coffees that have scored between 80 and 100 on the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) rating scale. These coffee beans have been rated based on growth, processing, and roast.
Arabica vs. robusta
There are two main categories of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is generally considered higher quality since it contains pleasant flavor notes that include sweet-floral, chocolatey, nutty flavors. Arabica is less bitter than Robusta due to the growing altitude and climate.
Robusta beans contain bitter flavor notes and are much harsher in taste. These beans grow at lower elevations and are more resistant to pests. You can often find robusta beans in instant coffee.
In general, if you are looking for good quality coffee, stay away from robusta beans.
Shade-grown vs. grown in the sun
Shade-grown coffee is superior to sun-grown coffee as they are slow-grown, allowing a richer flavor to develop.
Microlot coffee beans are produced from a high-quality crop of coffee beans, and they are also within a limited geographical area. Microlot coffees must receive an 85+ cupping score to achieve their label.
Strictly High Grown (SHG) / Strictly Hard Bean (SHB)
This label means the coffee beans were grown at a minimum elevation of 4,500 feet.
Signs a bag of coffee is low-quality
Over-reliance on marketing jargon (see above list)
If the bag of coffee beans you’re looking at is full of empty jargon, it’s best to put it back on the shelf.
Best by date
Listing a best by date is a pretty good warning sign that the company does not want you to know the beans you’re holding are old.
Generic flavor profiles
If you only see generic flavors listed on a bag of coffee, it’s probably intentionally vague to hide the fact the beans lack delicious flavors you’d expect in coffee.
Characteristics of great coffee beans
Look for whole, undamaged coffee beans. The best beans will be whole and symmetrical as well as uniform in color.
Take a moment to enjoy the aroma of coffee beans. A truly good quality coffee bean should fill your nostrils with notes of fruit or chocolate, or flowers. Anything less than that means it’s not fresh, and chances are you’re dealing with low-quality beans.
The taste of the bean itself
Yes, pop a bean in your mouth and much on it! I learned this trick from a proud local roaster in my area. Fresh beans will have a wonderful flavor before the brewing process even starts. If you taste a bean that’s flat and weak in flavor, take a pass.
Where to find good quality beans
In-store coffee options
If you prefer the in-person store experience and want to be able to smell, taste, and see your beans before buying, try these options below.
Local coffee roasters
I prefer to buy my beans at a local coffee roaster because they offer high-quality beans that are fresh and ready for brewing. Since I also value face-to-face interaction, I enjoy stopping by their shops and talking about their business.
Local coffee shops
Who doesn’t love to try before they buy? Many coffee shops also roast their beans now. So if you want to experience the end result of the coffee beans before taking them home, grab a cup.
Be careful, though, with coffee shops that don’t sell their own brand coffee beans or shops that scoop coffee beans out of a large bin. It won’t be fresh.
Also, if they are trying to send you home with pre-ground beans, make sure they are grinding it fresh in front of you. If it’s been sitting on the shelves already ground, it’s no longer fresh.
Online coffee options
Don’t have enough time to go to the store? Maybe you want more coffee roasters to choose from. Both are valid reasons to shop for coffee beans online. Here are the places you want to check out first.
Coffee subscription services
This is an amazing option for fresh coffee beans. Not only will you get to try so many different brands, but you will also be shipped beans based on when the company roasted them.
Coffee roaster website
If you have heard great things about a specific roaster that isn’t in your area, try buying their coffee beans online.
Quality roasters will publicly display all the important details (origins, roasting dates, etc.), so you need not worry. Some roasters even offer their own subscription service if that’s what you are into.
Avoid buying coffee beans from these places
Amazon and grocery chain online stores/in-person groceries
These options are usually your worst bets for buying good quality coffee beans.
First of all, since they come from big companies that need to cut costs, you will be dealing with coffee that has been shipped in bulk and sitting on store shelves for months at a time.
I hope you found this guide on finding good quality coffee beans useful. There are so many options out there, but finding high-quality coffee beans isn’t hard to find once you know where to look!
Now that you know how to tell the difference between great and not-so-great coffee beans, check out this guide on brewing methods to find out how to get the most out of them.
If you have any tips on finding great coffee beans, let us all know in the comments. Thanks for reading.