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How to find the best coffee

When buying roasted specialty coffee to enjoy at home, it is important to check the information on the packaging. It provides details on the origin of the bean, its roast level, roasting date and processing method, among others things, to help you choose the best coffee according to your flavor preferences. Here are some tips to better understand the label on your bag of coffee.
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Roasting Date

The coffee bag displays two important dates: the roasting date and the packaging date. Many brands only indicate the expiration date and forget the other two values that are so important to the brewing process.

Being aware of the roasting date is essential for successfully brewing coffee, since freshly roasted beans release gases in a process called degassing, making it difficult for a cup of coffee to be prepared immediately after roasting. A sufficient and timely release of the carbon dioxide contained in the beans must take place first.

One-way valve

This valve is used to allow the carbon dioxide that is released by coffee beans after being roasted to escape, while preventing oxygen from entering, which would deteriorate the aromatic compounds of the bean.

Variety and Species

The label must specify the species and/or variety of the coffee, as these are two key aspects that influence the flavor. The main species are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans are sweeter, containing 6% to 9% sugar, while Robusta beans have a lower sugar content (3% to 7%) and a higher caffeine content, which give them a more bitter flavor profile.

As for the varieties, there are many: Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, Typica, Geisha, Pacamara and Maragogype, among others. Each will give your cup of coffee a unique flavor.

Single Origin or Blend

Another piece of information the label provides is whether the coffee is single origin or a blend. Single-origin coffee comes from a specific region or even a particular farm, while a blend is a mix of several coffees from different origins.

Single-origin coffees are usually high quality as they offer unique flavors and aromas, highly prized by consumers. To preserve those attributes, roasters avoid mixing them with other beans.

Blends, on the other hand, allow you to create a flavor profile to suit your tastes. For example, to obtain a sweet and fragrant drink you can mix Arabica coffee beans from two different origins or, if you prefer an intense flavor and a lot of body, you could combine Arabica and Robusta beans.

Roast Level

The packaging also specifies the roast level of the coffee. There are four major types of coffee roasts: light, medium, medium-dark, and dark. No one of them is better than the other. You can choose the roast level based on your personal preference, the extraction method that you will use (for instance, darker roasts are recommended for espresso and medium or light roasts for filter coffee), or what the coffee is intended for (a roast tasting, a roast for consumption in the hospitality industry, etc.).

Processing Method

On labels you will often find the words natural, washed or honey coffee. This refers to the type of coffee processing, which is the process by which the seeds are separated from the coffee fruit.

Each fruit is made up of several layers: the outer skin, called the exocarp; the pulp or mesocarp; the mucilage, a slimy layer under the pulp that gives coffee its sweetness; the parchment or endocarp; and the integument, a silver film that covers the seeds.

Coffee processing consists in removing these layers. Broadly speaking, in the washing process the pulp of the coffee cherry is removed through the use of water; the beans are then dried. In the natural method, the fruit remains whole and slowly dries under the sun. In the honey process, the coffee fruits are dried with a variable amount of the cherry still attached to the seeds.

Traceability

Traceability is the ability to trace each coffee bean from end to end. The label indicates the name of the cooperative, washing station, farm or plantation, as well as the name of the owner or manager of the farm where the coffee was grown.
The more traceable a coffee bean is, the greater the chances of a fair trade cycle and that the bean has been handled with care at each stage of the coffee value chain.

Tasting notes

Many coffee bags display the cupping score that the bean was given in the tasting, as well as the properties that it exhibited during the sensory analysis. Specialty coffees are evaluated by certified tasters and must score over 80 points. They have a distinctive flavor in the cup and present complex aromas.

Elevation/Altitude

The label will also specify at what altitude the coffee was harvested. This is key information since beans grown at higher altitudes ripen more slowly due to the cooler temperature, giving them more time to develop multiple aromas and flavors.
When coffee grows at more than 1,500m above sea level, it produces a drink with greater acidity and aroma. Lower altitude coffees, on the other hand, have a milder, less acidic flavor.

Certifications and Awards

Packaging also shows the coffee’s certifications, such as Fair Trade or Organic, as well as the awards it has won, such as the Cup of Excellence, or a distinction for the best roast.

It may seem like a lot of information, but it's helpful to know what type of coffee you are buying and it will help you choose the best one for you.