Picking Really Good Coffee Beans
Story and Photos by Matt Kelly
It’s time to buy another bag of coffee. Some really good beans this time. So you open the door and walk into a small, local shop like Joe Bean Coffee Roasters in Rochester.
Then it hits you: “Beans? Do I really need to get whole beans? And actually grind them myself?”
“Coffee beans are basically these little webs of fiber with tasty stuff inside,” says Wade Reed, the guy behind the bar. “As soon as you grind the beans and break the webs, all the tasty stuff starts to float out. It starts to go stale.”
Now it makes sense why that bag of ground coffee smells great the first time you open it. But has no aroma—and little taste—a few days later.
So you turn around and look at the shelves of bagged beans. It’s a bit overwhelming: Mexico Oaxaca, Nicaragua Don Roger, Kenya Chania Estate, El Salvador Santa Ana.
You turn back to Wade. “Dude, I just want a dark roast.”
“You’ll probably like one of the coffees with more savory flavors,” he says. “Labels like dark and medium get tough because there’s no standardization. It’s just a judgment call on the part of each roaster. That’s why we like to use a flavor profile on our coffee. Way more descriptive and helpful.”
So you pick up a bag and look at the label.
There’s that flavor profile thing: Roasted Hazelnut, Milk Chocolate, Orange, Cinnamon.
“Those are the flavors and aromas we pull out through the roasting process,” Wade says.
A coffee bean is just the seed in the cherry of a coffee plant. That seed is full of sugars. When you roast a bean, you caramelize the sugars. They turn brown and produce flavors. But there’s not just one type of coffee bean. Originating in Ethiopia, the plant has traveled all across the globe and is now grown in numerous places. The result is numerous different varieties of coffee. And every bean is going to taste a little different.
Sure enough, right there on the label, are the varieties: Typica, Caturra.
There are two big parent species of coffee: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica varieties are the more flavorful of the two; they contain more sugars that get converted into flavors when roasted. But Arabica coffee also requires a little more care to produce: it grows on slopes at high elevations and needs partial shade like trees or hill cover. This also makes harvesting Arabica more labor intensive. Robusta coffee, as the name suggests, is way more robust; it’s easier to grow and produces a ton of beans, but just doesn’t give you the same range of flavors.
“Arabica beans are our friends,” Wade says. Arabica varieties include Typica, Caturra, French Mission, SL14, and SL28. “If you ever try them side by side, you can taste real differences. You’ll definitely find your favorites.”
But like any agricultural product, these varieties are seasonal. Farms typically only produce a single crop every year; once the variety is gone, it’s gone until the next season. So if you find a favorite, stock up.
Then there’s this thing on the label called Processing. “This is something that happens at the farm level that can really make a difference in your cup,” Wade says.
The bean has to be removed from the cherry before it can be sold, roasted or consumed. There are three possible ways to do this:
Washed: The skin is removed from the cherries and the beans are left to ferment to remove the remaining flesh. They’re then washed with water and separated by sinking and floating; more mature beans sink because they have more sugars. And these are the beans we want. The beans are then dried in the sun.
Honey process: The skin is removed but then the beans are put out in the sun to dry. Only then is the remaining cherry flesh rubbed off. No scrubbing with water at all. This process can potentially result in sweeter tasting beans because they’ve dried with the flesh on and there’s no chance of water damage creating funky flavors.
Natural process: The entire cherry is dried in the sun before the skin and flesh are removed. This dry process can result in really robust, fruity flavors in your coffee. Excellent stuff. But it also requires a lot of care on the part of the farmer because, when done poorly, it can result in some pretty poor-tasting coffee.
Making a choice
All of a sudden, the wall of coffee is starting to make sense. But does all of this fancy information really make any difference to your daily infusion of caffeine?
“The best cup of coffee is the one you enjoy drinking, period,” says Wade, boiling water. “What this information shows you is that someone cares. The farmer, the roaster, the barista: all of this care went into getting you the most enjoyable cup possible.”
Which is what you really want.
So you show Wade the bag you picked up. “Is this a good one?”
Wade looks up from the hario he’s pouring. “You really can’t go wrong,” he says. “If the flavor profile looks interesting to you, you’re going to love it.”
Best coffee advice ever. Thanks, Wade.
Joe Bean Coffee Roasters in Rochester has a wall of coffee beans they source and roast themselves. They also offer all sorts of classes to help you improve your coffee smarts.
Matt Kelly is a writer living in the Finger Lakes, slowly turning his home into a self-sufficient, food-independent, backwoods place of his own. He currently works with Small World Food in Rochester and Fruition Seeds in Naples. Which is why he drinks so much coffee. He writes regularly at BoonieAdjacent.com.
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