Most specialty coffee roasters put a lot of information on their bag that few people understand. It might be interesting to know your coffee was grown at 1800 meters above sea level (MASL), but who really cares? Lucky for you, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to understanding what’s going on with your coffee bag.
Most specialty coffee roasters name their coffees after the farm, cooperative, or region where the coffee was produced. If you see a bag of coffee with “finca” or “estate” in the title, there’s a good chance it’s a single estate coffee that came from a specific farm with a very high degree of traceability. In many coffee producing countries it’s common for different estates to be blended together during processing. These might be listed by the cooperative, such as Cenfrocafe in Peru, or washing station, like Kigeyo in Rwanda. A small number of roasters name their coffees after the producer.
Coffee, like wine, is a terroir-expressive beverage. In other words, the environmental conditions the coffee is grown in affects flavor. As a result coffee buyers notice similarities between coffees across different regions. For example Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia produces acidic, light bodied coffees with powerful floral aromas. Tarrazu in Costa Rica produces sweet, well-rounded coffees. Brazilian coffees tend to have low acidity and prominent nutty flavors.
If there’s one category to understand on a coffee bag, it’s processing. Processing refers to what happens to the coffee between harvesting ripe coffee cherries and exporting dry, green coffee seed. There are three main ways of processing specialty coffee: washed, natural (or dry), and honey (also called pulp natural, or semi-washed). Each of these techniques has a tremendous impact on the flavor profile of the coffee.
In countries such as Colombia, Guatemala, and Kenya, coffee is predominantly washed. With this process the fruit, or pulp, is removed and than the coffee is fermented and washed to remove any remaining mucilage (think sticky fruit material left on seed). Washed coffees tend to be cleaner, with better sweetness and flavor clarity.
Natural process coffees are common in places without access to ample water, such as in Yemen and Western Ethiopia, or places where the scale of farming is much larger, like Brazil. With natural process coffees, the coffee is dried with the fruit still on the seed, creating a fruit-forward profile with prominent berry flavors. Bad examples will be dirty and vinegary.
Honey, or semi-washed coffees, are somewhere in between washed and natural coffees. Varying amounts of the mucilage (miel in Spanish, thus “honey process”) are left on during the drying phase.
Unfortunately, that bag of coffee probably doesn’t have bourbon in it. Like wine, apples, and virtually every other agricultural product, the variety or cultivar of the coffee plant has a big impact on the flavor profile. Just like a Riesling is different from a Chardonnay, a Bourbon variety differs greatly from a Geisha, even if they were grown on the same farm. Although there are hundreds of coffee cultivars grown commercially, you’ll likely to see a few usual suspects pop up. Whether it’s the sweet and heavy Typica, the bright and acidic Caturra, or the delicate and floral Geisha, the variety of the coffee to a certain extent determines the flavor profile.
Very few coffee consumers are interested in the elevation the coffee was grown at, a fact augmented for Americans by the fact most roasters list the elevation in meters. For coffee professionals, knowing the elevation can be important. As a general rule, the higher up the mountain you go, the higher quality the coffee, up until the point the plant can’t survive. Coffee trees grown at altitude have a higher concentration of sugars and acids, which results in a sweeter, more complex cup. Lower elevation coffees tend to have a lower acidity, so if you’re trying to avoid an acidic coffee, the elevation might prove useful. Still, we think elevation is best left to the roaster’s website, where the coffee nerds can eat their heart out.
Most coffee professionals agree it’s best to consumer coffee within four weeks of roasting. As a general rule, we find it best to avoid coffees that only have a “best by” date and not a roasting date. If it takes you a while to work through a bag, it might be worth asking your local shop what day they stock fresh bags and shop accordingly.
It’s not uncommon for specialty coffee roasters to include tasting notes on the bag. Whether it’s the ubiquitous “caramel”, the esoteric “persimmon”, or the ostentatious “green Jolly Rancher,” ostensibly tasting notes are a way for the roaster to communicate the flavor profile of the coffee. We find some notes are more accurate than others. One of our favorite roasters writes “Think: lemon, chocolate, etc.” which we think is a helpful way to do it. At best, tasting notes are just analogies to help describe how this coffee tastes different than the coffees. It’s still going to taste like coffee.