How do you normally choose your coffee beans? Do you simply rely on your roaster’s recommendations? Or do you have a go-to brand that you purchase without giving the label on the bag a second look? Get to know your coffee beans a little better next time by paying closer attention to its label—here’s how.
The label on your bag of coffee beans not only tells the story of the beans, it also has all the information you need to decide whether or not you will like it—which is important as you usually can’t taste the contents before you buy.
While the label can tell you everything about the beans in your bag such as origins, blend, toast notes, and certifications, the terminology can be unfamiliar and rather confusing. Picking out your coffee beans should be a fun discovery experience.
We take some of the stress and uncertainty away by sharing 10 common things you’ll find on the label and what they mean.
This one’s pretty easy. The most eye-catching part of the label tells you the name of the roaster or coffee shop you’re getting your coffee beans from.
Most specialty roasters will have a signature blend or roasting style, and you may already have your personal favourites. If you’re in a multi-brand store, this will help you narrow down your choices if you already have a preferred brand.
Place of Origin
The country of origin or specific region is one of the key factors that determines the taste and quality of your coffee beans.
Almost all coffee is grown from regions located in the ‘Coffee Belt’ and are usually categorised into three main commercial varieties
- Arabica which comes from Brazil, East and Central Africa, India, and Indonesia
- Robusta from Vietnam, Indonesia, Africa and India
- Liberica from Central Africa, Philippines and Indonesia
Blend or Single Origin
Most roasters will offer single origin or blend options. Single origin coffee comes from a specific region or farm, while blends are a combination of two or more single origin coffee beans to create a unique flavour.
Single origin coffee is usually high-quality coffee produced in small batches, making it more premium than a blend. For blends, you might see descriptions such as ‘60% Arabica, 40% Robusta’ (which is the usual ratio of a classic Italian espresso blend) so you get the best of both worlds—the Arabica’s smooth caramel aftertaste and the Robusta’s strong, earthy flavour.
Your coffee label will usually indicate the roast level of your coffee beans — light, medium, or dark.
The roasting process is where the aromas and flavours of the coffee beans are brought out, and each roaster will have their own distinct way of roasting.
In general, light roasts have a smoother taste, dark roasts are bolder, and medium roasts sit somewhere in between.
You can further enhance your coffee experience by matching your preferred roast type to a brewing method to bring out the beans’ optimum flavour.
Each region is known for producing specific flavour notes and characteristics.
For example, African coffees lean towards bright and acidic, South American coffees are less acidic, and Sumatran coffees have a distinct spicy flavour. On top of that, the skill and method of the roasters can also manipulate the final flavour of the coffee beans.
But, just as no two coffees are the same, everyone’s sensitivity to taste is different too. It’s better to think of flavour notes like tasting notes you’ll find on a bottle of wine—a rough idea of what to expect but not definitive.
So, don’t be discouraged if you don’t pick up on the ‘notes of red and black berries’, what matters most is whether or not you enjoy it.
Whole Bean/Grind Size
This one’s pretty reliant on the type of brewing equipment you have at home.
If you have a fully-automatic coffee machine, you should be getting your beans whole. Coffee beans lose their flavour once ground so most roasters will recommend only grinding your beans immediately before you make your coffee.
But if you don’t have a grinder, or prefer the French Press or pour over coffee drippers, then you should use this infographic to find out which grind size fits your preferred brewing method.
Your coffee bean has had a long journey before it reaches you in a bag. Coffee beans are actually seeds called ‘coffee cherries’ which are encased in skin and pulp that have to be extracted (processed). The extraction differs depending on the origin farm and can affect the final flavour of your coffee bean.
They are usually processed following the three most common methods: washed, where the pulp is extracted through soaking; dry, where the cherries are dried out in the sun; and honey, which is a combination of washed and dry.
Roast Date/Expiry Date
You can’t tell how fresh your coffee beans are just by looking at them. Hence, these dates are key indicators in letting you know when your beans are at their prime (or past it).
Packaged and stored correctly, whole coffee beans have a shelf life of four to five weeks, and ground coffee can last up to two weeks.
There are many factors that affect the taste of coffee and altitude is one of them. Coffee plants produce caffeine as a natural pesticide.
This means that coffee beans produce less caffeine at higher altitudes.
Arabica grows best at high elevations of 1,300 to 1,500 metres. In comparison, Robusta thrives at the altitude of 600 metres, resulting in a higher caffeine level.
For the more discerning coffee lover, this section is where you’ll find out more about the farming and processing practices, so you can have peace of mind knowing that your coffee beans were sustainably-grown or ethically-sourced.
Here are some of the certifications you can look out for: Fair Trade Certified, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance.
Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t be. All that information on the label is there to help you select the best coffee for you. Remember to take your time, take note of your preferences and enjoy the learning experience.