Coffee Code: Six tips on how to decipher the label on your bag.
The label on your coffee bag says a lot about the coffee you drink. Different roasters, different shops, different regions of the country, different roast profiles, all go into the uniqueness of each bag. There are as many varieties of bags as there are varietals of coffee. Each bag represents a unique story about what’s inside.
Yet amidst their differences, there are six key features that quality coffee bags will display. If you can find most of these, you’ll know you’re headed in the right direction.
1. Blends vs Origin
The coffee you drink is one of two types: a blend or a single origin. A single origin means the beans are grown in a specific region. A blend is what it sounds like, a blend of coffee grown from multiple regions or farms.
When you see names like “Day Off” or “Baristas Choice” these are referring to a blend of coffee that comes from different countries. The names are then used to describe the type of coffee inside.
When you read names that sound more like locations rather than catchy titles, you’re likely looking at a single origin. “Ethiopia Sidamo Dangura” or “Colombia Las Rosas,” are two single origins coffees that Angry Barista carries from a farm in a single area or region of a county.
Each coffee origin has unique flavors, similar to grape varietals in the wine industry. Many roasters like to highlight the differences and favorable qualities in each origin when they are making blends. This allows roasters to take lower grade coffees and combine them together with higher quality coffees to create complimentary flavors. Teamwork makes the dream work!
On the other hand, since single origin coffee must stand alone in its flavor profile, it has no room to hid imperfections and often offer a superior cup of coffee.
2. Roasting Profiles.
You’ve probably read the terms: light, medium or dark roast on bags before. While this might be something you would hear at Starbucks or other big coffee chains, its less likely that you’ll hear these terms used to describe craft coffee. Over time, coffee providers have focused more on the craft of coffee procuring, roasting and preparation, and less about mass distribution.
Instead of roasting beans to a roast level, craft coffee is roasted to draw out each blend or origin’s unique attributes.
When coffee is lighter in roast profile, you generally are able to taste more of the sweetness of the bean, the fruity notes of certain blends, or the herbal flavors. Whereas in a dark roasted coffee, you’ll be tasting more of the roasty profile.
Many people less familiar with specialty coffee might assume they only like dark roasted coffee. In fact, my mother-in-law likes to say “she wants her coffee to taste like coffee.” It could be that she actually likes dark roasted coffee, or she’s basing her taste preferences on bad experiences she’s had with watered-down diner coffee. Regardless, if you or someone you know is a dark-roast drinker, that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate lighter roasts.
3. Tasting notes
In addition to the name of the coffee, be it a blend or a single origin, quality coffee roasters will also include tasting notes on the bag. This is a helpful way for them to describe the coffee for your enjoyment.
Want to really geek out on this? Check out the Specialty Coffee Associations tasting wheel. Invite some of your friends over for a coffee tasting party with the proper food pairings. We promise you’ll feel real fancy. And yes, it’s true that some coffee can taste like blueberries or have a mouth feel of juiciness.
4. Varietal or species
At times, on a single origin bag of coffee, a roaster may want to highlight the specific varietal or species of coffee inside. We mentioned earlier that there are a significant number of varietals of coffee, yet there are only two major coffee specie that we drink.
Consider Arabica and Robusta to be the two powerful matriarchs of the kingdom of coffee. Within each of those exist a number of varietals each with their own features.
While Robusta beans steam from a hardy stock, they don’t produce a very quality cup of coffee and are often used in low-grade, bulk distribution of coffee. Think truck-stop coffee. Some say Robusta tastes like burnt almonds. Don’t just take our word for it, try it for yourself. Arabica on the other hand is known for higher quality production with a rich sweetness and nice acidity.
5. Coffee certification
When you hear phrases like fair trade, organic, or bird-friendly, it might prompt you to assume you’re getting a better cup of coffee. They often cost more too, which can further one’s assumption that price + certification equates to excellence. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, the certification isn’t as much about how the coffee tastes as how it was grown.
Fair trade means fair prices were paid to the farmers in the growing country.
Organic means the coffee was grown without use of chemicals or pesticides.
Bird-friendly means that the coffee trees are planted under a canopy of trees, rather than in farms cleared of vegetation, allowing for more natural habitat for birds.
These certifications are available to all growers, but not all growers can afford the certification process even if they are following all the rules. Many growers are participating in fair trade partnerships with co-ops or brokers without the label. Some farmers are using organic growing practices to grow more sustainably and economically, as chemicals can be quite costly even though they don’t have an organic stamp of approval. Many coffees are grown in the shade of other tree canopies without the certification of being bird friendly.
Certifications can help ensure that good practices were used when growing your coffee, but that doesn’t mean coffee without certifications is bad. This is a good opportunity to think about who you are buying your coffee from. Talk with your roaster, the good ones will know how your coffee was produced and would be happy to talk with you about it.
6. Roast Dates
Unlike fine wine, roasted coffee does not get better with age. At a maximum, coffee should be consumed within 30 days of roasting to avoid over oxidation. I personally only buy coffee within 1-5 days past the roast date.
Espresso though needs a few days to off gas. The optimal time to pull espresso is 5-7 days after roasting.
Over time, coffee will get stale and began to ferment as it oxidizes, even if it’s in a vacuum sealed bag. When you’re purchasing a bag of coffee, be sure to look for the roast date. No roast date is like putting a casserole in your freezer without a date on it. Did you make this last month or last summer? It’s a gamble, just don’t do it.