"The coffee aisle in the past few years has exploded from the basic ground beans in a can to a variety of options like single-origin, roast level, tasting notes, whole beans, and different certifications," says Makenzie Bryson Jackson, MS, food scientist and product development manager at Panaceutics. "Specialty coffee is a booming sector and it’s getting almost as complex as choosing a bottle of wine. And while there are many ways to brew coffee, if you don’t start with fresh, high-quality beans, you won’t be able to extract high-quality flavors."
To simplify the process of choosing the best coffee beans, Jackson breaks it down into four helpful factors that will point you in the right direction. Here's what to look for before making your next purchase.
How to choose coffee beans
1. Roast date
The first thing to consider when choosing coffee beans is the roast date (something you can find right on the label), which tells you the freshness of the roasted beans. "Coffee beans are found in the cherry of the coffee plant. Because they're agriculturally derived, they don’t have an infinite shelf life. There is some debate, but the general consensus is that coffee is best about 7 days after it has been roasted because post-roasting reactions have settled down. If the beans are old, they'll have a stale, flat flavor. The rule of thumb is 7 to 21 days after roasting the coffee is best, however there isn't a set expiration date. Just know the beans will lose flavor over time."
Once you open up the package, make sure you're practicing proper storage to ensure those beans stay fresh for as long as possible. Jackson recommends putting them in an airtight vessel with no light exposure—like this one from Airscape ($29)—as both exposure to air and light can cause your beans to go bad quickly.
2. Type of roast
The type of roast is also an important factor to consider when choosing coffee beans. "The roasting process brings out nutty, caramel, and chocolate notes due to the Maillard reaction of the water, protein, and sugars naturally present in the beans reacting together with heat," says Jackson. "The darker the roast, the more intense the flavor will be."
According to Jackson, lighter roasts have more acidity and fruit-forward flavors, while darker roasts have more chocolate and caramel notes. And fun fact: "Lighter roasts contain more caffeine because caffeine is degraded in the roasting process," she says. It's a good idea to try out different kinds of roasts to figure out what you like since the end result will be so different for each.
3. Type of beans
If you want a higher quality bean, make sure it's arabica, aka the oldest species of coffee from arabica plants. "Most coffee you purchase will likely be arabica, but it's good to check," she says. And when choosing between whole beans and ground beans, whole is the way to go—even if that means investing in a coffee grinder.
The reason to avoid already-ground beans whenever possibles is that the shelf life will be much shorter. "That's because more surface area of the bean is exposed to oxygen," says Jackson. "I also recommend buying whole beans so as to control grind size for whichever brewing method you may be interested in that day. The grind size will entirely depend on the brewing method you prefer."
4. Type of process
Coffee beans are actually the seeds of cherries produced by coffee plants, and there are two mains types of processing that remove the bean from the cherry. "There's natural or washed. In the natural process, the coffee bean dries out in the cherry. Wet processed or washed, on the other hand, involves removing the outer skin and hull, and then it's dried," says Jackson.
Different flavors come from different types of processing. "Natural coffee may have more berry and fruity notes and be less acidic, and washed coffees will have more of the flavor of the bean itself and may have a 'cleaner taste.' But it's all preference," she says. "The majority of coffee beans are wet processed. Neither is better or worse, but they do have different flavors profiles. Some specialty coffee makers will denote the process type, but most do not."
5. Company practices
Something important to look into when purchasing coffee goes beyond the roast, type of bean, and process. It's the practices and philosophies of the company you're buying from. "Think about what attributes are important to you when you select produce. This then extends to coffee too," says Jackson. "Coffee trees typically grow in regions where it's easy for companies to exploit workers. To me, it's important to purchase from growers that have fair-trade practices. However, official certifications like fair-trade can be a huge expense for small farmers and growers, so I don’t worry as much about the certifications but instead look at the supply chain and practices."
Different beans for different brewing methods
Different brewing methods work best with certain grind sizes and roasts. There are three in particular Jackson says are good to know about before making your cup of coffee:
- Drip coffee: Medium roast beans with a medium grind
- French press: Darker roast with a coarse grind
- Espresso: Darkest roast and a very fine grind
That said, you can also just go with whichever roast you like. "As long as the grind is the right size, it will work in most brewing methods," she says.
Everyday beans and special occasion beans
There are also coffee beans Jackson prefers for every day, and others she loves saving for special occasions. "I like to use a blend of beans (not single-origin) for my everyday coffee when I add cream," she says. "I usually save single-origin coffees for a special occasion, much like having a table red for a weeknight dinner and a region-specific wine for a celebration."
The best coffee beans to buy, according to a food scientist
There's a lot to consider when choosing coffee beans, but these are Jackson's favorite brands.
If you want to support a company that's the definition of girl power, this is it. "Café Femenino has a great mission and support women coffee growers. It's also women-owned," says Jackson. "I love their single-origin Guatemalan and Peruvian roasts."
Shop now: Café Femenino Organic Peru Lambayeque Whole Bean Coffee, $15
Most days, you'll find Jackson sipping on Counter Culture Coffee. "They've exploded onto the specialty coffee scene and are from my home state of North Carolina. I love using their Fast Forward or Hologram blends for everyday drinking," she says. "They also have an assortment of single-origin beans. The company has great resources, and a variety of sources for their beans. Their beans also tend to be lighter roast with more fruit-forward notes."
Shop now: Counter Culture Coffee Hologram Whole Bean Coffee, $15
3. Joe Van Gogh "Let There Be Light" Gourmet Coffee, $64 for 5 lbs.
If you prefer light roast coffee, this option is a keeper. The company roasts small-batch specialty coffee in an American Nordic style, which they say gives you a bright "pop" of satisfying flavor. The beans are also made to order and shipped directly from the roasting facility. Talk about fresh.
Shop now: Joe Van Gogh "Let There Be Light" Gourmet Coffee, $64 for 5 lbs.
B&W Coffee Roasters' coffee beans will definitely take your morning brew to the next level. "These roasters have a thoughtfulness to their brand and process that I love," says Jackson. "They go into which process type the beans have gone through, and it's very easy to taste the difference between each bean type."
Shop now: B&W Coffee Roasters The Classic Whole Bean Coffee, $15
Heart Coffee Roasters have so many different everyday flavors to choose from, from mandarin and almond brittle to blackcurrant and jasmine. Pretty sure sipping on either of those options would be a great way to start the day.
Shop now: Heart Coffee Roasters Guatemala Los Suspiros Coffee Beans, $19
Stumptown Coffee Roasters has a strong focus on sustainability—and they also have really strong coffee. This bold blend has tasting notes of citrus and dark chocolate, and it's sure to wake you up quickly.
Shop now: Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender Whole Bean Coffee, $14
This single-origin coffee from Ethiopia has flavor notes of peach candy and black tea. You also get all the details of exactly where it comes from and how it's made, from the producer to the process to the altitude it's grown at.
Shop now: Peaks Coffee Co. Ethiopia Nano Lot #3 Coffee, $21
How to make creamy, dairy-free coffee:
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