Coffee Buying Guide

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world and there are many types of coffee beans, roasts, and coffee drinks available. How does one navigate this world of coffee choices? Here are some basic facts about coffee that will give you a little more information when making your next coffee purchase.

With origins in Africa, the coffee plant is mainly grown in hot subtropical regions of the world. Growing coffee is the main source of income for many people in third world countries. The coffee bean grows on a large shrub-like plant that produces fruit, or coffee “cherries”. Inside the cherries are seeds that, when processed and dried, give us the coffee bean.

Coffee plants have traditionally been grown under the shade of trees. This type of cultivation causes the berries to ripen more slowly and produces lower yields. However, many people prefer this “shade-grown” coffee as it produces a more flavorful drink and doesn’t promote the de-forestation of land.

Most coffee, however, is grown under full-sun cultivation. This method has the coffee plants growing on cleared land in full-sun. This method speeds up the growing process and delivers a higher yield of coffee. It is also less environmentally friendly, as it requires the clearing of forested land and uses more water, fertilizers and pesticides than the shade-grown method.

Coffee that is purchased under a Fairtrade certification insures the buyer that the coffee was grown, harvested, and carried through the supply chain in accordance with international fair trade standards set by the governing organization FLO International. This certification not only guarantees fair prices paid to growers, but ethical purchasing principles. These principles include banning child and slave labor, guaranteeing a safe workplace, investing in social development and conservation of the environment among the farms. Fairtrade coffee prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms and the most hazardous pesticides – it is not necessarily organic. A product that is Fairtrade must carry the Fairtrade Certification Mark.

Organic coffee sold in the U.S. must be produced in accordance with U.S. standards and accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These standards include farming methods that have a low impact on the environment and using organic production systems to replenish and maintain soil fertility. Also included are farming without synthetic pesticides for three years before certification and using a sustainable crop rotation plan to prevent soil erosion and the depletion of soil nutrients. Organic coffee will carry the USDA organic seal as long as 95% or more of the ingredients have been certified as organic.

There are two main types of coffee beans grown in the world today, Robusta and Arabica. Arabica is considered a better more flavorful coffee to drink and about two-thirds of the coffee grown today is Arabica. Robusta beans have less flavor and tend to be bitter, however, they are known to give coffee a great “body” and the plants can grow in many regions where Arabica plants cannot. Most Robusta beans are mixed in as filler for lower quality coffees, while high-quality Robusta beans are used in some espresso blends because it gives a better “head” and full-bodied flavor. Robusta beans also contain about 40-50% more caffeine than Arabica beans.

Beans grown in different regions have distinct characteristics in flavor, body, aroma, and acidity – much like grapes grown for wine. Certain varietals of beans are known by the regions they are grown in, such as Columbian, Kona, or Java. There are more than 20 regional varieties of coffee beans grown mainly in the subtropical regions of the world.

Most coffee is still harvested by hand. Ripe “cherries” are picked, sorted and stripped of their flesh to reveal the beans. Beans are then allowed to ferment in order to remove the remainder of the cherry pulp. Next, they are washed and allowed to dry in the sun. Some beans in very humid regions are dried with hot air dryers. At this point, the dried coffee beans are called “green” coffee. A very small percentage of green coffee beans are sold directly to the consumer so they can roast them at home. Most green coffee beans are either sent to a roaster or, for decaffeinated coffee, sent to a processing plant where the caffeine is removed.

The decaffeination process involves soaking the green coffee beans in hot water or steaming them, and then removing the caffeine oils with a solvent. The solvent is broken down during the roasting process. The process used to decaffeinate organic coffee uses only water. Decaffeinated coffee may still contain at least 2-4mg of coffee per 8 ounce serving. The caffeine that is removed during the decaffeination process is sold to pharmaceutical companies.

The roasting process changes the physical and chemical makeup of the coffee bean giving them their trademark flavor and color we know and love. The darker the roast, the smoother the flavor since there will be less caffeine and more sugars present in the beans. A lighter roast will have more caffeine, hence a more bitter and acidic flavor. A lighter roast will also contain more of its “origin” flavor of where it was grown, so coffees like Kona, Columbian, and Fiji are typically given a lighter roast.

The different roasting levels from darkest to lightest are labeled as very dark, dark, medium dark, medium, medium light, and light. These levels can be seen by the naked eye, however, a more precise measurement is taken by measuring the reflected light from roasted beans with a spectroscope.

Coffee beans may be sold to the consumer already ground or in roasted bean form. If you have coffee that is already ground, it is best to use it as soon as possible. Store all coffee (ground and un-ground) in an airtight container in a cool dry place. Never store your coffee in the freezer or refrigerator! It will absorb smells (losing it’s own flavors) that are in your fridge – much like baking soda.

If you choose to grind your own coffee beans, there are several different types of grinding processes. You can use a blade grinder, the most inexpensive kind of coffee grinder that uses a blade to cut up the beans. You leave the coffee in the grinder longer for a finer grind. This method, however, produces an uneven grind and therefore can lead to inconsistent quality of the brewed coffee.

Another type of grinder is called a burr mill, which crushes the beans between the surface of the mill and a moving grinding wheel. This type is preferable for the home grinder since it produces a more even grind. There are two types of these, a wheel burr, which uses two wheels that spin very fast to grind the coffee, and a conical burr, which spins at lower speeds and is more preferable because it causes less mess and can be used for oily or flavored coffees.

Here is a quick tutorial on some of the types of brewing methods available once you have ground your coffee beans:

Drip Brewed: Hot water is dripped over coffee grounds that have been placed on a filter. The brewed coffee then drips out from the bottom of the filter into a glass or insulated carafe below. This is the most common form of coffee making in the U.S.

French Press: Made by placing coarsely ground coffee in a glass French-press carafe, water is poured into the carafe and a top with a plunger (a mesh filter) is placed on top. The plunger is pressed down leaving the grounds at the bottom with the coffee “liquor” on top. A coarser grind is required for a French press since the mess filter is not as fine as a paper coffee filter. A longer steep time is required for French press.

Espresso: Made by forcing hot water, under pressure, through finely ground coffee. This makes a very concentrated coffee beverage with strong flavor and contains two-three times more caffeine per ounce than regular drip coffee.

Concentrate Brewing: Very popular in Latin America. This process involves brewing large amounts of coffee with little water to make a concentrate. To make a cup of coffee, a little bit of the concentrate is then mixed with hot water.

“Turkish” or “Greek” Coffee: This type of brewing uses coffee that has been ground into a very fine dust and added to boiling water. The coffee is not strained out and is thus left in the bottom of your coffee cup.

There are many different types of coffee drinks that can be made from the ground coffee bean. We’ve listed a few of them here to help you out:

Black coffee: coffee served straight-up, no milk.

Café Americano: A single shot of espresso diluted with about 7 ounces of water.

Café au Lait: Equal parts brewed coffee and milk.

Caffe Latte: A shot of espresso in steamed milk. Milk to espresso ratio is 3:1.

Café Macchiato (or just Macchiato): A shot of espresso with steam milk added. Milk to espresso ratio is 1:4.

Cappuccino: Equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk.

Frappe: An iced coffee beverage

Irish Coffee: A drip brewed coffee spiked with Irish whiskey, with cream on top. Typically an after-dinner drink on cold nights.

Mocha: A Cappuccino or Latte with chocolate syrup added.

White coffee: A drip brewed coffee with milk added.