The best coffee beans for you: How to select them and why
... or how to make your taste buds smile
You remember the saying – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is truer when it comes to the taste of a coffee. My favourite cup might not be your cup of ‘tea’ at all.
So understanding what you like and what you don’t like in a coffee is a great starting point. We help you to describe what you like in your cup and how to select the best coffee beans for you.
We will explore flavour, acidity, roast levels, body, strength and freshness. Let’s get started.
Flavour – What flavours do you enjoy in your coffee?
Chocolate, caramel, toffee, honey, nuttiness
Who doesn’t like those tastes? Comforting, sweet, indulging. Good news, most of the coffees with this flavour profile come from Central and South America.
Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer and in recent years many family-owned and smallholder coffee farmers have changed their coffee production to cultivating specialty coffees. If you are after a full-bodied cup with mellow acidity, filled with caramel, chocolate and nutty flavour a great specialty grade Brazilian coffee is your go-to coffee.
The biggest wildly fruity coffees out there are the natural processed Ethiopian coffees. Great body and balanced acidity.
You will also find beautiful berry and tropical fruit qualities in coffees from Kenya, Tanzania, and Burundi.
Floral and herbal
If you are after floral and tea-like notes, you are looking for more delicate coffees. Try Ethiopian washed coffees. They are famous for their distinct and elegant floral, herbal, and citrus notes. The body of the coffee is lighter and its acidity is milder.
Earthy and spicy
If you prefer earthy, savoury and spicy notes in your coffee try coffees from Sumatra and India. In particular, Sumatra coffees due to its wet hulling processing method coffees tend to be earthy, spicy, wild, mossy and mushroomy.
If you like earthy flavours in your coffee, you might be one of the coffee drinkers who prefer the traditional taste of Robusta coffee beans. No judgment here. As we said: taste is very individual!
Arabica vs Robusta coffee beans?
As a specialty coffee roaster, we usually don’t spend much time (if any) on Robusta coffee beans. However, in the spirit of helping find the best coffee beans for your taste buds, here is a brief comparision. After all, 30% of all coffee produced in the world are Robusta.
Robusta is known for its pronounced earthy, bitter, and rubbery taste. You often find it in traditional Italian commercial-style coffees and commercial coffees on supermarket shelves. Here are some interesting facts:
Robusta coffee contains slightly more caffeine than arabica beans:
- Caffeine in Robusta coffee: 1.7 – 3.5%
- Caffeine in Arabica coffee: 0.8 – 1.5%.
Caffeine is one of the most bitter substances, which explains why Robusta has a distinct bitter taste. In commercial espresso blends, it is often used together with Arabica coffee beans to help bolster strength (and bitterness).
Robusta coffee beans are less sweet than arabica beans:
- Sugar in Robusta coffee: 3 – 7%:
- Sugar in Arabica coffee: 6 – 9%
This means Robusta has more bitterness and less sweetness. You might have wondered why many Robusta espresso drinkers are putting two spoon-fulls of sugar in their coffee. Now you know why.
Another interesting fact about Robusta coffee: it has a lower percentage of oil (10 – 12%) which makes a thick stable crema. Arabica coffees have a higher percentage of oil (15 – 17%) in their cellular structure, which gives you the beautiful creamy texture and silky crema.
Acidity – Sparkling bright or mellow?
Acidity in coffee is not easy to define. Many words come to mind: lively, tangy, sour, juicy, sharp, bright, fruity, or sparkling.
Compare the acidity of a peach to that of a lemon. We get a different sensation. Some forms of acidic sensation we find more pleasing than others.
Acidity combined with all the other characteristics of our coffee, can make your brew more interesting and improve the sensory experience. That is if you love acidity.
So what impacts the acidic sensation we experience in our coffee?
Processing method and acidity
Recall, in the washing process the ripe coffee cherries are de-pulped, meaning the fruit flesh surrounding the coffee beans is removed. The coffee beans are then soaked in water. This soaking process leeches sugars from the bean. With fewer sugars in the coffee bean, you have an increased perception of acidity in your cup.
In the natural process, the coffee bean is dried in the fruit flesh leaving the coffee cherry intact. Sugars from the fruit flesh pass into the coffee bean and the perceived acidity of the coffee is neutralised or balanced out.
Origin and acidity
If acidity (brightness) in your brew is your thing, Kenyan coffees are your go-to origin. Kenya offers some of the most brightly acidic coffees, combined with a good body and rich aromas. And taste profiles range from tropical fruits, berries and citrus to winey.
Altitude and acidity
Altitude and processing methods can also have an impact on the coffee’s acidity. In general, coffees grown at higher altitudes (above 1500 meters) are denser and display a higher acidity.
Roast level and acidity
Throughout the roasting process, citric and malic acids diminish. Hence the darker the roast level, the lower the acidity. Conversely lighter roasted coffees retain the acidity.
So in summary, if you are after heaps of acidity, African washed coffees, grown at high altitude and a lighter filter roast will maximise acidity in your coffee.
If you are averse to acidity try lower grown coffees, natural dried or medium to dark roasted coffees.
Roast level – Light, medium or dark roast coffee?
Well, that depends on what you are after in your brew?
The rule of thumb - the darker the roast level, the lower its acidity and sweetness, the fewer its inherent characteristics and the higher its bitterness. The lighter the roast the brighter its acidity and the more pronounced the coffee bean's original flavours.
Source: Jessica Easto, the author of “craft coffee: A manual”
Filter roast coffees
Our filter roasts are medium-light roast coffees to highlight the coffee’s acidity and the coffee’s unique origin characteristics. We select coffees with enchanting fruit flavours and/or juicy acidity for our filter roasts. Filter roast coffees are perfect for any kind of slow brewing which will extract those delicious flavours left in the bean throughout the roasting process.
Espresso roast coffees
Our espresso blends and single origin coffees are roasted to a medium roast level to achieve a sweeter more balanced and approachable cup with a good body, whilst maintaining clear origin character. This makes our espresso roasts most versatile, so you can enjoy them across a range of different brewing methods: espresso, stovetop, V60, batch brew, Chemex, Aeropress, Clever dripper and plunger.
Dark roast vs medium roast coffee beans
The difference between medium and dark roast coffees less clear. Both roast levels are used for espresso-based beverages. So, which of the two should you choose?
- Medium roast coffees: you can use for espresso and many other brewing methods, as we discussed earlier. They maintain a balanced acidity, sweetness, good body and many of the origin’s characteristics in the coffee.
- Dark roast coffees, in our view, should only be used for espresso-based beverages in combination with milk and flavouring syrups such as frappes layered with cream and caramel in the summertime. They have more prominent/dominant bittersweet and charred notes.
Your favourite local coffee roaster will most likely sit either in the medium roast or in the dark roast coffee camp. For us, we roast our espresso blends and single origins to a medium roast level.
Body - Delicate or full-bodied?
Now, body is a bit more difficult to explain as we can’t taste it. Body in coffee is the sensation of weight and texture. It is something we feel when we are drinking a cup of coffee. Did it leave a buttery, light, delicate or a heavy sensation? That’s difficult to comprehend right?
Well, think of the following. Sip on a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a glass of port wine and compare the pair. The mouthfeel is very different, right? The Sauvignon Blanc is presumably more delicate and the port wine buttery and heavy in your mouth. Now, try to sip on an espresso and a pour-over coffee? Again, the mouthfeel will be very different. Mouthfeel is influenced by a couple of things:
Strength and body
Strength in coffee is measured by total dissolved solubles or in short ‘TDS’. With more strength, you get a sensation of a bigger mouthfeel. When water infuses the dry coffee grounds, the coffee's solubles are extracted. Some of the main solubles in coffee are caffeine, acids, lipids, melanoidins sugars and plant fibres.
To explain the concept of strength in coffee let’s continue with our wine example.
On the label of our bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, it states 12% alcohol. So 12% of the wine is alcohol. What is for wine the percentage of alcohol is for coffee the % of TDS. For example good TDS levels for espresso range typically between 8% - 12%, and for a pour over between 1.15% - 1.35%. That means a cup espresso with a TDS of 8% consists of 8% of dissolved compounds extracted from the coffee grounds and 92% of water. Whereas a pour over coffee with a TDS of 1.15% consists of 1.15% of dissolved ground of coffee and 98.85% of water. The higher the TDS, the higher the strength and higher perceived body. You would perceive the espresso to be stronger with more body than that of a pour over coffee.
Now TDS sounds awfully complicated. The good news is you can directly influence strength and therefore the body in your cup. Here are the three simple things to consider when chasing strength:
- Brewing method
An espresso will have more strength than a pour over coffee. Immersion brewing methods such as the clever dripper, plunger or inverted Aeropress will produce more strength than a pour over coffee, as the contact time between water and ground coffee is longer and more soluble compounds can be dissolved into your brew.
- Grind size
if you for example brew your coffee with a small coffee maker (batch brew such as the Moccamaster) at home, and you use a finer grind size, you will find your coffee has more strength than brewed with a coarser grind size. Why is that? With a finer grind you slow down the water flow rate and the water is in longer contact with the coffee to extract its soluble compounds. A finer grind size also creates a larger surface area for the water to dissolve the soluble compounds. So finer grind means more strength. Be careful though not to grind too fine, as you otherwise extract too many of the bitter soluble compounds into your cup.
- Amount of coffee (coffee to water ratio)
Vary the ratio of ground coffee to brewing water. Using more ground coffee per cup for more strength. For example, instead of using 16g of ground coffee per 250ml of brewing water for your V60 pour over brewing, simply try 20g per 250ml of brewing water.
And no, the TDS % is not noted on the coffee packaging as it depends on your brewing method, grind size and amount of coffee you use in your brew. If you have been buying coffee from supermarket shelves you might be accustomed to a strength rating on your pack of coffee. Let me burst that bubble. This strength rating has nothing to do with the strength in the coffee but more with the roast level of your coffee. A high strength rating on your supermarket coffee packaging actually means that the particular coffee has been roasted rather dark and you can expect more bitterness. Try to avoid coffees with strength ratings on it. Most likely quality and flavour profiles have not been the primary focus.
Roast level and body
Darker roasted coffees can have a fuller and thicker texture. This is because their longer roasting process lets the beans develop its oils and bring them to the surface. These oils end then up in your cup creating a perception of a heavier body. Note, paper filters trap many of the oils in the coffee, while metal allows them to pass through.
So if you are after a full-bodied cup of coffee look for:
- medium to dark roasted coffees,
- natural, pulped natural and honey processed coffees
- choose your brewing method to extract high TDS
- play with grind setting and coffee amount
Freshness - Fresh roasted coffee is best
Recently we heard an ad on the radio: “Freshly ground coffee.” And we found it rather funny. Huh! The question is rather when was the coffee roasted.
Roasted coffee beans are considered to peak in aromas, flavours and acidity approximately 3 weeks after roasting. After that time they gradually lose some of its deliciousness and intense flavours. We recommend consuming your coffee between 4 days to 6 weeks after roasting.
So, how do you know the roasting date? Good point. Your coffee beans from your specialty coffee roaster will clearly state the roast date. Be wary of coffees which display best before dates, or packaged on dates. There is a reason why they don’t want you to know.
If you can, buy coffee beans instead of ground coffee. Ground coffee loses its deliciousness much faster.
We hope you will find the best coffee beans that make your taste buds smile.