Understanding Coffee Bags
For those just entering into this beautiful world of specialty coffee, finding the right coffee for your personal preference might not be that simple in the beginning, but the process is soo worth it!
To help us in our coffee quest, we are going to break down the following key points you will commonly find on a bag of beans:
- Origin (Name of the farmer, farm, producer, village, region, etc)
- Variety of the Tree
- Processing Method
- Roasting level and date
- Sensory note
Origin is the story of all that makes up the unique journey of a coffee from the farm to the cup. The more traceable, the better.
You will likely find 1) coffees of a ‘single origin’ and 2) ‘blends’, or coffees that are blended together.
You may also find micro-lots or nano-lots, which are special single-origin coffees: rare, refined and delicious.
It may be easier to initially select your coffee by its’ country of origin: usually, African coffees are the fruitiest, brightest and juiciest. Central and South American coffees are usually heavier, with bolder bodies and flavors of chocolate and caramel.
Buying single-origin coffees allow us to taste the unique characteristics of each bean, terroir, processing, etc. Buying blends can also be interesting, as a rich, full-bodied coffee may be blended with a fruity juicy coffee for a balanced mouthfeel and interesting sensory experience.
Here at Fábrica, we prefer to showcase the individual characteristics of our beans, so mostly sell in single-origin.
The ‘Altitude’ of a coffee plantation is measured in Meters Above Sea Level (MASL)
Usually, the higher altitude a coffee, (1000 MASL plus) the higher the density, the higher the quality and complexity, but this is not always true. There is a lot of climate factors that affect the flavor and overall quality of a coffee.
The coffee publication ‘Perfect Daily Grind’ gave a lovely example where a coffee grown on the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, with only 200 MASL, with a colder and specific climate, provides a complex, tasty and sweet coffee.
Variety of Tree
Coffee begins its life as a fruit on a tree. And like many fruits, has different species and varieties.
The most commercialized species are Arabica and Canephora (Robusta)
Species: Specialty coffees tend to always be Arabica; known for its’ wide scope of potential flavors, delicate aromas and pleasant notes on the palate. They are more difficult to farm, as they require specific climates and conditions for their growth and are susceptible to diseases and pests. Robusta is popular in the commodities sector. The flavor is more intense and bitter, and contains almost double the caffeine content of Arabica.
Varieties: The genus Coffea has around 100 varieties, a handful of which are commercially relevant. Some common varieties are; Bourbon, Catuaí, Gesha, Various Heirloom varieties, Caturra, Scott Laboratories: SL34 and SL28.
They each have their own individual characteristics.
How the coffee fruit is processed down to its seed form (known as a coffee ‘bean’) has a huge impact on the flavor. There are three main processing methods;
1. Washed, 2. Semi-washed (Honey) and 3. Natural,
but we are beginning to see some very interesting developments in the processing of coffee such as various phases of controlled fermentation.
- Washed: This usually results in a cleaner tasting coffee.
- Semi-Washed (Honey): A combination of the natural and washed methods. The fruit is pulped and dried with the mucilage still attached. Results in a fuller coffee than its washed counterpart.
- Natural: Can result in fruitier flavors with enhanced round sweetness. Is harder for the farmer to control the drying process.
Roast Grade and Date
It is common for a roastery to sell one or more roast types. Usually a darker one for espresso and a lighter one for filter.
When buying beans, try and buy the freshest you possibly can. (Don’t trust a coffee that has only the expiration date on it, as coffee won’t expire for a long time, but can taste flat after a month or two from the roast date) For best results, BEGIN using them around a week after their roast date and try to FINISH them between one to two months after their roast date.
For a coffee to be certified as “specialty” it needs to be tasted and evaluated (as 80 out of 100 or higher) through a specific method (known as cupping) by various qualified professionals (known as Q-graders).
Here are some points a coffee will be graded on:
- Absence of defects
- Overall harmony
- Final concept
According to the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association), “the quality attributes of coffee cover a wide range of concepts, ranging from physical characteristics, such as origins, varieties, color and size, and even environmental and social concerns, such as the production systems and the working conditions of the coffee workforce”
All of the descriptive flavor notes we see on the coffee bags are naturally occurring, and the product of the coffee bean’s journey from the farm to the cup. The coffees are described by professional coffee tasters at the various phases of testing, and lastly with us here at the roastery.
Hopefully this has helped you to better understand specialty coffee bag labels. For any further questions, don’t hesitate to contact us!