A few months ago, I was brewing coffee in my French press as I usually do. Every time I do so, I generally follow a consistent ratio of coffee to water and brew for exactly four minutes before I press. Still, this time tasted different. I was trying a new coffee, and for some reason, it tasted absolutely out of this world, both black and with milk and sugar. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why, though, other than it being a particularly good bag. I lamented the end of the bag, but that transcendental coffee experience got me thinking about more than the brewing process. I took a closer look at the packaging and finally started making some mental notes about the coffee’s characteristics. All of this information had been in front of me the entire time and I never thought to look! (Spoiler: this bag was from No Decaf Allowed, Achilles Coffee’s East Village blend from El Salvador ).
At the beginning, it was a bit like trying to decipher a foreign language. I could read all the different words, but at first they didn’t make sense. For those who were as interested in coffee but relatively clueless about the specifics like I was (and I’m definitely still learning!), I’ve put together a bit of a crash-course guide to what to look out for.
One of the most obvious pieces of information on most coffee bags is the coffee’s country of origin– unless you’re brewing a blend of multiple different coffees or perhaps a flavored coffee. Due to the wildly different geographies, altitudes, soil properties and more in different coffees, every country produces distinct flavors! For example, Ethiopian coffee is known to generally have floral and citrus notes. Personally, I found myself drawn to Colombian coffees in particular.
Additionally, if there is a roast date, this is a good sign! It means that the coffee roaster is roasting beans fresh. Usually, coffee is best within the first few months of roasting. If there’s no roast date, no worries, but your coffee is likely more of a grocery-store variety, probably pre-ground and/or mass produced. If it ends up not tasting the best, this could be a reason why. Most coffee snobs swear by buying whole bean coffee and grinding it yourself for the freshest flavor, but there’s no shame in pre-ground. It can be a lot more convenient, especially if you don’t really have the time or space to have a coffee grinder– or, in my case as a busy college student in a dorm, it could be both!
Continuing my deep read of the coffee bag, I was struck by another stumper of a question: what the heck is a varietal?
Most coffee, especially specialty coffee, is from the Arabica species. A varietal is just the particular subspecies. Geisha, Bourbon, Caturra, and Catimor are just a few examples of varietals you may or may not have seen printed on your coffee bag. Each has their own profile, so start making a note of what the varietal is on your favorite bags so you can narrow in on your personal preferences even further!
Other factors that might affect coffee taste include altitude. Generally, the higher the altitude, the sweeter the taste. However, other factors come into play– further away from the equator, lower-altitude coffee gets sweeter. As previously mentioned, flavor also depends on varietal and origin.
Processing and tasting notes are also listed on most specialty coffee bags. Processing is how the coffee bean was removed from the fruit, which can add either a clean taste or some sweetness/fruitiness. I’ll be honest, I don’t know enough about different processing to pay a whole lot of attention or be picky about processing, but again, something to consider.
Coffee notes are one of my favorite things to look out for when trying coffee black. They can be super subjective, but generally, knowing whether there are chocolatey, nutty, or citrus notes (i.e. impressions, not added in flavors) can help you determine whether the coffee is to your taste or not. For example, a high acidity coffee or one with a more citrus/bitter aftertaste might not be to your preference. Plus, because they are so subjective, coffee tasting notes can get super creative! I’ve seen marshmallow, toffee, brown sugar and even gushers (yes, as in Fruit Gushers) as tasting notes on coffee bags I’ve tried recently.
Hopefully this was somewhat enlightening! I would love to hear in the comments if you’ve narrowed in on your favorite coffee characteristics. If so, what are they?
I read several other blog posts as part of my Internet research, which I’ll link here to check out: