Deciding what beans to buy can be a daunting task for a beginner. There are many variables to take into consideration. But rather than saying, “ah, screw it” and getting smashed with your friends, read through the rest of this page and you’ll be scolding foolish Yuban customers in no time.
Not all coffee is created equal. For that reason, you’ll find that coffee is divided into a number of categories and sub-categories. For simplicity, I’m only going to explain the major categories of coffee here. One other thing — if you don’t know the difference between arabica and robusta (the two types of plants coffee beans come from) you might want to read the page on coffee plants.
- Milds are the arabica beans from plants grown at high altitudes. These produce the best coffee and are what you should always use for espresso.
- Brazils are arabica beans grown in Brazil. But here’s where the classification system gets a bit screwy — milds also come from Brazil. The difference is that “Brazils” are from plants grown at low altitudes. These beans will not be as good as milds, but are quite a bit cheaper.
- Robustas come from the inferior robusta plant. Don’t even think about buying these flavorless and aroma-less beans.
Countries of origin
There are over three dozen coffee producing countries on this little planet. Each country’s coffee is different; sometimes drastically different. Some you’ll find more often than others. For example, you’ll find Brazillian coffee just about everywhere. Within each country, every farm is going to have varying batches from one “season” to the next (coffee berries grow eight or more times a year.) Much like the IT industry, one coffee can be excellent today but mediocre or overpriced two months from now.
So since the information I could give you here would be outdated by the time you go to purchase coffee, I recommend finding a knowledgeable seller and asking them for their recommendations. But do keep in mind that some of best coffee isn’t terribly expensive. If your local coffee roaster is always trying to hawk their most expensive beans, perhaps you should look elsewhere.
Ever see unroasted coffee? Raw beans smell kind of like grass, and are soft in texture. They tend to be shipped in burlap sacks. I don’t think it’s possible to make coffee out of these, but if you did it would probably be completely disgusting. In fact, it might even taste like wheatgrass juice! Barf!
If you’re going to buy unroasted beans and do your own roasting, feel free to skip the next section.
Just about any coffee shop that roasts coffee will have a variety of roasted beans. If you find yourself wondering what the hell the difference between “House” and “Espresso” roasts is, you’re not alone. Here are some common names you’ll find:
- Light/Cinnamon Roast: These have been roasted very little. They’ll produce an acidic, highly caffeinated coffee. It will be quite bitter. Contrary to the name, it does not contain cinnamon — but the color is similar. You may not find this anywhere other than in North American.
- House/Medium/American Roast: This is simply a medium roast that any coffee shop in America will use for all their drip coffee. The cheap stuff (Yuban, Folgers, etc.) is often a medium roast. These days you can find medium roasts used in espresso at upscale cafes.
- Dark/City Medium Roast: Darker roasts have less caffeine, and are less bitter and acidic. You’ll notice that they’re often sweeter than a medium. This is the lightest roast that’s generally used for espresso.
- French/City Roast: This tends to be even darker than a dark roast. The beans should look very dark brown and oily. At coffee shops run by clueless people, this means the coffee will be burnt to a crisp and kind of disgusting. Some people use such burnt beans *cough* Starbucks *cough* for their espresso. Then again, some people also listen to Britney Spears voluntarily.
- Espresso/Italian/Full City/Very Dark Roast: This is the darkest roast, typically used for espresso.
One thing you should keep in mind when purchasing roasted coffee is you have to judge the coffee by your own eyes. The aforementioned roast names above are somewhat vague and not completely universal. A good roaster will have suggestions for you if you’re doing espresso. NONE of the coffee should look charcoal black — the darker roasts should be oily and therefore shiny.
Now that you know what to look for in a roasted bean, you may be wondering what all this means. Simple: it’s all chemistry. Chemistry was never my favorite subject, but fortunately, it’s not very complicated if you remember some basic rules.
The darker beans should produce a slightly sweeter coffee, as the natural sugars in the beans will caramelize. As the roast gets darker some of the acid and some of the caffeine get burned off. This means that the lighter coffee is more bitter, acidic, and less sweet. For espresso dark-ish roasts are best, as they create (at least ideally) espresso that’s sweet with a (relatively) less bitter aftertaste.
These days though, it’s not a sure thing that all espresso will use a very dark roast. You’ll find coffee houses that prefer a medium roast for a brighter, more acidic flavor.
Blended coffee is (if you’ll pardon the pun) a mixed bag. Sometimes roasters blend coffee to create consistent quality for consumers, which is awesome. Other times, cheap coffee is blended with better coffee to create an adequate cuppa joe that costs little to produce (but isn’t necessarily cheaper for the consumer.) Espresso is most often made using blends, since it means you can get a similarly-tasting shot all year.
You’ve probably seen a few common blends before — even supermarkets stock blends labeled “Mocha Java.” Mocha in this context refers to the coffees from Yemen and Ethiopia, and Java refers to Indonesian beans. Ideally, Java provides a good body and Mocha beans flavor the coffee. But it has nothing to do with a chocolaty espresso drink.
Not all blends are so simple. The ratio and content of many blends change as coffee fiends work in secret underground laboratories to achieve a perfect balance. Most roasters will sell their first born child before they’d tell anyone their top-secret blend recipes.
You’ve seen flavored coffee beans in grocery stores and import stores, but rarely in serious cafes. There is a reason for this: flavored beans tend to be made with low quality coffee. The flavor is supposed to mask the mediocrity but it rarely does. You’d might as well just buy your coffee at 7-11 if you can stomach flavored beans.
Where to buy
GoCoffeeGo sells the best coffee from many of the best roasters. They now have $5.75 shipping for small orders. GoCoffeeGo also has an office delivery program, which is great if you need a lot of coffee to keep your workforce perky.
Just about everybody knows Illy, a top Italian coffee company. Their coffee is served at cafes worldwide. If you order online they’ll throw in free shipping if you order enough (currently $75 or more.)
CoffeeForLess.com has a wide variety of coffees — some good, others bad (Folgers? Are you serious?) but they have real coffee at good prices as well as espresso machines, grinders, and — get this — battery powered mugs that mix and reheat your coffee! What’ll they think of next?
Mouth’s Coffee Shop features some intriguing and hard to find beans from small indie roasters. Check out their coffee-based treats as well.