Real coffee geeks love to read the label for good reason. There are 7 essential nuggets of information that will help you identify an awesome coffee and pick the perfect bag before even parting with your cash. Let’s learn the art of how to read a coffee label.
Most coffee packaging labels at your local supermarket are simple enough to understand, you would probably agree. Pick up any generic bag of supermarket coffee and it’ll tell you that it is indeed coffee inside, it will also say who it was produced by and maybe even how ‘strong’ it is – more on that one later.
In speciality coffee which is generally much better in quality, the information on the bag tends to tell us a lot more about the beans inside and the journey they’ve been on. In fact, you’ll usually find at least 7 pieces of information that will help you choose the perfect coffee to suit your brewing method, your taste and even your mood.
The speciality coffee label is a bit like reading the label on a wine bottle, in that you can use the information provided to almost imagine what you’ll be tasting before you’ve popped the cork. Also like wine labels, coffee bag labels can be confusing. There’s a chance that you’ll be met with some terms you have never seen before or even if you have, you may not know why they are relevant.
We want to take that anxiety away and nurture the feeling that coffee exploration should always be fun! You should feel confident to pick up a new bag and give it a go or spot something you know you just aren’t going to like before you hit the checkout.
We’ve listed the main terms to look out for below and will explain why they are important enough to be on the label in the first place. Most importantly, you’ll learn how they impact on flavour and your brewing experience.
You’ll be reading labels like a seasoned-barista in no time!
Let’s start with the most obvious part of the label. We’re used to looking out for and building up loyalties to brands as consumers. As a coffee lover, you’ll no doubt taste a tonne of different beans from different roasters. You’ll also be building up a cognitive library of those coffees during that process, or a least the ones that stand out.
Simply remembering or even writing down the coffees from the brands you like is a great way to make good choices in the future. It makes it easy for you to associate a particular roaster with their high-quality beans, their signature blend or even their roasting style.
Wine connoisseurs would even carefully remove the label from a bottle and stick it in a journal so that they could recall the memory later on. We’d probably recommend that you just take a snap of the bag on your phone if you want to!
Coffee roasters offer either blends or single origin options. As you can probably guess, blends are made up of combinations of coffees from different origins or species. The classic Italian espresso blend would usually consist of around 60% Arabica beans and 40% Robusta. It is more common in speciality coffee to create blends using just Arabica beans from different origins. We do this to combine the pleasant flavour characteristics that different origins and varietals offer.
Blends are mainly only used for espresso styles of coffee, but you can also get single origin espresso coffee too. Single origin refers to coffee that has only come from one farm or cooperative and is usually used for brewing filter coffees.
The origin is one of the biggest defining factors that determine the taste and quality of your coffee. Coffee beans are like any natural product in that they are affected massively by where they are grown.
Coffees from Brazil tend to be much sweeter and fuller in body than Kenyan coffees which tend to have high-acidity. Speciality coffees from origins in Central America, like Honduras, will usually offer notes of honey and caramel, while Rwandan beans tend to taste like blackcurrants.
As a rule of thumb, most African coffees tend to be bright and acidic, with notes of red and black berries. South American coffees are usually a little less acidic (Colombia usually tastes a little more citrus than Brazil), while Central American coffees are usually sweet and tropical tasting.
We talked a bit about where in the world coffee is grown and how that affects the flavour of the beans but what has height got to do with anything?
Coffee plants, especially Arabica plants, love height and thrive at higher altitudes. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Firstly, they need steady temperatures around 20-30℃, with good levels of sunshine and rain. The climate in the equatorial countries where they are grown can be fiercely hot closer to sea-level you are.
They also require good drainage to prevent stagnant water rotting their roots or promoting the growth of bacteria and fungus. The steep slopes of hills, valleys and even mountains provide the perfect bedrock for Arabicas to plant their roots.
Coffee plants are also highly susceptible to pests keen to feast on their sweet cherries. Caffeine is a natural defence mechanism against bugs and parasites. This is why robusta beans have a much higher caffeine content than arabicas because they can be cultivated at lower altitudes.
The optimum altitude for speciality coffee beans is anywhere above 1,200 masl and can go well above 2,000 masl.
Coffee beans begin their life inside the cherries that grow on the plant. The processing stage is when they’re removed from cherries and dried. It is probably the most confusing coffee term to a lot of people but it is vitally important to the final flavour of the coffee.
The two main processing methods are washed and natural, there are some variants in between but we won’t cover those for now as the first two are the ones you really need to understand.
Beans that are washed have had all of the cherry removed (skin, flesh and mucilage) and been cleaned before they’re dried. The result is a ‘cleaner’ tasting coffee that’s usually lighter in body and acidic. That’s why most Kenyan coffees are washed, as this process really suits the natural flavour characteristics of the beans. Perfect for anyone who loves to brew using an Aeropress!
Naturally processed beans have been dried with the cherry or at least most of it left on which results in a very different flavour. Natural coffees are a bit like Marmite in the coffee industry, people tend to either love them or hate them.
The taste is much more full-on and earthy, which can be a bit much for some people. They work great with coffees that are naturally sweet and full-bodied like Brazilians.
All coffee roasters need to provide the best before date on their packaging, most speciality coffee roasters will also provide the date that the coffee was roasted on too.
The roast date is important because all consumers want to know that what they’re buying is fresh. In coffee especially the roast date provides a second piece of important information that can affect your brewing experience once you get the beans home.
Coffee needs to be rested for at least a couple of days to ‘de-gas’ after it has been roasted. The gas is carbon-dioxide which is a natural bi-product of coffee roasting. It’s totally harmless and almost impossible to detect by taste but it does impact on how your coffee will brew, which is what will affect its taste.
The ideal time between roasting and brewing is approximately 3-5 days, sometimes even a little longer for espresso blends.
Flavour notes are certainly useful but we don’t like to rely on them too much because everybody’s senses and perceptions are different. As roasters we don’t really like telling people what they should be tasting. People can also be disappointed when it says ‘notes of caramel’ on the packet and they don’t pick it up.
We prefer to stick to two or three of the really stand out aromas that our team picks up in cupping sessions, then let our customers make up their own minds as this is the part that’s most fun! With that said, the better the quality of the coffee the more complex flavours you should be able to pick up.
A note on ‘strength’
You may remember in the introduction I mentioned how some coffee brands like to indicate the strength of the coffee on the packet. A lot of people associate this with caffeine content and in some cases they are right, especially in lower quality blends that use robusta beans.
For the most part, ‘strength’ usually refers to how dark the roast is and how bitter the coffee tastes. The higher the number is, the more cooked (or burnt) the beans usually are, so the coffee is likely to taste more bitter than anything else.
Speciality coffee roasters generally never go this dark as the aim when working with high-quality coffee is to preserve its naturally sweet and fruity flavours.