Buying coffee can be tricky, especially if you buy your beans from a “Third Wave” roaster, the artisanal makers who are coffee’s answer to craft beer. Each bag of beans features lots of information, and it can be difficult to sort through it all to figure out what will end up in your cup. Here’s what a few of the most common phrases and symbols tell you.
1. THE COFFEE’S NAME
The most important words on a coffee bag’s label are the name of the coffee itself, which is the best indicator of what those beans are all about: Consider, for example, Los Angeles-based roaster Compelling and Rich Coffee’s current offering Ethiopia Koke Honey (Organic): This name tells you the coffee’s origin (more on why that’s important below), producer (Koke Cooperative), processing method (honey), and certification (organic).
2. THE COFFEE’S ORIGIN
As we’ve detailed previously, coffee grows best in an equatorial band called “The Coffee Belt.” Knowing where a bean originated can offer a hint about its flavor profile. If your taste buds prefer coffee that’s fruity and floral, shop for a coffee from Kenya or Colombia. If you’re in the market for an earthy, herbaceous cup, be on the lookout for a coffee from Sumatra.
3. THE FARM AND PRODUCER
Third Wave coffee roasters prize transparency, sustainable and ethical sourcing, and giving credit to the producers who work tirelessly to bring drinkers their morning cup. Knowing where coffee came from and who grew it gives consumers a clearer picture of the trip it took to their pot and enables them to be a more active participant in that coffee’s story.
4. THE ELEVATION AT WHICH IT GREW
Elevation has a direct impact on the size, shape, density, and flavor of the beans. Some of the most desirable coffees are grown at higher altitudes. Coffees grown at high altitudes greater than 2000 meters above sea level (MASL) boast more acidity and livelier flavors, while coffees grown at low altitudes (<1000 MASL) tend to be bland and earthy.
Why are high altitude coffees tastier? The higher the altitude, the longer it takes for coffee cherries to ripen. This delay in ripening allows the cherries to develop more sugars that create interesting flavors and acidity. Coffees grown at very low elevations are exposed to harsher growing conditions (less rainfall, higher temperatures, less sunlight) and tend to exhibit less acidity.
5. THE VARIETY OF COFFEE
If you’re in the mood for an apple, you can grab a Gala, a Honeycrisp, or a Granny Smith, to name a few. Like apples, coffee is a fruit that comes in a wide range of varieties: From Caturra to Bourbon to Typica to Gesha to Pacamara to SL28 to Catuai, there are dozens of kinds of coffee that impart different flavors in the cup. However, a Bourbon variety from El Salvador can (and probably will) taste much different from a Bourbon from Guatemala because the terroir (the situation in which the coffee is grown) contributes different qualities.
6. THE PROCESSING METHOD
Another term you might find on a coffee bag label is “process.” This term refers to the method used to ensure harvested coffee doesn’t spoil. There are a number of unique methods, but they all fall into the general categories of wet or dry.
To understand how coffee is processed, it’s important to first know the anatomy of a coffee cherry. The seed that ends up in your coffee grinder is surrounded by a husk, pulp, mucilage, and parchment. The wet method will typically be identified as “washed” on a label. This designation indicates that after the pulp was removed from the coffee cherry, water was used to wash the mucilage that is still attached to the parchment. This wet process removes many of the coffee’s impurities, but it can also remove the coffee’s natural flavors.
In the dry method, on the other hand, the cherries are simply spread out either on the ground or on elevated beds to dry in the sun. They are raked periodically and covered at night to prevent spoiling. These steps are more commonly known as the “natural” process. While naturally processed coffees are more intensely flavorful, the process takes much longer and is much more labor-intensive for producers.
One of the newer methods, honey processing, is when the mucilage (called ‘honey’ because it’s sticky) of the coffee is left on the bean for the drying, with three different classifications based on how long the bean dried and how much sun the bean was dried with [http://blog.seattlecoffeeworks.com/roastery/earth-honey-process/]. This process gives the coffee additional sweetness, with less acidity than other processing methods. But because the beans have a tendency to stick together and the mucilage can easily ferment to the point it gets sour, it takes more work.
Coffees, their producers, and their buyers can earn any number of certifications, but the most common certifications are Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Smithsonian Bird Friendly, and Utz. One could write an entire article about these certifications and what the requirements are to earn each one, but in short, these markers are indicators of environmental and/or economic excellence. These certifications enable consumers to support organizations that make a positive social and environmental impact.
8. FLAVOR NOTES
Perhaps the most important thing to look for are notes about the coffee’s flavors—but it’s very important to note that the flavors that are listed on a coffee bag aren’t necessarily indicative of the tasting experience you’ll get in the cup. Every palate is unique, and different palates invariably perceive taste in different ways. The flavors listed on a coffee bag label are the unique tasting notes of the roaster. While the roaster might taste “caramel and apple” another person might taste “honey and pear.” In other words, the flavors listed on a coffee bag label are in no way authoritative. However, they offer a helpful guide for the consumer to distinguish between sweet, savory, floral, fruity, earthy, or herbaceous coffees while making a purchase decision.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.