SO, YOU LIKE COFFEE. But then you hear things like 'robusta, single-origin and altitude' and your eyes start to glaze over. It can be confusing enough to drive you straight through the doors of the nearest supermarket, directly into the arms of the best looking packaging and any old bag of coffee.
But never fear - over the next four-and-a-bit minutes we'll caringly guide you down the path to coffee enlightenment.
Arabica and Robusta
First things first: there are many varieties of coffee but only two that are grown in any quantity - Robusta and Arabica. As the name suggests, robusta is hardy. It's more resistant to disease and grows at lower altitudes and in much harsher conditions than Arabica. That would be fine if it tasted as good as Arabica - but unfortunately, it usually doesn't.
Single Origin and Blends
Most robusta ends up as instant coffee with a small proportion finding its way into Italian robusta-Arabica espresso blends which are a mix of mainly arabica.
'Single origin' just means beans from the same geographic region and usually the same farm. Most of the time blends are created to try to bulk out the good stuff with lower quality beans that are available year-round and more cheaply.
To counter that, a good roaster can often come up with a blend that highlights the best of each bean. That means blends can't be ruled out as an option as long as you trust the roaster.
So that's your first tip: Choose single option Arabica (or a blend recommended by someone who knows their stuff).
Coffee grown at altitude is generally better. Cooler temperatures result in the fruit developing slowly and becoming more concentrated. If it's lightly roasted it'll retain more of that natural, delicate fruitiness - especially when you choose a gentle brewing method, like pour over.
The guides on low-end coffee and are mainly about marketing. What they really mean is:
Light roasted = less bitter
Dark roasted = more bitter
These guides tell you nothing about flavor, caffeine strength or anything much else.
Light or Dark?
Dark roasted coffee tends to stale faster (more on that shortly) because the beans become more porous during roasting than lighter roasts. That lets more oxygen into the bean which speeds up the process of flavor-loss.
If that sounds all bad, then it shouldn't. If you like coffee that's heavy-bodied and rich then a darker roast could well be for you - especially if you're an espresso
If you're into filter, pour over
, French press
(cafetiere) or Aeropress and you prefer it without milk and sugar you'll probably find a medium to light roast is more up your street.
For filter-style coffee, this chart should help you pick something you like.
Buy it fresh
In an ideal world, you want to be buying coffee that's was roasted less than two weeks ago. But bear in mind it won't be at it's best the second it comes out of the roaster because it needs to be rested.
Roasting causes large amounts of carbon dioxide gas to build up in the beans. It's easier to brew consistent coffee once the majority of this has escaped. Usually wise to wait at least 2-4 days before brewing.
Expiry and Storage
Dates on supermarket coffee can be highly misleading. The expiration date means it's "safe" up to two years but certainly not good.
Use within two weeks of purchase and certainly within 30 days of roasting if you can. After that time the natural fruity aromatics are lost for good and replaced with earthy flavors.
But there is something you can do....
Looking after your beans properly will keep them better for longer. You need to keep them away from light, moisture, and oxygen and
vent away the carbon dioxide that they release. Coffee Gator canisters
do all this and extend the freshness of your purchase for longer.
The final word
Hopefully, this guide has helped you form a better general idea of what to look out for. But with so many factors involved, there's nothing better than getting an expert opinion in person.
Local artisan roasters are popping up all over the place right now and these folks are passionate about coffee and helping us enjoy it.
Trying some and having someone walk you through the tasting process is a mile better than anything you can read on the internet. So in short, stop reading this, get out there and enjoy!