Whether wandering into the coffee aisle at the grocery store or popping into your local cafe, it seems that buying coffee can be an overwhelming task, especially when trying to find the perfect beans that suit your specific tastes. Companies have not been much help to the normal coffee drinker, especially when it comes to the way coffee is packaged and labeled. When you see coffees on our Roast Finder we have given many ways to look for your next selection allowing you to seek out your preference however you like. In the Part 1 we looked at the “Common” elements of coffee bags. Today I want to look further down the rabbit hole and explain what the “Less Common” terminology and identification details can mean for your potential bag of coffee.
Many of the details we will be looking at are the foundation of Specialty Coffee’s approach to their product. Specific growing areas, promotion of the farmers, and overall details are meant to reinforce integrity as well as help explain why the coffee tastes the way it does. Unfortunately, if you are not actively seeking out the meaning behind these data points, you may not get anything from reading them other than confusion. As you grow your understanding of the various coffee products that are out on the market, you may start to realize that many bags say a whole lot without really saying anything at all. I recommend skipping over the coffees with vague platitudes or the use of phrases like “the finest”, “top quality”, “we source only the best beans”, etc. as these are a strong indicator of mass produced coffee with little identity.
Let’s look at the detailed information that is popping up on coffee bags and see why the information can be useful.
Less Common information
- Processing Method – The “process” refers to the way the coffee beans were removed from the fruit on the farm. Remember that the so called beans are in reality the seeds of fruit trees. The way that the fruit is removed was traditionally based on available resources in different countries. This is a part of why country origin (which we saw in part 1) is an indicator of the coffee’s flavor. In recent years coffee producers have been adapting methods from other parts of the world in order to recreate flavor profiles that would otherwise be unattainable in those countries. Processing methods have many variations, and producers are constantly trying to invent new steps, but the major overlying methods are “washed”, “honey”, and “natural”.
- Washed means that the coffee bean was cleaned of its sticky fruit quickly, either being physically removed by machinery or loosened through natural fermentation. In either case some water is used to wash the beans clean. There are many variations that can include double fermenting, extra soaking in water, and even the use of yeasts or cultivated bacteria. Regardless of the details, washed coffees tend to be more bright and clear in flavor. High altitude (see below), washed coffees tend to have distinct acidity.
- Honey coffee, also called “pulped natural” and occasionally “semi-washed”, means that only the outer skin of the fruit was removed while the inner, sticky layer of fruit flesh (called mucilage) is left intact to dry with the bean. The amount of mucilage remaining on the bean can have an impact on the finished flavor of the coffee. There are many variations on honey coffee, with the colors white, yellow, red, and black commonly used to describe how it looked after drying. All of these colorations are separate from the bean itself, so it still looks green after milling and export. Honey coffees have a range in flavor, but they are generally less acidic with an increased mouthfeel.
- Natural is sometimes mistaken to mean organic. This term actually refers to a minimalistic processing method where the whole coffee cherries are dried in the sun completely before removing the bean. Little water is usually necessary, though certain operations will still use it to separate higher quality cherries from lesser quality. There are two major variations of the natural process. The first is common in Brazil, where the cherries are left to dry on the tree before being pulled off en masse and separated from ripe and green cherries. These coffees are usually chocolatey and nutty in character with a low acid. The second variation is common in Ethiopia, where the cherries are picked ripe just like in other processes and then laid out in the sun to dry. This process is more labor intensive and time consuming. “Ripe naturals” tend to be distinctly fruity and sweet.
- Altitude – Altitude is an aspect of coffee growing that has been well known to impact flavor, but this correlation has been linked primarily to acidity and bean hardness. The typical rule of thumb in regard to elevation is that “higher is better”, though this might depend on what you are seeking in your cup. Generally speaking anything above 1500 meters (@5000 feet) is considered high while 1000-1400 meters (3200-4500 feet) is considered low to moderate elevation for coffee growing. When using elevation as a guide for coffee selection, higher altitudes indicate bright, acidic, and complex flavor profiles, while lower numbers tend to be mild, chocolatey, and more simple in flavor.
- Awards & Certifications – There are numerous awards, certifications, and other bragging points for coffees in the industry. Unfortunately just because a coffee bag has a pretty sticker does not mean it will be amazing. Although some of the certifications are humanitarian in concept, it is a good idea to do a little research and understand how these impact the lives of the growers, and if they are actually doing what they insinuate. Some certifications are also simply marketing ploys, so if you are unsure what it means try Google and make sure it is a real cause. There is a big difference between awards and certifications.
- Certifications tend to be a statement of growing or trading standards, such as Fair Trade, Organic, Direct Trade, and Rainforest Alliance. You can find more information about certifications at ethicalcoffee.net.
- Awards are earned either from the farmer or roaster based on some form of merit, usually in terms of the flavor quality of the beans. Examples of awards include Good Food, Cup of Excellence, Golden Bean, and even our own ratings.
- Varietal(s) – Varietals have been labeled more commonly as of late. Any agricultural product has multiple “varieties” or cultivars (meaning that they were purposely cultivated for a purpose), and coffee is no exception. While coffee varietal has been understood in a basic sense for decades, a new emphasis on this element of coffee has begun showing how each individual type can impact flavor in the cup. There is still much to learn about varietal, and one reason this information is not promoted in the same way as wine (ie. shiraz, cabernet, pinot) is that terroir, processing, and roasting have a tendency to hide these characteristics. Varietal plays a big part in flavor with lighter roasted specialty coffee, and especially with Kenyan cultivars like “SL-28” or the recently discovered “Geisha” (sometimes spelled Gesha). These two varieties have very distinct and commonly high quality flavor profiles. Other types you may see labelled include: Typica, Bourbon (pronounced bore-bone), Caturra, and Pacamara. While they do have impact on the cup flavor, these are less distinct unless you are tasting a lot of coffee.
- Growing Region – Just like specific countries tend to have their own general flavor characters, different regions inside of the individual country can have their own specific climates that make a coffee more distinct. These regions have long been identified on bag labels, often in conjunction with the origin country name (such as Ethiopia Yirgacheffe or Costa Rica Tarrazu). More recent movements in coffee labeling has placed less emphasis on the importance of these regions though they are still labeled often. If the growing region is listed it is either listed individually or immediately after the country of origin. Be careful though, as some other data can be placed after the origin as well.
- Farm/Washing Station/Co-Op – Coffee farms, washing stations, and co-ops are a major part of the production of coffee crops around the world. The country or region of the world the coffee is being produced in may determine if a specific farm (or finca in Spanish), washing station, or co-op is identified. Coffee production was influenced in very different ways depending on the culture and infrastructure in the country at the time. One of the missions of Specialty Coffee is to create identity and sustainability in farming practices, and identifying these specific places is part of that. When looking at this data on your coffee bags, consider it similar to a brand identity. Specific farms and cooperatives will hopefully have a similar quality from year to year, and by identifying these you can remember your favorites when they are available. So pay attention to the specific place your coffee is coming from and get to know the people who are growing your coffee.
- Farmer/Producer – Much like identifying the farm or cooperative, giving credit to the farmer and/or producer of the specific coffee in the bag is a way to not only show where the coffee came from, but also to establish the people who are creating great crops. Specific farmers who are given credit tend to be consistent and notable in their techniques. Often they are leaders in their communities, helping support the lives of many local workers. This is another version of brand recognition with coffee, and the better known coffee producers tend to elevate the quality of their products and create a trust that the coffee being purchased is worthwhile. There is little to take away from this data point if you have not experienced a coffee from the specific farmer in the past. Again, it is important to note the information when trying a new coffee, as recognizing a specific farmer/producer is useful when you remember something about it, whether it is positive or negative.
- Harvest Date – This is arguably one of the newest pieces of data being placed on modern coffee bags. The concept of seasonal freshness of coffee crops is just starting to be embraced by the population, but the end result is much more distinct, vibrant tasting coffee. Think of coffee just like any harvested crop; fresh usually tastes better. While green coffee is relatively stable in its preservation, it is also susceptible to temperature, moisture, sunlight, and large fluctuations of any of these. Without very purposeful storage methods, a green coffee that is over 1 year old from harvest has a high potential to taste “baggy” (meaning that it tastes reminiscent to the burlap bag coffee has traditionally been stored in). Some coffees lose their flavor faster, and some slower, but it never hurts to find fresh crops if you can. A harvest date is commonly stated in a range (such as March-April 2016) because the trees do not ripen evenly on every part of a farm, and it could take months for the entire batch to be picked and processed. Luckily most companies who put this information on their bags will tend to sell fresh crops anyway. When considering the harvest date it is important to remember that you will rarely find coffee which has been harvested within the past 2-3 months. This is because all coffee must go through processing, drying, resting for 6-8 weeks (which is vital), then milling, shipping across the ocean, and testing/quality control when it reaches the roasting facility. It is actually a wonder that we are able to get coffee as fresh as we do.
Using the above information is a bit harder to make meaningful for purchase decisions because it is more about the details. Here are some pointers on what to consider when you see this less common information:
- Pay attention to processing method. Natural may be called “Dry” and is the most distinctive process with very fruity flavors. Washed, or “Wet”, tends to indicate bright acid forward flavors. Honey, Semi-washed, and Pulped natural all tend to have some fruit left on when dried, but could essentially be another term for a washed coffee. If you find a process you don’t recognize, it may be an new version of the standards. Ask a barista if you have the opportunity about these uncommon processes.
- Elevation is not terribly important unless you are seeking out a bright, high acid coffee. It can tell you a bit about the nature of the coffee, but the rule of elevation is highly dependent upon the country it is grown in and the climate of the area. Use elevation as a guide later if you are comparing more than choice and really want to taste the nuance of the bean.
- Get to know about the awards and/or certifications on the bags. Some are more useful than others. Cup of Excellence shows a high potential green coffee, but relies on the roaster to do it justice. Good Food Awards and Roast Ratings look at the finished product. Fair Trade and Organic are causes that may be worthwhile, but do not always equate to better coffee.
- Take coffee variety into consideration when you are looking for unique and special coffees. Geisha variety is the easiest to point out as being special, though it also tends to carry a high price tag. Outside of a few distinct options, most varieties will tell you little about the finished product.
- Growing region is not terribly useful for the everyday coffee drinker unless you really want to identify where your coffee is coming from, or there is a specific region you are wanting to support/avoid. These regions can be useful to understand if for no other reason than to be able to sift through the names and know what you are seeing. Though most major growing regions are well established, recent climate changes have made new regions and higher elevations viable.
- Farms, washing stations, co-ops, farmers, and producers are all about finding the same or similar products in the future. While they are interesting information on the outset, the real value lies in recognizing a potentially high quality coffee when you see it. So if you are tasting an amazing coffee that identifies the farm and/or farmer, keep them in mind and seek them out for future purchases.
- Harvest dates are an indication of quality sourcing and freshness. While it isn’t completely necessary for finding great roasted coffee, this data helps create more transparency in the distribution chain as well as reassuring that you are getting good flavor. Keep an eye out for the harvest date when seeking out high quality beans.
Now that we have identified all of the major elements of modern coffee bags, lets take a look at a few labels and see how it all comes together…
The above label was from Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, IL. They are know as one of the first companies to adopt the concept of Direct Trade and source very distinct, high quality coffees from around the world.
Let’s look at one of the bags we saw in the previous article…
The above bag from Eote Coffee, in Oklahoma City, OK, may have much more information than you regularly need to make a purchase decision. Sometimes the goal of giving this much information is to emphasize the amount of effort in sourcing a company has put into their product. Efforts from coffee companies to educate and inform the consuming public range from just giving enough information, to completely overwhelming and talking over their heads. If you think the above example is extreme, let’s look at one more…
The above bag was from Spro Coffee in Baltimore, MD. While this label is extreme, they do have other examples of more user friendly coffee bags, such as this…
I hope that this has helped you understand more of what we are seeing on coffee bag these days. Specialty Coffee is being accepted more and more as a new standard for quality, and the type of information in this article is a big part of what identifies these coffees. The more you know about a bag of coffee you are considering, the more likely you are to find something that you like.
Good luck, and happy drinking!