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How To Choose Coffee Beans: A Complete Guide

Published by: Chef Jan Dubsky • Updated: October 28, 2023 • Checked By: Chef Matty Riedel

When choosing coffee beans, don’t look only at the origin. Consider how you plan to brew them and choose the right roasting level. Pick Robusta beans for higher caffeine content or Arabica for a better-tasting experience. Consider the producer’s reputation and expertise. 

Most importantly, enjoy the journey of fine coffee exploration. Brewing and drinking should be fun. Follow your taste buds. Break out of the stereotypes of coffee-making guides and brew the cup of coffee that you will love. 

How To Choose Coffee Beans

The world coffee market reached a whole new level over the past couple of decades. Big cafe chains introduced new kinds of coffee drinks to the younger audience by the late 90s. The timing couldn’t be better, as the rise of fine craftsmanship trend reached the coffee beans as well. Craft roasteries, often operated by young coffee enthusiasts, contribute a fair share to the market. Innovation is their main tool to fight the big and well-established coffee producers. 

These days, the bags of coffee beans are labelled with many new terms. Highlighting origin, processing method, roast level, roaster’s reputation, etc. Consumers can also consider producer’s sustainability practices. Is it certified or uncertified organic? Fairtrade? Rainforest alliance?

How is an everyday coffee drinker supposed to choose the right coffee beans

While there is no “One size fits all” formula. This post will help you navigate your decision-making process on choosing the best coffee beans to make that cup of coffee you’ll love.

how to choose coffee beans

What To Consider When Choosing Coffee Beans

There are several things to look for when deciding on what beans to buy:

  • Roast level
  • Coffee processing method
  • Type of coffee beans
  • Roastery reputation
  • Date of roasting, or freshness
  • Origin of the coffee beans

First Thing First, Shall I Choose Arabica Or Robusta?

These are the main varieties of the Coffee plant family. From growing to final flavour and caffeine kick, the difference is huge. Let’s clear this first.

Robusta coffee variety is a resilient, easy to grow and very adaptable plant. It produces a lot of beans during the harvest season. The quantity is huge, therefore the price for this crop is low. Flavour is very strong and bitter, so we shouldn’t be surprised why people started mixing it with milk. It also packs the most caffeine content. 

Arabica is a more delicate member of the coffee family. It’s very picky on its growing conditions, easy to get sick and always asking for attention. In return for caring hospitality, this plant gives us beans of unique flavours. This is the crop that most specialty coffee markets talk about these days. 

The rest of this article assumes that you are interested in the finer Arabica coffee beans.

Start With The Brewing Method

When choosing coffee beans, ask yourself these questions first: 

“How do I like to brew my coffee?” Maybe you prefer making a quick and simple brew directly in your cup. Or, perhaps, you are willing to exchange a bit more of your time for a well-made cup of coffee. 

Another question to consider.

“What are the possibilities of my coffee-making skills?” Answer here should be “Endless”. When thinking of how many brewing methods are out there, it almost seems like humankind all around the world have a kind of “coffee brewing sense”.

The final cup will be the result of the equipment you use to prepare it. Therefore, it is best to start from the end when choosing coffee beans.

how to choose coffee beans: filtering

Choosing the right roast level should be the first step. As coffee flavour is extracted from the beans differently with each method, the right roast level paired with a suitable technique will bring out the true potential of the coffee beans. 

Light to medium roasts pack the most natural coffee flavour. At this roast level, the unique and delicate taste of specific coffee beans comes out. It is the opportunity to experience flowery, fruity or citrusy flavours in your cup of coffee. Lightly roasted coffee can look like a cup of tea, with a bright amber colour and exciting aroma. 

Choose coffee beans that are lightly roasted for pour-over, french press, or drip coffee brewing methods, as this is the gentlest way of treating your coffee beans. This roast level is not that easy to grind to a fine size, which is necessary for a Mokka pot or espresso machine. By the way, this is the best type of beans for making your own cold brew coffee at home. Steeping coffee in cold water for a long time will produce a refreshing liquid full of flavours and natural sweetness, minus bitterness. Cold brewing sounds good, right?

Medium to dark roast coffee beans are more suitable to be brewed under pressure. Here we are talking about a Mokka pot or Espresso machine. Dark roast beans extracted under pressure will result in a rich cup. The subtle coffee flavours will turn into a boasting taste of caramel, toast, or chocolate. Do you like to mellow down your coffee with milk? These are the right beans and brewing methods for you. 

Choose The Right Processing Method

While this step applies mainly to the light and medium roasts, preserving the bean’s uniqueness. You should pay close attention to this part when choosing coffee beans for cold brewing. 

When the coffee cherries are picked and green beans extracted. They have to be processed before they can get dried and finally roasted. There are three most common processing methods. Each affects the final taste of beans differently. 

Farmers will harvest coffee cherries when ripe and let them slowly dry as they are. This is a very short description of the Natural processing method. It can develop sweet, fruity or earthy flavours. Naturally processed beans yield coffee with the strongest body, read “Thickness”.

If a farmer decides to make washed processed coffee, instead of natural, the skin and pulp will be removed from the cherries right after the harvest. The fresh, green beans will be immersed in water and eventually fermented. It is the most common method resulting in fruity, zesty and acidic flavours.

Finally, there is the Honey processing method. This method is 100% honey free, no bees are harmed during this process. Still very suitable for vegans. After the harvest, the skin of the cherries will be removed, but the beans will not be immersed in water. Instead, they will be left to dry with the pulp still on them. The beans, coated in this mucilage, look like they have been covered in honey. This process is somewhere in between the natural and washed processing methods. The final coffee beans flavour will be influenced by citrusy and zesty notes.

Now you are probably asking. “Where to start from?”

Experiment! Try various processing methods, compare the difference, and see which one you prefer the most. Coffee making should be fun, not a tedious scientific expedition.

Type Of The Coffee Beans

As we said earlier, coffee plants have several varieties, the two most popular are Robusta and Arabica. Let’s focus on Arabica here, which is a more subtle and delicate variety. The plant has many varietals. Those are specific Arabica-plant types with individual characteristics, boasting unique flavours with peculiar growing requirements.

how to choose coffee beans from the many varieties

Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, Java and Gesha are probably the most popular Arabica coffee varietals. Gesha, named after a village in Africa, not a Japanese cultural figure, is probably the most valued coffee plant these days. Growing these plants is not that simple as the weather and terrain determine what will grow, and what will not. Typica coffee beans from Ethiopia are rather common to see, while unblended Typica coffee beans from Thailand are a rare item as it’s not that easy to grow there. 

Typica has its, pardon the pun, typical flavour of citrus fruits, floral tones and sweet after taste.

Bourbon, named after an island, not booze, is characteristic with rich chocolate flavours and sweetness.

Gesha, one of the most valuable varietals, is known for its floral notes of jasmine, honey, chocolate and black tea.

Choose A Reliable Roastery

Unlike tea, or other herbs, that we can just simply steep in warm, or cold, water. Green coffee must be roasted first, before we can brew it and drink it the way we are used to. Roasting also makes beans more frail and grindable, so they can be brewed accordingly. 

This process is total science. Roasting requires a lot of knowledge and even more skill. Roasters, caring about the coffee they make, will source quality green beans. Oftentimes, they will try to get it directly from the farm, ensuring that the farmer will get all the profit of their hard labour. Coffee sourcing can go an extra mile in terms of sustainability. Making a positive social and environmental impact. Supporting rainforest-alliance produce, buying organic products, or avoiding coffee transported by air to minimize carbon emissions.

Another sign of a reliable producer is showing the date of roasting on the package label. The roasted coffee beans shouldn’t be older than six months. That’s the moment when they start losing most of their unique flavour, in other words, wasting your money. 

Roastery should be considered when you are choosing coffee beans if you want the best cup for your buck. Next time when you are deciding on how to choose your next bag, have a look at who roasts them. Check their social media, website or other channels. See what impact they make on our environment.

What About The Origin Of The Coffee Beans

Picking coffee beans based on their exotic origin is an advanced step for experienced coffee connoisseurs. Each region can produce great, mediocre, and rubbish coffee. It all boils down to the quality of coffee growing and processing practices. 

Mentioning the coffee origin with a big bold title on the front of the coffee bag is often used as a marketing tool to sell arguable quality beans at a premium price. Inexperienced coffee drinkers can easily fall victim to these advertising practices. Spending a lot of money on coffee beans that will disappoint their experience and make them revert to their comfort zone. Cheaper and more commercial products.

coffee bean harvesting

There are three main coffee-growing regions. Africa, the birthplace of a coffee plant. South America, the most innovative region. And Asia, a rapidly expanding player on the market. Each region has its own flavour characteristics, however, the final taste can vary greatly. For home use, it is not very important to focus on the origin at the beginning of your fine coffee journey. 

Choose coffee beans from a reliable source and start experimenting with different regions, comparing the flavours. This is one of the greatest experiences regarding most fine food products, it allows us to travel the world by sampling quality products from various regions. As each region has its own cultural and natural character, the same will apply to the food made in that area. 

Put your phone away, relax and focus on the cup of quality Brazilian coffee in front of you. Appreciate the aroma first, what does it remind you of? Nuts, flowers, or maybe some fruit? Take the first sip, what does it taste like? Can you taste tones of chocolate? Or toasted almond flavour, maybe. Appreciating quality coffee can unveil flavours we would never think of that we can find in a cup. Detach your mind from the stress of daily life while sipping your coffee. Isn’t that a form of meditation and mindfulness exercise?

Don’t focus too much on the origin at the beginning. Choose the right roast, for your brewing method. Pick quality arabica beans made by a reliable producer.

Follow Your Taste Buds

Have fun with coffee, enjoy exploring and trying new things. Don’t slide into marketing traps and do your little market research. With so many options out there, a great coffee experience may be closer than you think.

Chef Jan Dubsky
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