An Expert Guide to Coffee Beans: How to Buy the Best Coffee Beans for You

Published on 06/23/2023 · 10 min readAwaken your taste buds with our Expert guide to coffee beans. Discover tips for buying the best beans that match your flavor preferences and brewing methods!
Jeff Sutton, Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Jeff Sutton

Photo by Mavo

TL;DR: When buying coffee beans, the most important things to consider are roast date for freshness, roast level for taste preference, bean origin for unique flavors, and processing method. Choose between single-origin or blend, and opt for ethically sourced, fair-trade, or organic beans for sustainability when possible.

Introduction

I spend the bulk of my days working as a coffee roaster. I’ve been roasting at multiple locations for years and love the small nuances within coffee. When I started in the coffee business, I knew I loved coffee, but that was pretty much the extent. I’ve spent countless hours tasting many different coffees with top-level industry leaders and trying to make the best flavors possible from the green coffee I roast daily.

Here I am explaining the difference between green (unroasted) coffee beans. Photo by Sara Wass courtesy of Jeff Sutton

What Are Coffee Beans?

Coffee beans are the Coffea plant's seeds, mainly consisting of the Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (Robusta) species. The Arabica varietal produces less yield but a generally higher grade bean than the Robusta. Robusta coffee beans have a higher caffeine content and are resurgent in recent years. They are the main ingredient in brewing coffee, one of the most popular beverages consumed worldwide. The beans are roasted to varying degrees, releasing complex flavors and aromas contributing to the coffee's final taste.

There is no such thing as espresso-specific beans; rather, espresso is a brewing method that extracts coffee under a high nine-bar pressure. However, certain beans or blends may be marketed as "espresso beans" because their flavors and characteristics are well-suited for the espresso-making process. Typically, these beans blend different Arabica beans with a medium to medium dark roast profile, offering a balanced flavor, body, and crema for espresso shots.

What to Consider When Buying Coffee Beans

Mixing freshly roasted beans for a blend. Photo by Sara Wass courtesy of Jeff Sutton

1. What's Your Preferred Flavor Profile?

Think about the flavors you enjoy in your coffee—fruity, floral, chocolatey, or nutty. Knowing your preferences will help guide your bean selection. Arabica beans tend to offer a wider range of flavors depending on where they are grown, while Robusta offers a bolder taste. Don't be afraid to experiment and try new beans to find your perfect match!

2. Do You Have a Favorite Roast Level?

Roast levels—light, medium, or dark—influence your coffee's flavor, body, and acidity. Light roasts retain more of the bean's natural flavors and can be harder to extract due to the density of the bean, while dark roasts develop richer, bolder notes and combine well with milk-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos. Consider your taste preferences and brewing method when selecting a roast level.

3. What Will Your End Product Be?

Depending on whether you are looking for a latte with syrup added or a straight shot of espresso can determine what bean is best for you. Blends that are medium to medium dark tend to work best with blended drinks.

4. Are You Into Single-Origin or Blends?

Single-origin beans come from one specific region, such as offering unique flavors tied to that area. These generally are used for more traditional coffee brewing methods but have seen an increase in espresso use over the last 10 years. Blends combine beans from various regions, creating a harmonious mix of flavors. Many times these use South American beans sourced from Brazil and Colombia. Ask yourself if you want to explore regional tastes straight or enjoy a well-balanced blend that pleases everyone.

5. How Important Are Sustainability and Ethical Sourcing to You?

Consider the impact of your coffee choice on the environment and coffee farmers. Look for fair-trade, organic, or Rainforest Alliance-certified labels to support ethical and eco-friendly practices. Some smaller roasteries may not have their product labeled as organic because of the expense of certification, but they often still use organic beans. Hence, it’s best to talk directly to the people who buy them to find out all the information about sourcing.

Remember, experimenting and finding the beans that make your taste buds dance is always a good idea!

How Much Should Coffee Beans Cost?

Photo by Double Lee

Prices for coffee beans vary based on factors like quality, origin, and sustainability practices. Here's a rough guide to common price points:

  • Budget ($5-$10/lb): Expect decent quality beans, likely a blend or lower-grade single-origin. The flavor may be less complex.
  • Mid-range ($10-$20/lb): You'll find a wide selection of single-origin and high-quality blends with more nuanced flavors and ethical sourcing options.
  • Premium ($20+/lb): These beans come from rare, exotic origins or are highly sought after for their exceptional flavors. Generally, they consist of single-lot crops coming from one farm. Expect top-notch quality but at a higher cost.

Features to Look Out for and Avoid When Purchasing Beans

Keep the following in mind when you are choosing coffee beans:

Roast Date

Coffee beans reach their peak of flavor within weeks of being roasted, and timing is crucial to ensure you get the most out of your beans. Be hesitant about “best by” on coffee bags, as this gives you no clear idea when the product was made.

Oil Levels

Although some people only drink dark roasted coffee, these beans tend to have a high oil content. This can be extremely hard on home espresso grinders and can stop machines in their tracks. If you are prone to dark roasts, choose a bean that doesn’t shine with oil.

What Are the Different Kinds of Coffee Beans?

Photo by New Africa

So, let’s continue into the fantastic world of coffee beans. Here's a quick rundown of the benefits and downsides of each coffee bean type.

1. Arabica (Coffea arabica)

First up, we have Arabica, the superstar of the coffee world. These whole beans are all about quality and flavor, making up around 60-70% of global coffee production. Arabica beans thrive at higher elevations, which gives them a smooth and nuanced taste profile. These are most commonly seen with both African and South American Coffees. Their bright acidity and delightful aroma make them perfect for a refined coffee experience. These beans produce a lower final product than Robusta and will cost more due to the lower yield per acre.

  • Benefits
    • Wide range of flavors and aromas suitable for diverse preferences
    • Generally considered the highest quality and smoothest taste
    • Lower caffeine content, for those who prefer a gentler kick
  • Keep in Mind
    • More susceptible to diseases and pests, leading to higher prices
    • Can be inconsistent in flavor due to variations in growing conditions
    • Lower caffeine content for those who need a stronger boost

2. Robusta (Coffea canephora)

Now, let's talk about Robusta. These beans pack a punch and are the definition of bold coffee! They're super resilient, growing at lower elevations, and are more resistant to diseases. Robusta beans contain nearly double the caffeine of Arabica, giving you that extra boost. Their flavor profile tends to be more robust, with a distinct earthiness. If you're looking for a strong cup of coffee or a strong darker espresso, Robusta might be your go-to!

  • Benefits
    • Higher caffeine content for an energizing kick
    • More affordable due to its hardiness and resistance to diseases
    • Strong, bold flavors, great for espresso and traditional Italian-style coffee
  • Keep in Mind
    • Flavor profile may be too harsh or bitter for some palates
    • Less variety in flavor compared to Arabica
    • Higher caffeine content, which may not be ideal for some people

3. Liberica (Coffea liberica)

Next up is Liberica, a rare gem in the coffee world. Grown mainly in Southeast Asia, Liberica beans have a unique, fruity flavor profile, often with notes of floral or woody flavors. These beans are cherished for their distinctive taste, so if you're a coffee adventurer, you should try Liberica!

  • Benefits
    • Unique and rare flavors for adventurous coffee lovers
    • Contributes to coffee biodiversity, supporting a wider range of farming options
    • Can potentially thrive in areas where Arabica and Robusta struggle
  • Keep in Mind
    • Limited availability, making it more difficult to find
    • Can be more expensive due to its rarity
    • Flavors may not appeal to everyone, as they can be quite unique

4. Excelsa (Coffea liberica var. dewevrei)

Last but not least, we have Excelsa, a variety of Liberica that grows in the same regions. Although it's not as common, Excelsa has a following for its extraordinary flavor complexity. With a blend of tart, fruity, and nutty notes, this coffee bean is perfect for those who love to explore unconventional tastes. Give it a shot, and you might just find a new favorite!

  • Benefits
    • Offers a complex flavor profile, perfect for those who crave novelty
    • Similar to Liberica, it contributes to coffee biodiversity
    • Unique choice for impressing fellow coffee aficionados
  • Keep in Mind
    • Even more scarce than Liberica, so finding it can be a challenge
    • May be more expensive due to limited production
    • Unconventional flavors might not suit all taste preferences

I hope this helps you appreciate the wonderful variety of coffee available and allows you to try something new.

Tips for Storing and Enjoying Your Coffee Beans

Now that you've got a better idea of picking the right coffee beans, let's talk about keeping them fresh and getting the most out of each delicious sip. Here are some tips to help you store and enjoy your coffee beans like a pro.

1. Proper Storage Techniques for Maintaining Freshness

  • Keep your beans in an airtight container: Exposure to air can cause your beans to go stale faster, so make sure they're sealed up tight.
  • Store them in a cool, dark place: Avoid direct sunlight and high temperatures, as they can affect the flavor and freshness of your beans.
  • Don't store them in the fridge or freezer: Contrary to popular belief, moving beans from a freezer or fridge to room temperature can introduce moisture, a coffee bean's worst enemy!

2. Grinding Coffee Beans for Optimal Flavor

  • Grind your beans just before brewing: Freshly ground coffee releases more flavor and aroma, making for a more enjoyable experience.
  • Match your grind size to your brewing method: Different brewing methods require different grind sizes for the best results. For example, use a fine grind for espresso and a coarser grind for a French press and cold brew.
  • Invest in a good-quality grinder: A burr grinder will give you a more consistent grind, translating to better-tasting coffee. When dealing with espresso, a grinder with stepless or infinite adjustments is ideal for dialing in your shots to perfection.

3. Experimenting With Brewing Methods

  • Try different brewing methods: Each method brings out different flavors and characteristics in your coffee. Have fun trying pour-over, French press, Aeropress, espresso, and more!
  • Adjust your brewing variables: Tweak your water-to-coffee ratio, water temperature, and brewing time to find the perfect cup tailored to your taste buds.
  • Don't be afraid to mix it up: Remember, coffee is all about personal preference, so feel free to get creative and blend beans, adjust your brewing technique, or even try new coffee-based recipes.

And there you have it! Keep these tips in mind, and you'll be on your way to enjoying your perfect cup of coffee. Cheers to your coffee journey!

Find the Right Coffee Beans for You

It’s key to vary your types of beans and to try different roast levels and origins to find out what suits you best. But the one thing to always remember with coffee is that no one except your taste buds can tell you what you like best.

If you have questions about the best way to brew your favorite beverage or what espresso machine may be best for you, reach out to me or a fellow Coffee Expert at Curated and let us share years of coffee experience with you.

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