Decisive Factors When Selecting The Best Coffee Beans
Blends Vs Single Origins
When starting out on your coffee journey, it can be confronting trying to make some sense of the many virtues in comparing a blend to a single origin.
Unfortunately, researching the answer online may lead to even more confusion and indecision, most of the content is not factually correct and relies upon old fashioned myths about blends using cheap commodity coffees to keep the price or costs lower.
Today, coffee in Australia is too competitive with 2,300+ brands - you simply can’t just play around with a product’s quality in trying to use cheap, low-grade beans hoping to lower the costs.
You won’t get away with it… Short-term thinking is unsustainable for a brand’s survival. Only companies with a “locked in” customer base can play at the bottom of the quality scale.
The fact is that blends are often more expensive to develop and maintain compared to single origins, yet single origins still command a price premium in the retail side of the market.
Single origins are just coffees from a solitary estate or part of an estate that are not blended or mixed with other coffees. It’s useful to try single origin coffees as there may be something that you enjoy immensely, whereas blends are generally designed or engineered to be rich, smooth and creamy without exhibiting too much acid, fruit or complexity.
In the early days of your coffee journey, it’s recommended to buy blends in order to build up your skills and expertise in extracting and brewing the coffee. Blends tend to be a lot easier to work with compared to single origins, especially in the more popular espresso category.
Single origins can sometimes be difficult or frustrating to “dial-in” the grind and dose for espresso extraction. Some single origins can also require significant adjustment of the grinder settings to prevent choking or gushing of the espresso shot. It’s for these reasons why it’s suggested to stick with blends until the expertise and experience of using your espresso equipment develops to a point when you are confident of being able to adapt the gear to suit the nuances of the single origin.
Much has been written about blends using cheap “filler” or buffers. Those are urban myths from 20 years ago before the dawn of specialty coffees. Modern coffee blends are dynamic, evolving and optimising to suit the variable nature of the changing raw/green coffee lots.
Another important point to understand about blends is that they always change. Once upon a time, long ago in the coffee world, it was almost a religious belief that coffees should taste exactly the same, all year, year after year.
Unfortunately, like many urban myths published about coffees, it’s impossible to achieve a consistent flavour or cup profile for coffee blends all year, every year.
To appreciate why blends are always changing, take for example a common four bean blend - that has 4 different coffees that could be from entirely different areas of the world, e.g. Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Costa Rica.
Most coffee origins have at least one and sometimes 2 harvests per year. So taking the above example, we are faced with 7 different harvests if we assume a single crop from Costa Rica and 2 crops from the others.
That’s 7 changes in 12 months. Each crop and harvest is going to be a little different due to the nature of agricultural growing conditions. There are also inter-harvest variations - early, mid and late harvest will yield different tasting fruits (cherry), the early harvest may have a higher portion of unripe cherries and taste a bit “green”, the late harvest might have over-ripe cherries and taste sour.
You can see now that coffee is changing literally every couple of months and hence this is why it’s impossible for a blend to taste the same throughout the year.
OK, so let’s suppose a coffee company purchased a single lot from each origin in higher volume - enough to last the full year, then you will have a closer chance, but even raw green coffee changes over time, so the acidity and vitality of the coffee will deteriorate with age in their warehouse before it’s roasted.
Single origins allow you to broaden the taste and sensory experiences of coffee by indulging in the characteristics of the coffee bean as it was harvested and processed by the farmer.
Blends give you a bit of a safety net with both using the brewing equipment and the taste profile is more in the centre where the majority of coffee consumers prefer.
Where to Buy the Best Coffee Beans
The best coffee beans are freshly roasted.
You simply can’t compare a pack of 3-week old coffee to something that’s just a few days old - would you eat stale bread, or drink old milk?
Judging a coffee to be “best” is risky and dangerous - for coffee has hundreds of different flavour compounds and taste elements that it’s literally impossible to award a coffee the “best” title - a person might consider it not to their personal liking or preferences, whereas another might think it’s perfect.
Humans have variable tolerances to the characteristics of coffee - it’s always changing and for example, someone might think the flavour is too strong or intense when another believes it’s too weak. Some like fruity, others like chocolate and yet others might prefer nutty, caramel, vanilla, etc.
Even when armed with the best coffee beans that are freshly roasted, it’s then up to the consumer to extract the flavours and essence from the coffee beans into a brew ratio they find appealing. You see, having the best coffee beans will not automatically result in the best brew, it takes a skilled technique to convert the quality coffee into a delicious tasting beverage.
Local roasters & Online Roasters: What factors are important when choosing one?
It’s always difficult, or more like impossible to know how often a coffee company roasts coffee.
Typically, coffee companies primarily engaged in the supply to cafes roast only a few days per week, then focus on distributing and delivering to their customers.
Online suppliers tend to roast in smaller batches and more often.
It really comes down to the philosophy of the company, the size of their coffee portfolios and the scale of their business.
Mycuppa roasts 6 days a week, which on average is twice as often as most of the wholesale providers. The reason mycuppa needs to roast so frequently is the large range of coffees offered and the unpredictable nature of the customer ordering patterns - it’s not possible for mycuppa to second guess what’s going to be ordered on any day, hence mycuppa roasts around 20 to 25 different coffees, every day, 6 days a week.
Scale or size also plays a factor. For instance, mycuppa ships over 2 tons of fresh roasted coffee every week around Australia, often it’s a battle to keep up with demand for many of the popular coffees like Suuweet, Barista and Espresso that are roasted daily.
Local roasters may look to offload ageing stock, therefore it’s important to ensure you are buying fresh roasted coffee, not something they have not been able to sell for one or many weeks.
How to Pick the Best Coffee Beans for Your Taste
What’s Your Brewing Method
Some brewing methods are capable of extracting higher levels of flavour, body, acidity, sweetness, fruit and finish.
Espresso is a technically challenging brewing system requiring optimal roast, grind, dose, temperature and pressure to extract the correct dissolved solids from the coffee beans.
With such narrow tolerances, espresso can be a knife-edge of disappointment or joy.
Espresso can produce exceptionally high solids in the brew - flavours, sweetness, acidity, body and finish are all enhanced when everything works well during the extraction.
Pure espresso - which has not had either water or milk added, can exhibit high acidity and it’s the taming of this acidity that leads to complex flavours residing in the cup.
Generally, lower acid coffees like Monsoon Malabar, Brazils, Sumatrans and natural processed Ethiopians will respond better to short-black style espressos.
Adding milk weakens the espresso shot and disperses acidity. In Australia, more than 90% of espresso extractions tend to have milk added so in this case, it’s useful to look for higher acid coffees like Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, PNG, Costa Rica as the acids will work well to keep the sweetness in the cup.
Believe it or not, you cannot grade coffee beans into classifications of strength - it's not a valid descriptor. Coffee is not traded or sold by farmers or brokers based on "strength" - in fact the strength of coffees are relatively similar in terms of the caffeine levels present.
The strength of a coffee is directly related to the dose levels and brew efficiency - not the coffee bean. In other words, coffee is just an ingredient, like flour and it's what you do with the ingredient that determines the resultant outcome.
So please - disregard all your pre-conceptions about beans having strength.
Now - to provide more flavour in a plunger infusion (or extraction) we would recommend coffees that exhibit more intensity with higher flavour (and by default acids) - such as African coffee beans from Kenya or Ethiopia, or the Colombia and Guatemala coffees.
Due to the brew method of plunger requiring longer contact with the ground coffee particles and lower pressure levels to release the "coffee oils", the acidity levels are not as critical as in an espresso extraction.
Coffee beans with a long finish are best suited to plunger. Finish is referred to as after-taste, a persistence.
Again, it is necessary to look for coffees that have high flavour and long finish.
African and Colombia coffees tend to shine in the filter coffee brew.
Alternatively, a PNG or Guatemala might also give great results.
Blends may not always work best in the filter as blends have been optimised for espresso (due to espresso being a more popular brew/extraction method).
That's not to say blends won't work, but the characteristics of the cup will be more balanced and smooth. We have compiled some of our favourite coffee to use for pour over coffee here if you want to check it out!
Some blends like Barista and Espresso work well in Stovetop (or Moka Pot).
As stovetop works in a similar manner to espresso machines, albeit with longer contact time and lower pressures, personally, I prefer to use African coffees in a stovetop as the fruit and complexity tend to show through more with a stovetop espresso whilst the acids are more muted, producing a nicer balance compared to espresso extraction.
Colombia, PNG and Guatemala all work well - any coffee with a rich infusion is going to perform well on the stovetop.
4. Espresso machine
When it comes to espresso - whether it's milk-based or black, the choices are only limited by personal preferences.
For espresso to generate the right result, extraction requires absolute precision in grinding and dosing. Even the slightest deviation of grind or dose will tend to produce a less desirable result. The key to espresso extraction is to slow down the shot flow to the slowest possible rate - literally like honey, but increasing the resistance via finer grind or higher dose levels. We suggest finding the choke point where the flow is almost "dripping" and then back it off a slight amount via a micro less dosage.
Espresso is about creating resistance using both grind and dose. If the pour is too fast, then oils from the coffee which are the flavours will be low. This is why it's important to have a "tight" espresso extraction. The risks of over-extraction are not as bad as under-extraction, hence why we aim for a tighter shot.
Please don't use high tamp pressure as a method to increasing the espresso shot resistance - this is where you will inevitably end up with compaction and channeling, leading to uneven extraction, weak and poor espresso brew. Tamping is to ensure an even and level pack of grounds, not to alter the shot dynamics.
Espresso is where you can try just about any type of coffee and get some kind of result - assuming you have extracted the coffee correctly.
The second part of the coffee bean selection criteria deals with milk........with or without?
5. Without Milk
For a black coffee to work as espresso, you need to have some good acid balance and a good espresso shot - look for lower acid coffees such as Brazil (neutral acid), Sumatra (low acid) and some of the Ethiopians like the Sidamo.
The lowest acid coffee in our portfolio is Monsoon Malabar. Please be aware, it has a rather pungent aroma that some people may find unpleasant or unusual and spicy note, but it's also powerful and nuanced - customers that like this coffee won't drink anything else.
Monsoon Malabar requires an extremely fine grind setting (almost like powder) due to the lack of bean density (it's been dried out before roasting due to the monsooning process).
Colombian and PNG can also work well black as does the Burundi and Mexicans.
6. With Milk
Coffees with sparkling acidity provide a clean, refreshing cup when milk is added.
Typically, Central American coffees from Guatemala, Nicaragua, El-Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica provide superb examples of milk-based espresso coffees.
Our Colombian coffees tend to be slightly higher in acid.
I tend to favour certain types of Colombians that exhibit a bright and lively cup profile - the Excelso's, rather than the smoother Supremos that can be a bit dull and boring.
Brazils work well with milk to deliver lots of milk-chocolate.
Guatemala has a very high flavour with dark-chocolate.
El-Salvador provides a rich, long finish.
Costa Rica generates a nice, clean cup.
Nicaragua tastes like toffee.
PNG gives you tropical fruit and a hint of caramel.
India works supremely well in milk - the soft acidity creates a wonderful balance with lots of raisin and chocolate notes.
Ethiopians are fruity and can deliver a nice, berry finish.
Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania deliver very high flavour and acid - making them perfect milk-based partners.
If you are in doubt - go for a Guatemala, Colombia or PNG if you enjoy a more rounded and balanced cup in milk.
African coffees can be intense and the fruit may not suit everyone.
7. Everyone loves Chocolate
In a general sense - most coffees can be separated by the following characteristic......
Does it give you chocolate or fruit (sometimes both - which can be amazing)
Women love chocolate notes in their coffees. It's a well-proven fact.
Chocolate can come from many different origins but if you want some fail-safe tips on generating chocolate in your milk-based espresso
Chocolate notes in an espresso can be influenced by the way in which the coffee was roasted (by me).
I tend to roast just on the medium depth - which preserves the original character of the coffee bean and offers combinations of fruit and chocolate.
Darker roasts can have more caramel and malt - but lose the sweetness and sparkling acidity.
Rwanda gives some excellent Swiss-chocolate notes.
Guatemala gives dark chocolate.
Colombia gives cocoa.
Brazil and El-Salvador provide milk-chocolate.
Fruit can be a wonderful character in coffee.
It tends to suit the newer styles of brewing and extraction such as cold-filter or siphon and requires a lighter roast depth to preserve the original fruity aspects of the coffee bean.
Fruit can sometimes be overwhelming in the cup.
As an example, a lot of our natural processed (dry) Ethiopians have a fermented fruit character.
Extracting these coffees can be challenging, requiring advanced barista skills.
African coffees tend to have very high levels of fruit - some of the beans we source contain intense fruit.
Ethiopia coffee varietals from Sidamo, Limu and Harrar have a stronger berry note.
The Yirgacheffe have more of the lemon citrus note.
Some of the Colombia Excelso coffee beans we source can provide a rich red berry infusion.
These are high-grade coffees with superb fruit.
Rwanda has more of an Orange or Tangerine finish with chocolate.
Kenya can have intense winey, berry, almost lemony grapefruit finish.
The fruity coffees have more intensity in the cup.
Brewing and extraction need to be carefully managed with fruity coffee beans.
|Brew Method||Quick Recommendation|
Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda,
Guatemala, PNG. Colombia
Colombia, PNG, some African coffees
(although Ethiopian beans may be too fruity)
Blends - try Mocha, Espresso, Barista
Single Origins - try Colombia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Guatemala, PNG,
(black - no milk)
Blends - 8 Ounces, Suuweet, Barista
Single Origins - Brazil, Sumatrans, Colombian, Rwanda, Panama, Kenya and some Ethiopians (fruity)
Blends - Centre Way, Suuweet, Espresso, Barista and Mocha
Single Origins - Generally speaking, most origins will work OK so long as you know how to dial in your grinder and dosing.
Guatemala, Colombia, PNG, Costa Rica and El Salvador are all excellent choices.