Deciding what beans to buy can be a daunting
task for a beginner. There are many variables to take into
consideration. But rather than saying, "ah, screw it" and
getting smashed with your friends, read through the rest of this
page and you'll be scolding foolish Yuban customers in no time.
Not all coffee is created equal. For that
reason, you'll find that coffee is divided into a number of
categories and sub-categories. For simplicity, I'm only going to
explain the major categories of coffee here.
- Milds are
the arabica beans from plants grown at high altitudes. These
produce the best coffee and are what you should always use
- Brazils are
arabica beans grown in Brazil. But here's where the
classification system gets a bit screwy -- milds also come
from Brazil. The difference is that "Brazils" are from
plants grown at low altitudes. These beans will not be as
good as milds, but are quite a bit cheaper.
come from the inferior robusta plant. Don't even think about
buying these flavorless and aroma-less beans.
Countries of origin
There are over three dozen coffee producing
countries on this little planet. Each country's coffee is
different; sometimes drastically different. Some you'll find
more often than others. For example, you'll find Brazillian
coffee just about everywhere. Within each country, every farm is
going to have varying batches from one "season" to the next
(coffee berries grow eight or more times a year.) Much like the
IT industry, one coffee can be excellent today but mediocre or
overpriced two months from now.
So since the information I could give you here
would be outdated by the time you go to purchase coffee, I
recommend finding a knowledgable seller and asking them for
their recommendations. But do keep in mind that some of best
coffee isn't terribly expensive. If your local coffee roaster is
always trying to hawk their most expensive beans, perhaps you
should look elsewhere.
Ever see unroasted coffee? Raw beans smell
kind of like grass, and are soft in texture. They tend to be
shipped in burlaps sacks. I don't think it's possible to make
coffee out of these, but if you did it would probably be
completely disgusting. In fact, it might even taste like
wheatgrass juice! Barf!
If you're going to buy unroasted beans and do
your own roasting, feel free to skip the next section.
Just about any coffee shop that roasts coffee
will have a variety of roasted beans. If you find yourself
wondering what the hell the difference between "House" and
"Espresso" roasts is, you're not alone. Here are some common
names you'll find:
- Light/Cinnamon Roast:
These have been roasted very little. They'll produce an
acidic, highly caffeinated coffee. It will be quite bitter.
Contrary to the name, it does not contain cinnamon -- but
the color is similar. You may not find this anywhere other
than in North American.
- House/Medium/American Roast: This is
simply a medium roast that any coffee shop in America will
use for all their drip coffee. The cheap stuff (Yuban,
Folgers, etc.) is often a medium roast.
- Dark/City Medium Roast:
Darker roasts have less caffeine, and are less bitter and
acidic. You'll notice that they're often sweeter than a
medium. This is the lightest roast that's generally used for
- French/City Roast:
This tends to be even darker than a dark roast. The beans
should look very dark brown and oily. At coffee shops run by
clueless people, this means the coffee will be burnt to a
crisp and kind of disgusting. Some people use such burnt
beans *cough* Starbucks *cough* for their espresso. Then
again, some people also listen to Britney Spears
- Espresso/Italian/Full City/Very Dark
Roast: This is the darkest roast,
typically used for espresso. Some European coffee shops only
offer this roast because they don't make drip coffee. Good
One thing you should keep in mind when
purchasing roasted coffee is you have to judge the coffee by
your own eyes. The aforementioned roast names above are somewhat
vague and not completely universal. If the espresso roast isn't
very dark, you shouldn't buy it! On the flip side, NONE of the
coffee should look completely black, and the darker roasts
should be oily and therefore shiny. If this isn't the case,
perhaps you should look somewhere else for your coffee.
Now that you know what to look for in a
roasted bean, you may be wondering what all this means. Simple:
it's all chemistry. Chemistry was never my favorite subject, but
fortunately, it's not very complicated if you remember some
The darker beans should produce a slightly
sweeter coffee, as the natural sugars in the beans will
caramelize. As the roast gets darker some of the acid and some
of the caffeine get burned off. This means that the lighter
coffee is more bitter, acidic, and less sweet. Unless you're a
masochist you have to agree that darker roasts are best, as they
are (at least ideally) a bit sweet and relatively not terribly
Blended coffee is (if you'll pardon the pun) a
mixed bag. Sometimes roasters blend coffee to create consistent
quality for consumers. Other times, cheap coffee is blended with
better coffee to create an adequate cuppa joe that costs little
to produce (but isn't necessarily cheaper for the consumer.)
You've probably seen a few common blends
before -- even supermarkets stock blends labeled "Mocha Java."
Mocha in this context refers to the coffees from Yemen and
Ethiopia, and Java refers to Indonesian beans. Ideally, Java
provides a good body and Mocha beans flavor the coffee.
Not all blends are this simple, however. The
ratio and content of many blends change as coffee fiends work in
secret underground laboratories to achieve a perfect balance.
Most roasters will sell their first born child before they'd
tell anyone their top-secret blend recipes.
You've seen flavored coffee beans in grocery
stores and import stores, but rarely in serious cafes. There is
a reason for this: flavored beans tend to be made with low
quality coffee. The flavor is supposed to mask the mediocrity
but it rarely does. You'd might as well just buy your coffee at
7-11 if you can stomach flavored beans.