You’ve tried half a dozen makers, and dropped a few bucks on a decent grinder. You even spent a month experimenting with pour-over brewing. But while your coffee tech and technique can improve your joe, nothing matters more than starting with good beans.
Unfortunately, a lot of guys still buy the prepackaged, big-name-brand beans or—shudder—pre-ground coffee at their local supermarket.
You can get some decent beans at certain grocery stores. But you need to know what to look for, says Max Cudworth, co-owner of Philadelphia’s Ox Coffee, an independent shop that serves coffee harvested and roasted using organic and sustainable methods.
Here, he and Will Gross, co-owner of Ox and a former roaster at Brooklyn’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters, break down some simple ways to lay your hands on finer, higher quality beans.
Some grocery stores—Whole Foods, to name one—pride themselves on stocking locally roasted coffee beans, Cudworth says. “Local does not always equal good,” he says. But because many local roasters are trying to differentiate themselves from the Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts of the world, they tend to focus more on quality than quantity. “Going with local specialty coffee roasters gives you a better shot at finding well-sourced, freshly roasted beans,” he says.
CHECK THE DATE
If you don’t see a “roasted on” date on the bag, that should immediately be a red flag. Most decent roasters will include that information. “You always want to brew coffee beans within 14 days of being roasted,” Gross says. “After 14 days, cup quality diminishes and flavors will flatten.” And as far as grounds go, you really want to get hot water on them asap—like, within an hour. So that should dissuade you from ever buying pre-ground beans. Even a super-cheap blade-style grinder is a better option.
LOOK FOR THIS TERM
All coffee beans fall into two categories or “species,” Cudworth says. Those are “arabica” and “robusta.” As the latter’s name entails, robusta is a hardier, simpler-to-cultivate bean. It tends to grow close to sea level, and is cheaper and inferior in flavor, he says. While there’s plenty of junky arabica coffee out there, looking for that designation is another indicator you’re heading in the right direction, he adds.
KNOW YOUR ROAST LEVELS
“Coffees that are extremely dark in roast level will produce a very smoky, ashy flavor that some people find enjoyable,” Gross says. “Unfortunately, when roasting to this level you end up losing a lot of the flavors and complexities that are inherent to the coffee.” At the same time, too light a roast can taste “vegetal and extremely acidic,” he says. For all these reasons, he says you’re often best off opting for something in a medium roast.
THE MORE SOURCE INFO, THE BETTER
Many roasters tell you the general area their beans come from—whether that’s Columbia, Ethiopia, or Sumatra. But when you see information on the specific town or farm that produced your beans—sometimes referred to as “single origin” coffee—that’s another indication the roaster is probably taking extra care when it comes to procuring their beans. “Certain farms also have solid reputations which will lead some to purchase these coffees because they recognize the name and had a good experience in the past,” Gross says. He mentions “Finca El Injerto” in Guatemala as one example.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR FAIR TRADE AND ORGANIC BEANS
Like beans that are locally roasted, neither “fair trade” nor “organic” labels guarantee the beans you’re considering will kick ass. “It both matters and is also part of marketing,” Cudworth says. But a bean that sports either (or ideally, both) of these designations is suggestive of a roaster that puts effort into sourcing high-quality beans.
CONSIDER THE REGION
“All major growing regions have very specific flavor profiles,” Gross says. The ones you like are a matter of personal preference, but you have to pay attention to get a feel for your tastes. While South and Central America tend to produce beans typically described as smooth, sweet, and mild, African beans are often more fruity and complex.
Follow these tips to find the best beans. If you can’t seem to track down good stuff at your local store, some specialty coffee delivery services will zip an amazing assortment of freshly roasted beans to your door. Check out Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Nomad to name just a few.