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Coffee Beans: How To Choose, The Best Ones To Try
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
How do you choose the right coffee beans when you’re out shopping – and you’re confronted by row after row of roasted beans that look pretty much the same?
The easiest ways are to buy the coffee beans you’ve always bought (or the ones your parents, friends or favorite barista use), or to close your eyes and play “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
What’s the right way to choose a whole bean coffee? The first step is to learn a little more than you already know about coffee beans. Then you can think about what you want your coffee to taste like, and be able to make an informed choice.
Understanding coffee beans will allow you to navigate that complicated assortment of coffee beans with confidence.
Let’s get you started.
All About Coffee Beans
The quality and characteristics of coffee beans vary depending on the type of plants they come from, how the plants are raised and tended, where they’re grown, and a number of other factors.
But generally speaking, there are only two types of roasted coffee beans you’re likely to find in a supermarket, specialty store, coffee shop or online: Arabica and Robusta. (Liberica and Excelsa beans are rarely available in the Western world.)
Once you understand the differences between those varietals, we can talk more about regions of origin, roasts, and other important details.
Arabica vs. Robusta Coffee Beans
Most of the delicious coffee you’ve had at a restaurant or Starbucks has been made from Arabica beans. About 60% of the coffee beans produced worldwide are Arabica, and Arabica coffee is widely viewed as the sweeter and more flavorful choice. It’s also more expensive, though, because the plants are tricky to cultivate and can only be grown at high altitudes.
Robusta beans can be almost as tasty, but they’re usually not. They normally produce a bitter, stronger and less complex coffee. However, they do contain almost twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans, and many espresso fans prefer using Robusta beans because of the brew’s power and the thick crema they produce. Robusta is a less-expensive choice.
In short, you’ll probably be happier buying Arabica beans unless your choice is primarily based on caffeine content, a love of espresso, or your budget. In that case, the best Robusta coffee will come from single-origin beans (grown by a single producer in a single location) from a trustworthy company.
Regions of Origin
Few countries produce both Arabica and Robusta coffee beans. Most of the Robusta beans sold worldwide are grown in Southeast Asia, primarily in Vietnam and Indonesia. A smaller amount comes from Brazil and India.
Arabica beans must usually be grown at high elevations, but they’re cultivated in a number of countries. Brazil leads the way in Arabica production, and most of the other nations that grow Arabica beans in quantity are in Central or South America, Ethiopia or Kenya. However, smaller crops are also grown elsewhere, like on Hawaii’s Kona Coast; those beans may be harder to find, but worth the effort.
The quality and flavor of coffee beans vary not only from country to country, but from grower to grower, of course. Even so, there are certain characteristics that are common to the majority of producers in each geographic area.
When Americans think of delicious coffee, they usually are imagining the taste of Arabica beans grown in most of the major coffee countries of South America: medium-bodied and balanced, somewhat sweet and not too acidic. Those characteristics are common to beans grown in Colombia and on the better farms of Peru. Brazil is the exception, producing coffee beans that are often heavier in flavor, with chocolate, nutty, spicy or buttery notes.
Coffee from nations like Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras will be similar to Colombian coffee, but may contain more acid and sweetness, with fruity undertones.
There are two major coffee-producing nations in Africa, and the beans from those two countries can be quite different.
In fact, there can be two different types of beans sourced just from Ethiopia. For “washed” beans, producers remove the beans from the coffee cherry (the plant’s fruit) almost immediately; for “natural” beans, the cherry is dried first. Ethiopian washed beans tend to produce lighter and brighter coffee, more acidity and a complex flavor. Natural beans will produce coffee whose flavor is less consistent, but fruity, heavier and richer. Both varieties also have what connoisseurs call a “blueberry” underlying note.
Coffee beans grown in Kenya produce coffee whose taste is big, bold, savory and almost tropical-like in flavor.
The flavors of coffee beans sourced from Asia will vary widely, depending on the country of origin.
Coffee from Indonesia is likely to be earthy, smoky and dark. Sumatran beans may produce similar coffee, but with a “toasted” feel to the taste. And since most of Vietnam’s production is Robusta beans (commonly used to make coffee blends, decaf and instant coffee), the coffee is likely to be bitter, heavy and highly-caffeinated.
Much of Asia’s coffee production is Liberica and Excelsa beans, which have very different flavor profiles but are unlikely to be found in America.
Types of Roast
To be honest, coffee lovers are more likely to discuss coffee roasts than types of coffee beans – because it’s usually assumed that the beans will be Arabica. Also being honest, coffee roasters may have more of an impact than growers on what ends up in your cup of coffee.
Roasting brings out the unique flavors and aromas that are “hidden” in a green coffee bean. As beans are brought to high temperatures, they don’t just change color; chemical changes produce their distinctive taste and “coffee smell.” The longer the roast lasts, the darker the bean gets – and the more prominent the bean’s stronger flavors will become. Once roasting is complete, the beans are ready to be turned into ground coffee.
Before discussing the common types of roast, it’s important to dispel one common misconception. Darker roasts do not mean that the beans are necessarily stronger and contain more caffeine. In fact, it often works the opposite way. As beans are roasted, caffeine is burned off; most light roasts actually contain more caffeine than the majority of dark roast beans.
OK, let’s learn more about the subject.
Light Roast Beans
Expert roasters don’t actually bring the beans to a specific temperature. Instead, they heat the beans until they “crack” for the first time; that happens just before the temperature hits 400° and before any oil breaks through the surface of the bean.
The coffee from light roasts is generally mild, smooth and acidic, and it may taste fruity and slightly toasted. But the process prevents it from exhibiting some of the strong flavors that would come out with longer roasting.
Light roasts are sometimes called by other names, including Light City, Cinnamon Roast or New England Roast.
Medium Roast Beans
The most commonly-purchased coffee beans in America, medium-roast beans are roasted longer, until they’re about to crack for the second time (usually around 425°) and still aren’t oily.
Medium-roasting adds color to the beans and slightly reduces their acidity, which is replaced by more body and balance. There will still usually be at least a hint of sweetness, accompanied by more-noticeable notes contributed by the roasting.
Medium roast beans may be labeled American Roast, City Roast or Breakfast Roast.
Medium-Dark Roast Beans
When coffee beans are removed from heat right after the second crack (about 440°) and some oil is showing on their surface, the roast is known as medium-dark. Much of the beans’ easily-distinguishable light flavors have vanished at this point; heavier and stronger roasted flavors are dominant, along with some spicy notes.
You may see medium-dark roasts labeled as After Dinner Roast or Full City Roast.
Dark Roast Beans
These beans are still allowed to roast after the second crack, and they’re not removed and cooled until the temperature is in the vicinity of 465°. They are dark brown or black, with an oil sheen on the surface; that oil often remains visible even after the coffee is brewed and in the cup.
Dark roast coffee retains very little of the beans’ acidity or their original delicate flavor. There’s less body, and the overwhelming taste is smoky, and often bitter. Many people prefer using dark roast beans when they make espresso.
All sorts of names are used for dark roast beans. Some include Italian Roast, French Roast, Spanish Roast, Continental Roast and Espresso Roast.
Other Factors to Consider When Buying Coffee Beans
Organic and Fair Trade Coffee Beans
Seasons change, of course, so the availability of beans from various regions will vary at different times of the year. Just as important to many consumers, though, is how those coffee beans are farmed.
One common consideration is whether coffee plants have been farmed organically. Most people understand the basics of organic farming; no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or other chemicals are used in the growing process. Coffee beans grown in this manner will often be labeled simply as “organic” or “organically-grown.” “Certified organic” is a designation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which is expensive to obtain.
Many coffee-growing regions are in located in developing nations. Workers commonly receive low wages and are treated poorly, large roasters take advantage of growers, and farmers are less likely to use sustainability practices to protect natural resources and the environment. How can you know whether any of that bad stuff happens where your beans have been grown?
Some coffee beans will be labeled “direct trade,” “fair trade” or even “certified fair trade.” Those terms all theoretically indicate that workers and farm owners are paid and treated fairly, and that sustainable farming practices are used. However, only “certified fair trade” means that the processes and books have been audited by a third-party organization created for that purpose.
Some industry observers are skeptical of the fair trade model, claiming its goals are laudable but not always enforced properly. Others claim that it implicitly promises higher-quality coffee to consumers, when that’s not always the case. However, the ethical desirability of “fair trade certified” coffee is one consideration to keep in mind when choosing coffee beans.
One more label you’ll often see on high-quality coffee beans is “shade grown.” Those beans are more likely to brew a terrific pot of coffee, because the plants have been grown under a natural forest canopy. That means they’re slower to ripen, allowing time for the development of the varietal’s complex tastes. Shade-grown crops are also good for the environment.
Your choice of coffee beans will largely depend on your preferences and palate. The more you sample, the easier it will be to focus on the beans that produce coffee with the body, balance and tastes you enjoy.
A few brewing processes, however, will create better coffee when certain types of beans are used.
- Espresso: Most fans of these flavorful shots prefer using dark roasts, because the shots will be less acidic. Only an experienced barista can make great espresso with light roast beans; ordinary coffee drinkers who try it will usually find the shots lack the richness of great espresso. The same is true when using a moka pot.
- French Press: Medium-dark and dark roasts are best for coffee made with a French press. The oil in those beans contributes to a more flavorful brew, and the metal filter in the machine is particularly effective at extracting and blending darker-roast flavors like caramel and chocolate.
- Pour Over: This technique best enhances the natural flavors of light roasts, bringing out the subtle regional characteristics of the beans.
- Regular Coffee Makers and Cold Brew: Anything goes. Enjoy!
The Best Coffee Beans
Now that you understand the basics of choosing coffee beans, you should be ready to charge into any formerly-intimidating coffee aisle or coffee shop and find the best beans to use for your next brew.
No? You’re not quite there yet? That’s OK. We’ve got a cheat sheet you can use to start your journey. And if you don’t want to brave that scary coffee aisle, many of these choices are available on Amazon. All beans are Arabica unless noted otherwise.
Light Roast Beans
- Lifeboost Light Roast: Made from single-origin, high-quality beans sourced from Nicaragua, Lifeboost coffees are organic, shade-grown, fair trade and non-GMO. The taste of this light roast is bright and delicious with a decent amount of acidity, with notes of caramel, hazelnut, vanilla and chocolate.
- Coffee Bros. Light Roast: This is a blend, rather than a single-source coffee, but the beans are carefully selected – and even better – not roasted until you order. The beans come from Ethiopia and Colombia, and they brew a delicate and yummy coffee with notes of citrus and honey.
- Kicking Horse Coffee Hola Light Roast: An organic and shade-grown blend, this one mixes beans from Central and South America to produce a coffee that’s pleasantly acidic and bright. The cocoa and brown sugar aroma compliments the notes of fruit and honey that shine through.
Medium Roast Beans
- Peet’s Coffee Big Bang Medium Roast: Bolder than many medium roasts you’ll taste, this is the coffee company’s signature blend with a good balance of acidity and bitterness. The beans are sourced from around the world, but the citrus of natural Ethiopian coffee predominate, along with very noticeable chocolate notes.
- Koa Coffee Peaberry Medium Roast: Expect to pay a lot, for two reasons. This is highly-revered Kona coffee from Hawaii, and it’s sourced from relatively-rare peaberry coffee cherries (which contain only one bean, not two). The coffee is smooth, sweet, and like most peaberry coffees, it has a good deal of acid in the aftertaste. It’s a great example of why people love Kona coffee.
- Kicking Horse Smart Ass Medium Roast: Yep, these guys again. It’s another blend, this one of beans from Africa, Central and South America. The Smart Ass blend is very well-balanced, fruity and sweet with notes of honey, milk chocolate and red currants. And it’s also organic and shade-grown.
Dark Roast Beans
- Fresh Roasted Dark Brazilian Nossa Senhora de Fatima: Don’t be put off by the long brand name. Fresh Roasted produces some amazing coffee, and this one is exceptional. Single-origin (from Brazil, as you’ve probably guessed), certified organic, fair trade, less expensive than you’d expect – and yummy. It’s a bold but sweet coffee with notes of wood and raisins, and is particularly great when made in a French press.
- Cooper’s Cask Coffee Sumatra Dark Roast: Many who love dark roast prefer Sumatra coffee beans, which have been wet-washed and sun dried. It’s short on brightness and acidity, but long on richness and the earthy complexity that’s enhanced by long roasting periods. This blend has a strong rustic taste, with notes of cedar, dark chocolate, roasted fruit. You may love it or hate it, but you’ll definitely appreciate and remember it.
- Death Wish Coffee Company: Many people seek this coffee out because it’s been called the world’s strongest coffee, with caffeine content that may make you sit up and scream. Don’t let that fool you; it’s also delicious. It’s smoother than you’d think, with low acidity, no bitterness and prominent notes of black cherry and dark chocolate. The beans are sourced from India and Peru, and there are some Robusta beans in the blend.