For most, buying coffee can be confusing if you don’t know what to look for. Things like roast levels, grind size, country of origin, how it’s processed, and flavor notes may seem self-explanatory, but why does it matter? Everyone has their preferences when it comes to the perfect cup of coffee. Some may like bold and bitter, and others may like light and smooth. The key is understanding what you’re buying so you can find the right coffee for you.
Coffee roast levels explained
Think of roast level as a way to balance a coffee’s acidity, bitterness and sweetness. As a coffee roaster, our job is to find the desired sweet spot for each coffee we roast. We use a combination of bean temperature and roast time to achieve various roast levels. Most roasts can be placed in one of three groups, light roast, medium roast, and dark roast. Each roast has a unique profile which we will explain.
Light roast coffee
One of the easiest ways to distinguish different roasts is by examining the color. Light roast coffee is noticeably light brown in color. Often, we associate darker full-bodied coffee with having more caffeine, but in fact, the opposite is true. The longer a coffee is roasted, the less caffeine it will have.
Because light roast has less time to roast, it remains denser. This makes light roast coffee slightly harder to extract the full flavor when you’re brewing. To compensate, the best brewing methods for light roast coffee are those that take longer. French press and pour over provide a longer brew time which help bring out the full flavor of a light roast. Another popular way to brew light roast coffee is cold brew. To make cold brew you need to allow the coffee grounds to steep in water and refrigerate for at least 12 hours before serving.
For those that enjoy a light and bright cup of coffee, a lighter roast might be for you.
Medium roast coffee
Like the name implies medium roast sits between light roast and dark roast. As the coffee has more time to roast and becomes less dense. At this point, the coffee becomes more balanced and will start to lose some of the brighter flavors present with a lighter roast.
One of the reasons medium roasts are so popular is because it lends itself to more flexibility when brewing. We’ve had success using medium roast from cold brew to espresso. We also use a medium roast coffee in our popular Trail Packs which is a single use pour over perfect for any backcountry adventure.
For those that enjoy some fruity notes with slightly less acidity, a medium roast would be a great choice.
Dark roast coffee
If you’ve ever seen dark roast coffee, you’ll recognize it’s dark brown, almost blackish color. At this point, nearly all moisture is removed from the coffee bean. Layers of the bean begin breaking down which release oils from within. This is why darker roasts tend to be more oily than medium or light roasts, which is some cases, may or may not have any oil on the surface unless they’re stored for a long period of time.
Because darker roasted beans are more brittle and less dense, they react differently when you grind them. To achieve a higher extraction, we recommend brewing with a courser grind. Another difference you’ll want to take note is the water temperature. With light to medium roasts, you’ll want to use water that’s 195 – 205 degrees (F). With dark roasts, you’ll want to stay on the cooler side of this around 190 – 195 degrees (F). This will help minimize the bitter flavors that can easily dominate the finish.
If you enjoy coffee with flavor notes that are more nutty and slightly bitter, dark roast might be your preferred choice.
Single origin vs. coffee blends
Single origin coffee
If you frequent the coffee isle, you’ve likely ran across single origin coffee. While it may seem straight-forward, there’s more to it. Most single-origin coffee that you find will have the country of origin listed on the label. While it’s easy to think that all coffee sourced from a particular country is the same, that’s far from the truth. Each country can contain several different regions, and within each region there can be various types of terrain. From geography that’s more mountainous, to regions lower in elevation, each region contains different types of coffee, each with distinct characteristics.
Coffee blends as you might expect, are when two or more coffees are mixed to produce a balanced cup of coffee. These coffees can be from different countries, or different regions in the same country. However, creating a balanced blend isn’t as simple as pairing any two coffees together. As a roaster, we consider key elements from each coffee that pair well with each other. This could mean the characteristics of one coffee help calm the harshness of another, or that one coffee helps amplify the flavors from another. Each blend has unique characteristics that cannot be replicated from a single origin coffee.
How are flavor notes determined?
Before we start, let’s clear one thing up. Flavor notes are not the same as flavored coffee.
Instead, think of coffee flavor notes the same way you would wine flavor notes. They’re often subtle, but if brewed properly, they can shine through with every sip.
Flavor notes are determined by where the coffee was grown and how it was processed. As we said before, each country and region have different coffee. Climate and terrain largely dictate how a coffee will taste. Once the coffee is harvested it is processed. This also has a large impact on how the coffee will taste by the time it’s ready to be shipped.
How is coffee processed?
Once a coffee has been harvested it goes into the processing phase. While the name can be misleading, coffee beans are actually seeds from coffee cherries. These seeds are extracted in one of two ways through the processing phase.
Dry or natural processed coffee
Coffee can be processed in a few different ways, but one of the most natural methods is called the "natural" or "dry" process. Here are the basic steps involved:
- Harvesting: The coffee cherries are picked by hand when they are ripe and ready to be harvested.
- Sorting: The cherries are sorted to remove any under or overripe cherries, sticks or other debris.
- Drying: The cherries are spread out on a raised drying bed or on the ground in the sun. During the drying process, the cherries are raked several times a day to ensure even drying.
- Hulling: Once the cherries are completely dry, the outer skin is removed using a machine called a hulling machine.
- Sorting: The dried beans are sorted to remove any remaining debris and any defective beans.
With natural processing the coffee beans are dried inside the fruit, with the fruit's skin acting as a protective layer. This results in coffee that has a distinct fruity and floral flavor, which is why natural processed coffees are often described as "juicy" or "bright."
Washed coffee processing, also known as wet processing, is a method of removing the coffee cherry fruit from the coffee bean before it is dried. Here is a basic overview of the washed coffee processing method:
- Harvesting: The ripe coffee cherries are harvested from the coffee trees by hand or by machine.
- Depulping: The coffee cherries are then depulped using a machine that removes the outer skin of the cherry, leaving behind the coffee bean.
- Fermentation: The coffee beans are then soaked in water and fermented for several hours, during which time the remaining fruit flesh and mucilage is broken down and removed from the bean.
- Washing: After fermentation, the coffee beans are thoroughly washed with clean water to remove any remaining fruit flesh or mucilage.
- Drying: The washed coffee beans are then dried, either by sun-drying or with a mechanical dryer, until they reach the optimal moisture content of around 10-12%.
- Milling and Sorting: The dried coffee beans are then milled and sorted to remove any remaining debris or defective beans.
The washed coffee processing method is known for producing a clean, bright, and consistent cup of coffee, as it removes the fruit from the bean before it is dried. The method is commonly used in many coffee-producing countries, including Central and South America, Africa, and Asia.
What are the benefits of organic coffee?
Organic coffee is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and is processed using natural and environmentally friendly methods. Here are some benefits of organic coffee:
- Health benefits: Organic coffee is free from harmful chemicals that can be found in conventionally grown coffee. This means that the coffee is less likely to have harmful chemicals that can cause harm to human health. Organic coffee is also often richer in antioxidants, which can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Environmental benefits: Organic coffee farming is better for the environment, as it promotes sustainable farming practices that do not harm the soil, water, or air. By avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic coffee farming helps protect the surrounding ecosystems and supports the biodiversity of the area.
- Social benefits: Organic coffee farming often supports small-scale farmers who use traditional farming methods and are often part of cooperatives. This means that organic coffee can help support local communities and provide fair wages and working conditions for farmers.
- Taste benefits: Many people believe that organic coffee tastes better than conventionally grown coffee. This is because the organic farming practices promote healthy soil and allow the coffee plants to grow in their natural environment, producing a higher quality and more flavorful coffee bean.
Overall, choosing organic coffee can provide many benefits, from promoting better health and supporting sustainable farming practices to helping local communities and providing a better tasting coffee.
Why does fresh coffee matter?
Fresh coffee is better because it retains more of its flavor and aroma. Here are a few reasons why:
- Flavor: Coffee beans contain oils and volatile compounds that contribute to their unique flavors and aromas. Over time, these compounds break down and evaporate, resulting in a loss of flavor. Freshly roasted coffee has more of these compounds and thus has a fuller, richer flavor profile.
- Aroma: The aroma of coffee is an important part of the overall sensory experience. Freshly roasted coffee has a more intense and pleasing aroma than coffee that has been sitting on a shelf for an extended period.
- Acidity: The acidity of coffee is a desirable characteristic that gives coffee its bright and lively taste. Over time, coffee loses its acidity, resulting in a dull and flat taste. Fresh coffee has more acidity and thus has a brighter and more complex flavor profile.
- Caffeine: Freshly roasted coffee contains more caffeine than older coffee. This is because caffeine degrades over time, so older coffee will have less caffeine than fresh coffee.
Fresh coffee is better because it has a fuller flavor profile, more intense aroma, brighter acidity, and higher caffeine content. For the best-tasting coffee, it is recommended to use coffee beans that have been roasted within the last two weeks and to grind them just before brewing.
If you have any questions or need a recommendation, don’t hesitate to reach out!