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How To Read Coffee Labels: A Beginners Guide

How to Read Coffee Labels: A Beginners Guide

We are here today to talk about something that goes completely unnoticed by most people: the labels on your bags of coffee beans.

While you may think all these little bags with their different names and flavors are just random blends with some fancy names and descriptions, the tags on them actually can tell you a lot about what’s inside—if you know how to read them.

In this article, we’re going to break down the different parts of the label so you can see what information is available to you and how to use it to help get the most out of every bag of beans.

Sourcing

Coffee has a troubled history. It was used to subjugate and exploit the working class. Nowadays, that’s changing. By sourcing coffee from small farms, roasters can help ensure farmers are paid fairly, have healthy working conditions, and reinvest in their communities with programs such as education and healthcare initiatives.

Like humans, coffee needs good conditions to thrive. This is why our sourcing method goes beyond the bean. In addition to finding the highest quality coffee beans, we take pride in partnering with farms and cooperatives that are paying farmers fairly and investing in regenerative agriculture practices. These practices benefit us all by helping to restore healthy soil and a stable climate.

Coffee roasters who proudly announce their partnerships with coffee farms, on the other hand, open themselves up to questions, research, and competition. These roasters are more likely to be the ones that are making positive impacts in struggling communities and regions and would love for you to participate in the effort.

Roast Date vs Best Before Date

The truth is, the coffee industry has two different systems for product dating: the roast date and the best before date. We’re here to help you understand them both so you can make smart purchasing decisions.

The first system is called the roast date. This date is set by roasters to give you a sense of how fresh your coffee is – after all, we all know that coffee begins to go stale after only two weeks from the day it’s been roasted. The second system is called the best before date. This type of label is typically requested by resellers because it extends their product’s shelf life and makes it easier to guarantee sales. Keep in mind that this means this coffee may have been sitting on a shelf for quite some time and might be long gone stale.

Origin

There are many factors that influence the flavour profile of coffee, but one of the most important is where in the world the coffee is grown. So we’ve put together a quick guide to help you figure out which regions produce the flavors you like best.

Kenya – rich full body & floral aroma, citrus and herbal flavor, wine-like acidity
India – full body, spicy & fruity flavor, smooth, bright acidity
Colombia – fruity, nutty aroma, caramel flavor, smooth medium body, heavy finish, citrus-like acidity
Ethiopia – bright fruity flavor, floral aroma, creamy, low acidity, medium body, clean finish
Costa Rica – medium body, sweet brown sugar aroma, citrus & nutty flavor, crisp acidity
Hawaii – mild fruity flavor, complex aroma and taste, medium body, bright acidity
Sumatra – fruity & nutty flavor, rich full body, sweet finish, earthy & woody aroma, low acidity
Brazil – sweet, nutty flavor, caramel, floral, light body, light acidity
Honduras – vanilla & hazelnut aroma, full body, chocolatey & nutty flavor, sweet finish, balanced acidity
Burundia – sweet and clean flavor, medium body, brightly acidic, with wild fruity notes
Peru – fruity aroma, light fruity/floral flavor, clean finish, light-medium body, mild acidity
Mexico – sweet, nutty flavor, caramel, floral, light body, light acidity
Bolivia – sweet, nutty flavor, caramel, floral, light body, light acidity
Vietnam – sharp, strong, distinctive roasted taste; higher acidity and higher caffeine content
Guatemala – rich chocolatey flavor, sweet, lightly fruity, medium-full body, bright acidity
Panama – honey and citrus flavor profile, light body, bright acidity

Altitude

If you’re the type of person who buys specialty coffee, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the word “altitude” on the packaging or label. Have you ever wondered why?
Well, altitude isn’t just something for hipsters in cafes to discuss—it really does have an impact on how your beans taste. The higher a place is above sea level, the longer it takes for coffee to grow there.

The flavor of coffee is affected by many things, including the elevation at which it was grown, the climate, and the soil in which it was planted. You can expect that a coffee grown at a lower elevation—around 2,000 feet above sea level—will taste different from one grown at an elevation of 5,000 feet and above. Coffee grown at the lower end of the scale tends to have a sweet caramel or chocolate-like taste with strong body and acidity. In the midrange, coffee is typically more balanced and sweet with medium body and acidity. At the highest elevations—5,000 feet and above—coffee tends to lose its sweetness as acidity becomes more pronounced.

Processing Method

These days, the methods of processing coffee beans are as diverse as the coffees themselves.

Wet processing involves washing the coffee beans of fruity material as soon as possible after they are picked.

Dry processing involves first drying the coffee cherry in the sun, then raking the beans free of any dried fruit.

Pulped Natural processing is a method of processing coffee cherries that doesn’t involve a fermentation stage.

Semi-Washed processing involves removing the coffee cherry’s skin and most of its mucilage with a demucilaging machine.

Aqua-pulp uses water to clean the coffee cherry initially, and is a popular method of cleaning at many coffee farms which formerly used wet processing.

There are also many experimental processing methods, such as anaerobic natural. The beans are placed in a container with a mix of water and yeast, and the container is sealed. This allows the beans to ferment for up to three weeks, and adds a fruity flavor to the resulting coffee. Beans processed in this way taste slightly sweet and caramel-like.

Roast

Coffee roasting is one of the most influential factors in determining a coffee’s final taste. Coffee roasting transforms green beans into the aromatic and flavorful coffee that wakes our senses in the morning. However, roasting at different levels also changes many of the beans’ physical attributes.

Light roasts last until a single crack is heard, called the “first crack”. As beans roast darker, both the caffeine content and origin flavors roast out. Darker roasts are slightly less acidic and have the least caffeine. Dark roasts get their bold, smoky flavor from oil that surfaces on the bean. Light and Medium roasts have little to no oil on the surface of the bean.
As a bean roasts, the body gets thicker and heavier up until the “second crack”. After the second crack, beans start to thin and taste more like charcoal.

For a long time, coffee was roasted only dark. Quite frankly, the coffee wasn’t so good. So they had to cover up the bad qualities by roasting it dark. However as quality improves and roasters are able to highlight more of the aromas and characteristics of a particular coffee, lighter and medium roast are trending instead of dark roast.

Tasting Notes

We get a lot of questions from customers about our tasting notes. What are tasting notes? When we say “cherries” and “red grape” on a bag of Nicaragua Fina Idealista, or “dark chocolate” and “blackberry compote” on a bag of Mexican Luis Ordonez, people sometimes think we’ve added flavoring to our beans. But that’s not the case! Just like you smell the lavender in your grandma’s clothes or the chlorine in your swimming pool, coffee can have scents too. These scents are called tasting notes.

Coffee has hundreds of different special flavors, called aroma compounds, which can come from different sources and are developed in different ways during processing. They also interact with each other in unique ways that create special flavors, like pineapple or mint or hay. Coffee drinkers have individual preferences for these flavors; it all depends on what you like!
The most common tasting notes used by roasters are fruity, chocolatey, nutty, earthy, spicy/peppery, caramel/butterscotch, citrusy/lemon-like, floral/herbaceous, and wine-like. Some people even pick up on dark cherry.

Conclusions

Now that you’ve learned how to read coffee labels, you’ll always know what kind of coffee you’re getting: not just a name and a price tag. You’ll know about the beans and how they were sourced, where they came from; how long ago they were roasted; and what the coffee is likely to taste like. And knowing is half the battle!
The journey to evolving your coffee palatte is intimate and involves lots and lots of experimentation. If you have questions along the way, feel free to send us a message—we’re here for you!