Coffee beans taste wonderful and are the core component of one of the world’s favourite drinks. But getting to grips with the varied information on coffee labels certainly isn’t the simplest task. Today we’re here to guide you through the basics of reading coffee labels.
Coffee Bean Terms to Know
The terms you see on your favourite coffee beans aren’t there to confuse. They’re intended to guide you through what to expect. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the terms, it can look like a confusing mass of jargon- so let’s start by breaking it all down.
We roast coffee beans to produce the classic cuppa we love. Coffee berries (called cherries in the industry) start life as ‘green’ coffee, and roasting the seeds brings out their full flavour as well as making them shelf-stable and long-lasting. How long the cherries cook and at what heat influences the roast type. You’ve probably noticed that the beans can be very light brown to almost black- that’s an indication of the roast they underwent. The three basic roast styles are:
● Light: As a rule of thumb, light roasts preserve more of the intrinsic bean flavour. They’re acidic, bright, and delicate.
● Medium: A great middle ground that still lets unique flavours express themselves, but gives that satisfying coffee taste and a mellower experience.
● Dark: Dark roasts are bitter, with a deep mouth feel and bolder, smokey tastes. They’re full-bodied with low acidity.
You’ll find refining terms like light-medium and medium-dark to offer an even more precise idea of what to expect.
Next, how we create the bean from the cherry affects the taste, too. This could be by hand, machine, or even fermentation. Here are some terms to know:
● Washed (or Wet): This adds little to the coffee taste, letting the bean’s flavour profile speak for itself. A water-based method removes the flesh.
● Natural (or Dry): Sundried while still inside the cherry, this gives the bean a fruity, sweet taste. Done well, it can be remarkable, but it’s easy to damage the flavour. It is a very environmentally friendly production technique.
● Pulped Natural (or Honey): This means the beans dried while some of the flesh was still attached. More flesh means a sweeter, fuller coffee.
Brew is the catch-all term for how you are going to prepare your coffee. How you’re going to brew your coffee beans will have a big impact on the resulting cup. A great coffee label should tell you how the bean can best be brewed. Of course, it’s only guidance, and you can experiment to your heart’s content.
● Immersion brews: Cold brew and French press style.
● Pressure brews: The brew from an Aeropress, espresso machine, or moka pot.
● Gravity brews: Drip coffee and pour-overs.
Where Do My Coffee Beans Come From?
Next, your coffee label will tell you more about the bean itself. This should include the variety of the beans (usually Arabica or Robusta) and some information about their origins.
Single-Origin has become a popular sales term of late. It should mean a bean that’s sourced only from one area- typically one plantation, although it can mean one region. Micro-lots even come from a specific section of a plantation! Remember that, like wine, coffee is heavily impacted by the soil, climate, and even the elevation the beans grow at. Some labels will give you all that information for die-hard fans. So a single-origin bag ensures a homogenous taste. As it’s usually used for specialty beans, there’s a perception that they are always better, but that’s not true.
Other coffees use blends that unite the unique tastes of two or more bean sources into something special. Blends can compensate for poorer bean quality, but some blends really highlight their component beans. So don’t reject them by rote.
Describing the Coffee Experience
Last, but certainly not least, we have a description of the taste. Many of these overlap with wine terminology, and most are pretty easy to understand. Let’s break down some common terms.
Acidity isn’t quite the same as the scientific meaning. Think of it as the ‘brightness’ in the coffee, or how crisp it is. Body, or ‘mouth-feel’ is a sensation which tells you how rich and heavy it will be on your tongue. Aroma is, of course, the coffee smell. It peaks in medium roasts and gives a strong idea of how the coffee will taste.
Flavour notes are creative and dramatic, and you may see anything from ‘fruity’ or ‘tart’ to creative terms like ‘vanilla’, ‘maple’, or even ‘garlic’ and other hints you don’t expect in a cup of coffee! These things are not included in the mix, it’s simply a way to better describe the taste experience.
Remember, you can’t drink coffee incorrectly! Coffee labels are there to guide you, but they aren’t the only authority on the drinking experience. So don’t be afraid to experiment and enjoy it your way.
Article written by Rimgaile Vosylyte