How Is Your Coffee Really Going To Taste?
Welcome to Part 2 of our Coffee Buying Guide, following on from Part 1's summary of coffee freshness. Similarly to then, when first getting into coffee in a serious way, especially when purchasing coffee to enjoy at home with little to no intervention from experts telling you what to buy or how to brew it, it can feel like somewhat of a minefield.
This is especially true when entering the world of speciality coffee, where there’s so much terminology, so many definitions, and so many descriptors that you often won’t come across when purchasing any other type of food or drink product. This means you have to decode all of this to really understand exactly what you’re buying and understand how that coffee is going to taste. Well, GUSTATORY can help you as within this Part 2 of our Coffee Buying Guide we’re going to guide you through the thought process.
There are a few things you’ll often see on a bag of coffee, whether that’s speciality coffee, or coffee that you’ll traditionally see on supermarket shelves. They will often have some indication of roast strength, process type, flavour profile and sometimes roast profiles or brew method. The difficulty is that there is often little uniformity across producers and/or roasters as to what information they do actually provide on the bag, and as a result, some roasters will include a lot of information whereas others will include very little. Don’t fret though, there are some rules of thumb when it comes to coffee.
1 Roast strength
When first getting into coffee, you may not know exactly what you like but you might have a slight preference and/or may know what you don’t like. Roast strength is one of those terms that differs across the coffee industry, and here we'll explain why this coffee descriptor really ought to be avoided. Some of the more mainstream commodity coffee roasters will often use a scale from '1-5' to highlight how ‘strong’ the coffee is, whereas - much better - speciality roasters will often use a scale going from light roast to dark roast. Speciality coffee experts don’t tend to like the ‘1-5’ scale determining strength as it can be rather misleading. No one wants to taste weak coffee for the most part, so it’s quite unhelpful - what does a '1' even mean here? Our advice would most certainly be to stay away from coffee companies that use '1-5' in any advertising or informative material, it's a clear sign of the roasters not producing high quality speciality coffee - if speciality at all -, and whilst they might be trying to make it simpler for the average consumer, they're just not being accurate or helpful.
More often than not, a person’s preference towards light or dark roasted coffee is normally down to the flavour, not necessarily down to the strength. Light to medium roasted coffees, like those that feature in most of GUSTATORY's coffee subscriptions, are typically more acidic, and so you’ll often find words like fruity, delicate, bright, as descriptors. Dark roasted coffees, like those in GUSTATORY's specific dark roasted subscription typically have lower acidity, and so are less likely to be classed as fruity. Dark roasted coffees are therefore more commonly seen as being chocolatey or nutty, and are associated with flavours that are full bodied. So, if you prefer your coffee to be a little lighter bodied and fruitier then you can opt for a light to medium roast, whereas if you like a more full bodied coffee or maybe you prefer milk or espresso based drinks, then dark roasts are going to be, generally speaking, more pleasing to you.
But what if you find a bag of coffee that doesn’t have roast strength or any roast descriptors on the bag? This can sometimes be common amongst speciality coffee roasters and the general rule of thumb is, if it doesn’t say, then it’s a very likely a light medium roast. Most speciality coffee is light to medium as such a roasting method emphasises the flavour profiles associated with specialty coffee.
2 Processing type
Some bags will often provide a little more information about how the coffee was prepared or processed. You may come across terms such as ‘washed’ or ‘natural’, but what do these mean? We’re not going to dive too deep into each here, but you may see our coffee glossary terms for more info, and it's at least important to consider the following. Natural processed coffees are often associated with being more fermented or having ‘funky’ flavours, for lack of a better term. This is all due to how the beans have been prepared and how such a processing method can extract different qualities from the flavour profiles. Fermented fruit flavours are very much a love or hate thing amongst coffee drinkers and these flavours occur when the coffee beans have been left to sit in the fruit of the plant before roasting and a little fermentation naturally occurs. Some people absolutely love those interesting flavours and it’s part of the fun when experiencing different coffees, however, some people are repulsed by them. Typically if you see a bag of coffee that is natural processed, or it has tasting notes such as pineapple, mango, strawberry or any tropical fruits, then these are typically going to more fermented. Therefore, if you don’t like these more ‘funky’ flavours and you want something a little more familiar, then these coffees are perhaps one to avoid and stick with those washed.
If you do subscribe to GUSTATORY's coffee subscriptions you might have noticed that during your subscription setup, you're able to select processing preferences. This is exactly this, do you prefer more 'coffee tasting' coffees, or do you like experimental flavours? Whichever is your preference, you're able to specify if you fancy those washed or natural, only wish to receive one or the other, or really aren't that fussed - let the good coffee flow, happy to try anything! As we say, your coffee fix, your way, delivered.
3 Flavour profile and traceability
We’ve touched on flavours a little, and so to summarise, lighter - medium roasted coffees will typically be fruitier due to the level of acidity present at that roast type. Therefore, if you see words like apple, pear, berry, cherries et cetera, then you know that the coffee will be on the lighter side; whereas darker roasts will often be more chocolatey, caramelly (is that a word?), nutty and full bodied. You may see candied fruit descriptors or bags that state notes of jam or syrupy fruits, again, these are often characteristic of darker roasts.
A common misconception, however, is that certain regions are associated with certain flavour profiles. For example, Brazilian, Colombian, Ethiopian et cetera. Someone may say that "...Colombian coffee is very chocolatey and Ethiopian coffee is very fruity...", for example. Statistically speaking they'll be onto something, however, this is misleading because within each coffee growing nation there will be variations as well as a lot of variety amongst the different producers and farmers, all in all making it not as simple as simply saying one country produces one type of coffee flavour. It's just not true.
As such, it's important to be somewhat open minded when contemplating coffee origin as often the flavour is not a given. Instead, when reading a coffee bag, think more about traceability. As a general rule, the more traceable a coffee is to its origin the better quality the coffee. Why? This is because it costs farmers, importers and roasters money to track every part of the process from bean to cup and that level of investment is only worth it if the coffee is deemed valuable enough. Therefore, if a bag of coffee lists a very specific region within a country, Yirgacheffe of Ethiopia as one example, and even goes as far as knowing the exact coffee mills, co-operatives or farmers names, then all this information is a good sign that you’re getting a good quality bag of coffee which will have a better perceived flavour. If you wish to understand more about flavours, we've outlined our thoughts on how to taste coffee.
4 Roast profiles and brew method
How you like to drink your coffee is often an important buying driver, and some roasters roast their coffees in a way so that they're specificially best for filter, espresso or both (omni-roasted); these are called roast profiles. There is a tremendous amount of science (and labour skills) that go into roasting coffee - this isn't as simple as turning the home oven onto 180 degrees celsius, popping your chilled food in for 20 minutes and out comes an expected consumable dinner. Each roaster will have personal preferences as to whether they tailor their roasts to different roast profiles, or simply roast everything as omni-roast.
Not every bag will state a brew method and so by keeping the roast type in mind, you won’t go far wrong. If you like espresso coffees, we'd typically recommend opting for a darker roast - unless you like your espresso 'funky'. If you prefer filter coffees (cafetiere, v60 and so on), then typically a medium to light roast will be better. These lighter roasts have higher acidity, will be fruitier and generally don’t mix that well with the rich, creamy sweetness of milk. Adding milk to a light roasted coffee will often result in an undesirable drink as it’ll have very little body and you’ll lose some of that subtly and delicacy of the tasting notes. Lighter roasts are designed to be enjoyed without milk, and so if you enjoy a milky coffee, then perhaps aim for a darker roast.
Finally, there are a few reasons why roasters may wish to roast omni-roast, and without getting too technical, a primary benefit of drinking an omni-roasted coffee is that it has been roasted in a way to be enjoyed by using any brew method. This might be advantageous to you if you have both an espresso machine and filter brewing methods at home, in which the coffee should give you maximum versatility between fully body and acidity.
As a quick reminder, roast strength shouldn't be a thing some roasters use - good ones don't -, despite doing so. Having now read this section on roast profiles, we'd again encourage not to think of light roasted coffees as any weaker than dark roasted coffees; this isn't a matter of strength, it's about understanding how each roast profile has different applications, and which work best with or without milk, and so on.
Summary - it's all about personal preference, but requires judgement
Concluding Part 2 of our Coffee Buying Guide, we've quickly overviewed roast strength, processing type, flavour profile and roast profiles, and we offer more insight into each of these individually within our Fundamentals section of GUSTATORY's Journal & School. Hoping to keep our Coffee Buying Guide as a brief synopsis, how about bookmarking this page for easy reference next time you're buying some speciality coffee? Or, shop the GUSTATORY marketplace in which we describe every coffee in such ways we hope is descriptive but understanable for all our customers. Of course, the added benefit of choosing GUSTATORY is that we offer the convenient ability to shop from 350+ independent brands all in a single location and checkout with a single GUSTATORY account, or as a guest. As such, you won't ever need separate online accounts with each of the independent coffee roasters to make your separate purchases ~ nope, it's no longer 2015. As well as this, rest assured, GUSTATORY does not hold any stock ourselves and all orders are made direct from our partners to you, enabling you to receive as fresh produce as possible.
Or, if you'd like to enjoy speciality coffees from an ever-evolving curation of UK's, USA's and Europe's most acclaimed coffee roasters, with up to six roasters featuring every month, a GUSTATORY coffee subscription is just for you. Either options, we hope you'll find GUSTATORY as beneficial as all our fans, customers and subscribers.
GUSTATORY (adjective): curating excellence in taste.