June 30, 2015

5 Things a Micro Roaster Considers When Selecting Coffees


How Is the Coffee Chosen?

As a micro-roaster, there are several things that influence your decision to choose one coffee over another. Despite what you might think, this isn’t solely about how a coffee tastes—rather, it’s about how well it will suit the consumer.

SEE ALSO: Scott Rao Roasting Masterclass. How to Roast Specialty Coffee and What we Learnt about Specialty Coffee

I’m head roaster at Tusell Tostadores located in Barcelona, Spain. 95% of what I roast is going to be brewed as espresso and, in turn, 80% of that will be served as a milk-based coffee. This impacts which coffees I buy. How? Each coffee must be able to cut through and compliment steamed milk and be balanced and palatable espresso .


For me, espresso is about sweetness and balance. Not all flavour profiles suit this, so selecting the right beans is crucial.

I am a big fan of single origins, and believe coffee shouldn’t be mixed with anything that transforms it’s natural flavours. Imagine going to a wine shop, buying two different wines, from two different countries, that have both been carefully blended and produced to highlight terroir and particular fruit flavours—and then pouring a glass that’s 60% one and 40% the other. What a waste! And, coffee is just the same. Every coffee is unique, delicious, and complex, so why mix it with something else?

Understanding a Coffee’s Character

The most fascinating thing, for me, about roasting coffee is exploring the character of each coffee. What does an Ethiopian Sidamo taste like? Why does it taste so different to a Guatemalan coffee?

I live in Barcelona now, but  I’m originally from El Salvador, so am fortunate to know a lot about the El Salvadorian coffee industry and many of the producers. This access has led me to specialise in roasting coffees from my homeland. I’m always surprised how coffees from different parts of each farm can taste so different, let alone a whole country. There is such a diverse range of flavours in El Salvador, and so I believe it is important (as a micro-roaster), to learn as much as you can about those regions which suit you (and your clients) needs.


Sampling different lots from the same farm showcases how varied they can be. Extend this to a whole country with its multitude of microclimates and you have a near endless number of flavours.

There are so many things to consider when selecting coffee, and the more information you have the better. However, these are the five main points that aid my decision process.

1. The profile

This is probably the key determinant when selecting a coffee. A combination of factors, including origin, region, variety, altitude, and processing, will tell you what kind of flavours to expect from a coffee.

So what flavor do you want? Is cleanliness in the cup a priority? What about sweetness? Are you looking to showcase the intrinsic flavours of a particular origin? Do you want a balanced coffee or a bright, acidic one? What about the body? Two coffees might have the same SCAA cupping score of 90 but that doesn’t mean the one from Costa Rica has the bold, chocolate notes of one from Brazil.

If you want fruity flavours, go for a natural process. For clean, bright acidity, try a fully washed coffee. A crowd-pleasing single origin espresso? Get something from Central America. Maybe you want a coffee that highlights a particular varietal or cultivar? Go with one from Africa—maybe a winey SL28 from Kenya. Want something sweeter? A honey processed coffee could be perfect. Looking for the taste of tropical fruits? The pacamara hybrid or the famous geisha varietal are excellent options.

Always remember that it’s your client’s needs, not just your own desires, that need to be met. You might love the sweet, fruity taste of a natural-processed coffee, but this may not suit espresso-based milk beverages. If your client’s customers prefer cappuccinos, a juicy natural processed single-origin might not fly.

processed beans

The same coffee can taste remarkably different depending on how it’s been processed. In the centre is a sample of honey processed beans and on the right are naturally processed beans. Both are from Finca Limon, yet will taste distinctly different.

2. Brewing method

Some coffees work well as espresso, whereas others are much better prepared as a pour over.  For example, I’ve found it difficult to enjoy African coffees as espresso (if anyone can recommend one, let me know).  Whereas, on the other hand, Latin America offers many balanced and enjoyable origins that suit espresso.

3. Roast degree and equipment

When considering the ideal roast profile, the client’s  coffee equipment should be taken into account. Why? Let’s say a client has a cheap, poor grinder. With a bad grinder comes inconsistent extraction, so it’s advisable to roast the coffee a touch darker to accommodate for this and ensure a better overall flavor.

Make sure you sample each coffee you’re interested in at your preferred roast profile. Roasting can make or break a bean; too light and you might not release its full potential, too dark and you might kill off its subtleties. Always think about the final cup—there’s nothing worse than cupping a coffee, getting excited about its potential, and then running it through your espresso machine, only to discover  that, those flavours you loved back at origin just aren’t there.

roasting at origin

Roasting and cupping at origin when the coffee has just been harvested/processed gives a true indication of its flavours.  

4. Seasonality

Coffee is a seasonal product and like anything you want to acquire it as fresh as possible. This means learning harvest seasons around the world. Attributes like acidity fade with time. That typical “past crop” cardboard-and-cereal flavour many coffees can take on is usually the result of age and poor transportation conditions. Always buy fresh if you want a juicy, true-to-the-origin cup.

5. Direct trade vs. importers

This is a subject that deserves its own article, as it’s so important when it comes to buying green coffee. Direct trading with farmers means that you will have to wait until harvesting and processing has been completed. This can mean waiting up to a year, whereas importers are able to supply the coffee more or less immediately.

However, saying this, the long-term benefits of direct trade to both the roaster and farmer are immeasurable. The opportunity to work with a producer, to create and sustain particular flavours, and to improve the lives of people at the origin is a rare thing.

coffee farmer

When you trade directly with a farmer and have the opportunity to visit a farm, you can see how that coffee is produced. This is a great way to understand the flavours and unique characteristics of that coffee. Almost every answer as to why coffee is of high or low cup quality can be found at the farm.

Putting It Into Practice

Feeling a bit overwhelmed about which coffee to choose? Let’s have a look at the five points in action.

Los Pirineos

  • Origin: El Salvador
  • Region: Tecapa Volcano, Usulután
  • Producer: Gilberto Baraona
  • Variety: Bourbon Elite
  • Altitude: 1350-1450m
  • Process: Washed

1. The profile

I wanted an espresso coffee that was fruity, clean, and sweet but still had enough body and chocolate going on in the background to be a popular option for an espresso or milk based drinks. The bourbon elite varietal (an heirloom) in combination with the altitude delivers the flavours I’m after, while the washed process ensures a clean cup.

2. Brewing method

This is a high-quality, almost archetypal, Central American coffee: clean berry notes, chocolate, and a body to back them. It’s complex enough to serve as a single espresso and matches my clients needs.

3. Roast degree/equipment

Each market has its own unique challenges. In Spain, grinders are often low grade and difficult to service. This means that I need to buy green beans that don’t lose all of their subtleties if roasted a little darker (for reasons explained previously). As  you may know, all coffees are dried to around 10-12% moisture content before export. Washed coffees tend to dry more evenly than natural coffees which means they’re much easier to handle when roasting—so buying the washed Los Pirineos removes one more risk factor for me.

4 & 5. Seasonality and direct trade

For myself and my clients, this is an ideal coffee so I’m happy to wait for months between harvests to receive it. It’s something to look forward to and it gives me the chance to head home and visit a truly beautiful part of my El Salvador, too. I look forward to many more years of direct-trade with Gilberto Baraona!

Finca Limón

  • Origin: El Salvador
  • Region: Juayua, Apaneca – Cordillera Ilamatepec
  • Producer: Cesar Magaña
  • Variety: Red Bourbon.
  • Altitude: 1650m
  • Process: Honey

1. The profile

I wanted something spectacular to serve as a fruit-packed filter coffee. To start with, 1650m altitude delivers a complex acidity and lovely, clean tropical fruit flavours. Red Bourbon fits this, too, and the honey process was designed to capture these flavours and preserve natural sweetness without risking the fermented profile naturals can take on.

2. Brewing method

I can’t think of many other coffees that suit a pour over as well as this one. That’s why I bought it! It’s a Cup of Excellence winner produced on the highest lot of Cesar’s farm. Compared to lower grown coffees from the same region it’s that much sweeter and fruitier. Very juicy indeed.

3. Roast degree/equipment

Filter coffee is highly caffeinated compared to espresso, although altitude mitigates this somewhat. My primary concern was finding a coffee that would brew as a filter but never as an espresso. It’s a chance to show customers how variables like processing, altitude, terroir and varietal make coffee behave just like the best wines out there.

4 & 5. Seasonality and direct trade

High altitude, Red Bourbon, and honey processing might be ideal for intense flavours but farmers produce considerably lower yields of them. The challenge for Cesar and other farmers producing such coffees will be how successfully they can repeat and improve them year to year. They can’t achieve that without our support and for me, having direct access to this coffees once a year is a pleasure and a privilege.

Since I cater for a wide range of preferences, I must offer a little bit of everything. This makes my coffee selection very wide. Not all coffee shops are looking for the same thing; some desire bright coffees, others prefer a balanced overall flavour, and every single one sees their personal requirements as essential. On top of this, each coffee shop has different equipment and each barista has varying skill levels. So as a roaster, you need to take all this into account, and offer a variety of  roast profiles and anticipate what profile they are looking for. It’s all about listening and providing the best solution for them.

roasted coffee

The more information you have on the coffee, you can use all that information later for roasting and brewing to get better results in the cup.

Edited by T.A. Jay.

Perfect Daily Grind.