So you want to buy delicious roasted coffee to drink at home – but purchasing coffee can be tricky, especially with so much information on the label. When you’ve got a washed medium-roast Maragogype from Nicaragua in one hand and a pulped natural Full City Caturra-Catuaí from Brazil in the other, you can start to wonder: what even is the difference between these coffees?
And, perhaps more importantly, how are you supposed to know which one you’ll like?
Never fear, because we’re about to help you out with our comprehensive guide to roasted coffee bag labels. From varieties to processing methods and blends to roast levels, we’ve covered it all. Read on to discover how to buy the best coffee for your preferences.
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Production day at Populace Coffee in Bay City, Michigan, US. Credit: Populace Coffee
Blend vs Single Origin
A “single origin” coffee comes from a specific region or farm (sometimes called a “single estate” coffee), while a blend is a mixture of multiple coffees. You’ll also get “micro lots”, which come from small sections on a particular farm.
But why separate coffee in this way on a label? Because each coffee is the result of where and how it was grown. As we’re about to see, the country and region, the farming and processing methods, the coffee plant variety, and more all affect the flavour and aroma of the drink.
Single origins tend to be high-quality coffees with unique flavours and aromas – the kind that roasters don’t want to obscure by mixing with other beans.
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A blend, on the other hand, happens when a roaster thinks that two coffees combined taste even better than those two coffees consumed separately. Perhaps they have a light, fruity Ethiopian but think it needs a hint of body to complete it. (Espresso-based coffees are often, but not always, blends as well.)
While single origins are normally more respected by specialty coffee lovers (and more expensive), both types of coffee can be excellent. Try them out; don’t just reject one because it blends beans from three countries.
At the same time, dive into the world of single origins by trying coffee from a variety of regions. Try a Guatemalan, known for its acidity, balance, and spiced notes; then, compare it to a Rwandan coffee, which tends to be sweet and well-bodied. Next, sample two different Colombian regions – say, Nariño and Santander. Get to know the coffee origins and profiles that you love.
But remember, just because a country tends to have a particular coffee profile doesn’t mean that all its coffees will conform to that. Be open-minded.
A coffee blend roasted by Little Nap Coffee. Credit: Manki Kim
There are many different names for the type of roast on a label: light, medium, dark, Vienna, City Plus, Filter, blonde…
The thing you should remember is that roasting is a process that develops the flavours and aromas already in the coffee beans. However, if the roaster takes the roast too far, it will create additional flavours that overwhelm the coffee’s characteristics. Under-roasted beans are grassy and sour. At the other extreme, over-roasted beans are bitter, smoky, and unpleasant.
While specialty coffee lovers tend to opt for lighter roasts, the truth is that the best roast will depend on the beans themselves, the brewing method, and – of course – the drinker’s palate. Let’s look at why.
Two single origin filter roasts. Credit: Ana Valencia
- Light Roasts – also called “cinnamon”, “blonde”, and “City”, while a “City Plus” will generally be a light-medium roast
These are known to highlight fruity and acidic flavours and aromas, making them well-suited to coffees that already have these characteristics. Some people argue that light roasts are less sweet, but this isn’t always true. Since high-quality specialty coffee is appreciated for its complex profile, many roasters opt for light or medium-light roasts to highlight this.
- Dark Roasts – also called a “Vienna” or “Light French”, while a “Full French” and “Italian” refer to very dark roasts
When you drink a dark roast, you can expect to taste the roasting process itself. Think toasty, bitter notes and a full body. Dark roasts can have a bad reputation among specialty coffee drinkers and are sometimes assumed to be used to cover up the taste of bad coffee.
- Medium Roasts – also called a “Full City”, while a slightly darker medium roast might be called a “Full City Plus”
Why have we listed medium after light and dark, instead of in the middle? Because medium is in many ways defined by what it’s not – it’s not light and it’s not dark. Instead, think balance, smoothness, and roasty elements that don’t overwhelm the coffee’s natural flavours.
- Espresso, Filter, and Omni Roasts
Generally speaking, espresso roasts tend to be a little darker and filter roasts a little lighter. (This is different, however, to dark and light roasts.) Omni roasts, on the other hand, are designed to be suitable for both filter and espresso.
So, why are filter and espresso roasted differently? Because espresso is an intense brewing method well-suited to sweet, fuller-bodied coffees while filter is generally known for its complexity.
Learn more! Check out Espresso vs Filter: What’s The Difference?
Creating coffee bag labels. Credit: Methodical Coffee
Coffee isn’t really a bean. It’s the seed of a fruit: a berry, normally called a “cherry” for its round shape and typically (but not always) bright red appearance when ripe. But it’s hard to remove all the sticky layers of this fruit, meaning that machinery and even fermentation may be used to do so. This is called coffee processing, and the processing method used will also affect the flavour of the coffee. This is why it may appear on your coffee bag label.
- Wet/Washed: The cherry flesh is removed by water and then the beans are dried. This method adds very few flavours to the coffee, meaning you can really taste the coffee’s natural profile.
- Dry/Natural: The coffee is slowly dried under the sun while still in cherry. This method offers a sweet, fruity taste. When done badly, the coffee can be poor quality and inconsistent. However, when done well, the result can be delicious. It’s also an environmentally friendly option.
- Honey & Pulped Natural: These coffees were dried with varying amount of the cherry still attached to the seeds. The more cherry was attached, the greater the sweetness and body.
The best way to understand the differences in processing methods, however, is to try them. Taste a washed and natural processed coffee from the same region or, even better, the same farm. See for yourself what a difference they have in the cup.
Find out more! Read Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101
Natural processed coffee from the farm El Pocito in Cañada Fría, Veracruz, Mexico, roasted by Impetus Coffee. Credit: Impetus Casa Tostadora de Café
Species & Variety
Not all coffee plants are the same – and they won’t all taste the same, either. The species and variety can have a significant impact on the final cup flavour, so let’s take a quick look at the common ones.
Specialty coffee tends to be Arabica, a species known for its aroma and delicious flavour. Robusta is another common species; it has a harsher taste and significantly more caffeine. And now and then, you might come across less common species, such as Liberica.
Then there are the varieties: Caturra, Catuaí, Bourbon, Typica, Geisha/Gesha, Pacamara, Maragogype… and so many more. Bourbon tends to be sweet, for example. Geisha/Gesha tends to have a light, tea-like body, a jasmine aroma, and a complex flavour.
Once you can taste the impact of processing on the cup of coffee, it’s time to start paying attention to varieties on a label. Try a washed Bourbon and a Caturra from El Salvador. Then contrast these with a natural Bourbon from Rwanda. The beauty of specialty coffee is how every coffee truly is unique. There are so many factors that impact the flavour in the cup but we, as consumers, get to enjoy and appreciate them all.
Discover more! Read Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties
Freshly roasted coffee. Credit: Nathan Dumalo
On some labels, you’ll see the elevation – often referred to as altitude – that the coffee was grown at, normally measured in metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.).
So why should you care about this? Because the slower a coffee plant grows, generally speaking, the more time the sugars have to develop. This can lead to sweeter, more complex coffees.
When comparing two farms in the same region, the one at a higher altitude tends to have cooler climates. For this reason, a higher m.a.s.l. has been interpreted as better-quality coffee. Be careful, though: this can easily trick you. Remember that 1,100 m.a.s.l. will be cooler in Brazil than in Ecuador, for example.
And then you need to consider the impact of sea currents, wind patterns, and more. Take the Galápagos Islands, which straddle the Equator but, at just 200 m.a.s.l., have a chilly local climate which creates delicious coffee.
Altitude – it’s useful information when understood in context. Use it to compare two coffees from the same region but don’t write off a low-altitude coffee until you’ve tried it. It might just surprise you.
Learn more! Read How Important Is Altitude REALLY?
Bag of El Salvador, Las Delicias, roasted by Smalltime Roasters in Portland, Oregon, US. Credit: Smalltime Roasters
Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Rainforest Alliance…
There are so many sustainability certificates in coffee that it can be hard to know exactly what each one means.
Let’s start with the most famous of them all: Fairtrade or Fair Trade. This means that coffee producers were paid a certain amount above the international coffee price. However, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a living wage.
Read more about this issue: Study Confirms Many Fairtrade Farmers Don’t Earn Enough to Live On
UTZ Certified means that UTZ works to provide training for the coffee producers on better farming methods that are designed to increase both quality and yield. As a result, UTZ says that their farmers receive better incomes.
Then there’s direct trade. This is actually a trade model rather than a certification programme; however, many roasters who use this model will tell you that it improves sustainability. It involves the roaster buying directly from the coffee farmer. These coffees are normally of an exceptional quality and many roasters work with the producers to provide further feedback and support in improving the coffee.
The roasters tend to pay a much higher price than the international coffee price and often a higher price than UTZ or Fairtrade farmers receive on the commodity market. However, some criticise this trade model, arguing that it’s not regulated and can sometimes just be marketing. Unlike Fairtrade and UTZ, it can be hard to know how much a producer was actually paid for their crops.
Join in with the debate! Read What Does “Direct Trade” Really Mean?
Rainforest Alliance coffee was grown in a climate-smart, eco-friendly way, minimising damage to local forests and waterways. Similarly, Bird Friendly coffee is organic coffee that’s farmed in a way that supports the growth or regeneration of local forests – and, as a result, helps local wildlife to thrive.
Cup of Excellence, Good Food Awards…
It’s not just sustainability certifications that might make it onto your coffee label. You could also come across coffee quality awards.
The Cup of Excellence is an award measuring the quality of the coffee beans as submitted by the producer. This means that the roast profile isn’t considered and, in fact, many roasteries might offer that particular coffee.
Many producing countries have their own Cup of Excellence awards, and so you might see that a coffee won Cup of Excellence Colombia or that a farm has won Cup of Excellence Burundi twice. You also have country-specific awards, such as Best of Panama and Coffee of the Year Brazil.
Good Food Awards, on the other hand, is a US-centric award that goes to a roasted coffee – in other words, only that specific offering from that specific roastery can be labelled a Good Food Award winner.
There are, of course, many more coffee quality awards. But these two, which are arguably the most famous, demonstrate the most important difference between them: some celebrate the roasted coffee and some the green beans.
Bag of Ethiopian Ardi coffee from Huckleberry Roasters in Denver, Colorado, with a Good Food Award label. Credit: Huckleberry Roasters
There’s so much information packed into that tiny little coffee label, sometimes it can feel overwhelming. But remember, it’s there to help you pick the best coffee for you. So go ahead: take the time to compare the processing method and the origin. Ask the barista for more information. Try something new to see if you like it.
Because this is how you discover your new favourite drink.
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