August 28, 2020

Finding The Right Coffee To Suit Your Needs

It isn’t always easy to pick out a bag of beans at your favorite café or roastery. There is so much information available, but not much of an explanation, particularly for factors like altitude and tasting notes.

We put together a simple guide on how you can pick the right coffee for your preferences, no matter how experienced you are. 

To learn more, I spoke with Crawford Hawkins and Viviana Salazar from Harvest, an online marketplace for consumers and wholesale buyers, and Allie Caran, the Director of Education at Partners Coffee.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Encontrar el Café Que se Ajusta a Tus Necesidades

Where Does Your Coffee Come From?

The Harvest platform allows for guaranteed purchases of ethically sourced and traceable coffee

Coffee generally grows along the “bean belt”, a collection of more than 50 countries near the equator. These regions offer the best climate for coffee farming, including consistent temperatures of between 21 and 29°C and sufficient rainfall. 

The major coffee producing regions are Central and South America, Africa and Indonesia. By looking at where a coffee has been produced, you can get a general idea of its flavor profile (although this is not always conclusive).

Central American coffees – including those from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica – are more “traditional” coffees that tend to have nutty, chocolatey flavors. They often have a mellow sweetness, with notes of toffee and brown sugar, and are lower in acidity.

South American coffees – including those from Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia – often have chocolate or soft fruit flavors. Brazilian coffees tend to have a thicker texture – known as a heavy body, or mouthfeel – and their flavors vary widely as coffee in Brazil is grown at different altitudes. 

African coffees – including those from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Burundi – are usually fruity and floral, with berry and citrus flavors. They typically have higher levels of acidity, which results in a refreshing, lighter-bodied cup of coffee. Coffees from Indonesia, however, typically have a heavy body with earthy or smoky flavors.

These are generalisations, but choosing coffee based on origin can often be a simple and effective way to find a coffee that suits your taste. There are, however, a number of different factors that affect the flavor and texture of your cup.

You may also like How Specialty Coffee Blends Have Evolved For Today’s Market

How Do Growing Conditions Affect A Coffee’s Flavor?

Coffee cherries from Finca San Rafael, a coffee farm in Copan, Honduras

There are a wide range of environmental factors that affect a coffee’s flavor profile. 

Allie Caran is the Director of Education for Partners Coffee, a roaster with six cafés located throughout New York City. She explains how ecological variables impact flavor: “Factors like elevation, latitude, rainfall, soil health, and plant health determine a green coffee’s raw potential. They all leave their own unique impressions on the balance of flavors.”

These factors are collectively known as “terroir”, a French word used to describe the numerous natural growing conditions that affect how a crop grows.

A coffee plant’s elevation (or altitude) is measured in metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.). Coffee grown at a low altitude (1,000 to 1,250 m.a.s.l.) tends to have low acidity and some earthy characteristics. Coffee grown between 1,250 and 1,500 m.a.s.l., however, usually has more acidity and a juicier texture or mouthfeel. Finally, coffee grown above 1,500 m.a.s.l. often has a more refined acidity and sweetness.

Temperature is also important. The optimum temperature for the Coffea arabica plant is between 18 and 21°C. Within this range, the sugars and organic compounds in the coffee cherry are able to develop for a longer period of time. This creates a more complex and dense flavor profile.

Since coffee is a fruit, it has a range of varieties, all of which taste different when brewed. Typica, Bourbon, and Caturra are the three most commonly grown. Typica provides a sweet brew with lots of clarity, while Bourbon has a more complex flavour. Caturra is usually less sweet, with refreshing acidity and a much lighter mouthfeel. 

When buying coffee, make sure you check details about things like the coffee’s variety and elevation. After you brew it, make a note of how much you like it in comparison to other coffees you’ve tasted, and what the differences were.

Choosing Ethical And Sustainable Coffee

Through Harvest’s sister company, Propina, the sale connects the producer and the buyer

A lot of consumers want to make conscious and informed decisions when they buy coffee. Customers will often want information on who grew their coffee and whether or not they were paid fairly. Terms like “sustainable” and “ethical” are often used to describe a coffee’s production, but what do they actually mean?

Allie explains: “True sustainability [means] mutual growth and success along the entire supply chain.”

She adds: “Collaborating with Harvest allows us to expand upon this, with 5% of [each] sale going directly back to our producing partners.”

Crawford Hawkins is the CEO and founder of Harvest and Propina. He explains how this works: “Harvest is an online marketplace that allows for guaranteed purchases of ethically sourced and traceable coffee.

“Propina is a non-profit that we established to provide financial tools for smallholder farmers, including weather insurance and working capital. Harvest pays the extra 5% as a donation to Propina. This serves as an additional premium on top of the fair prices paid by our partners, designed to reinforce and certify an ethical supply chain.”

Viviana, Harvest’s Chief Financial Officer, says it’s more important than ever to buy traceable and ethical coffee. “Environmentally-conscious, ethically-driven supply chains are at our fingertips. Taking action in favor of equality and sustainability does not have to cost more money or time.” 

Crawford also explains that Harvest provides other businesses with the ability to illustrate their commitment to ethically-sourced, traceable coffee. “The Harvest Private Label Service allows specialty coffee to be an extension of a particular brand. 

“Our custom-designed bags and equipment allows businesses to give their employees, clients, and other stakeholders the right coffee to suit their needs.”

It isn’t just farmers who benefit from more ethical and sustainable coffee supply chains, either. Better wages and fairer treatment mean that producers can grow higher quality coffee. This means a better cup for the consumer, showing that everyone in the supply chain benefits.

What Is Processing?

Before coffee can be roasted and brewed, the beans have to be separated from the cherry. This stage is known as processing, and it has profound effects on a coffee’s flavor, sweetness, and body.

Washed processing is popular among farmers, as it allows them more control over the coffee’s flavor profile. This involves removing the fruit from the beans and leaving them to soak in water for between 12 and 24 hours. This displaces the mucilage, which is a thick, sugary layer that coats the beans.

Coffee beans drying on a raised bed

The beans are then placed on raised beds or patios to dry. Once dried, the paper-like parchment layer is removed, leaving the green coffee bean, ready to be roasted. Washed coffees generally have clean, bright, and vibrant flavors with higher levels of acidity. 

In regions where access to a water source is less readily available, natural (dry) processing is more common. In this method, cherries are picked and then dried on a raised bed. With this method, the beans absorb more sugar from the fruit, resulting in a sweeter flavor and a heavier body.

There is also honey (pulped natural) processing, where some fruit is left on the bean before it is dried. Honey processing generally leaves the coffee with a flavor somewhere between both methods: it combines the brightness of washed coffees with the complexity of naturally processed coffees.

If you’re seeking a clearer flavor and lighter texture, then you should consider washed coffees. Comparatively, naturals often have a heavier body and a sweeter flavor. Choose honey processed coffees for something in between.

How Roasting Affects Flavor

Coffees on the Harvest platform are roasted in the US or at origin

Roasting brings out the flavors and aromas that are “hidden” inside green coffee beans. The higher the temperature a coffee is roasted to, the darker it gets.

In light roasts, most of the coffee’s natural flavor profile remains intact. This makes it easier to pick up on more delicate and subtle tastes, and the coffee’s acidity is more noticeable.

In medium roasts, the acidity is balanced with a heavier body. This means you can still taste the “origin flavors” of the coffee, but the texture will be heavier. 

Dark roasts obtain most of their flavor from the roasting process as the sugars are almost completely broken down. This makes it much harder to detect any acidity, and often results in bolder, heavier flavors with some bitterness. 

Coffees are often roasted to different levels for different brewing methods. For example, light to medium roasts are generally used for filter coffee, while darker roasts are used for espresso. 

Viviana explains that Harvest provides coffees that are roasted in the US or at origin. She tells me that a good partnership between the roaster and the producer allows the consumer to experience the full scope of a region.

When choosing coffees at different roast levels, it’s important to keep in mind your brewing method as well as your preferences. If you’re after a bolder and heavier coffee, choose a darker roast; for acidity and a more delicate flavour, aim for a lighter roast.

Useful Tips For Selecting Your Beans

QR codes on Harvest packaging connect the consumer with the producer

As a general rule, blends are used for drinks containing milk, while single origin coffees are usually drunk black. This is because blends are typically created to emphasize mouthfeel or body. Single origin coffees often have a more nuanced and complex flavor, which can be masked when milk is added.

If you want to expand your palate, try eating a range of foods that are commonly found in coffee, including chocolates, fruits, and spices. This can help you to identify flavors in coffee and decide on your preferences. 

Resources like the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel are also useful for pinpointing specific flavors or tasting notes. Crawford explains that Harvest also sells sustainable chocolates and spices as well as coffee. “We sell a delicious single-origin allspice from Central Guatemala. We also feature a single-origin coffee from just a few miles away.”

Cupping is an effective way to develop your palate. It is a common practice in the specialty coffee industry, and is used to assess a coffee’s quality and flavor profile. Tasting a variety of coffees that are characteristically different will allow you to compare a number of different flavors and textures, and teach you how to pick up on them.

Develop your palate by drinking more coffee

However, there’s ultimately only one way to refine your preferences: drink more coffee! Allie says: “As you try new offerings, evaluate what you like; the flavor, the body, how it makes you feel… there really is no right or wrong way to select coffee. The best advice I can give is not to be afraid to try new things.”

It’s important to have an open mind when you’re trying to discover which flavors and textures you want in a cup of coffee. However, a deeper understanding of the information displayed on coffee bags will allow you to make more informed purchasing decisions.

Enjoyed this? Then read How To Understand The Label On Your Bag Of Roasted Coffee

Photo credits: Partners Coffee, Neil Soque, Ivan Petrich, Julio Guevara, Gisselle Guerra

Please note: Harvest is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

Perfect Daily Grind

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