Can you hear it? The faint cries of the coffee beans calling out from inside the bag saying “pick me, pick me.”
NO? Oh that’s just me? Weird.
Well, maybe I’m the only one that hears that, but for the rest of us when it comes to selecting coffee, sometimes when you stare at a shelf full of various coffee beans it can feel a little overwhelming. Coffee bags can be gorgeously designed, or come in a simple craft paper bag. Neither means the coffee inside is better or worse. In fact it’s not always the pretty bags that contain the best coffee!
So what if I told you that selecting coffee didn’t have to be overwhelming? What if I were able to offer you my Five Things To Look For On A Coffee Bag, and make it a lot easier the next time you’re needing to pick up some coffee to brew at home.
1. Roasted-On Date
I cannot stress this enough. This is number one on my list because I truly believe this is THE MOST important thing to look for. There are still many coffee roasters that put “best-before” dates on their bags, which let me be clear IS NOT the same as a roasted-on date. Some coffee roasters will have best-before dates that are anywhere from six to eight months after the date it hits the shelves. Most of the time you see best-before dates on coffee you’d likely be purchasing say at a grocery store. Put the bag down, and instead go visit your favourite local cafe.
When it comes to Specialty Coffee, most specialty coffee roasters will stamp this date somewhere on their bags, so make sure to look for this the next time you’re buying coffee. After all, coffee is an agricultural product and following the roasting process coffee will begin to de-gas which is why your bag has that funky circular valve with the holes in it. That’s for the CO2 to escape while ensuring no oxygen gets in. Pro-tip, coffee is at its freshest on average anywhere from two to four week off roast. But some certainly can be good even up to six weeks.
Even if you stop reading here (I hope you don’t) you’ll have already learned one of the most important aspects of finding fresh & tasty coffee.
Coffee is grown in a variety of countries throughout the world. From Ethiopia to Panama to Colombia and even Hawaii, specialty coffee roasters are passionate to share where their coffee originated from. One of the leading factors with this is specialty coffee roasters develop strong relationships with the farmers from these countries and regions and do much to ensure these relationships are strengthened and supported over the long-haul.
Many coffee roasters now go beyond simply listing the origin country or growing region. Through those strengthened relationships many will now list the specific farmers, families and wash stations that were involved in getting that coffee from where it was grown into that bag you’re holding. While none of this info can give you a perfect sense of the quality of the final product in that bag, I believe it’s a critical way for coffee roasters to share the story of where this amazing coffee originated from and for you as the customer to be as informed as possible about what you’re selecting.
3. Roast Level
When it comes to roast levels, this is somewhat of a suggestive factor. What may be light for one roaster may be medium for another. Most coffee roasters default to the main three parameters: light, medium, dark. There are other terms like city roast, full city, french, etc but these tend to be terms more associated with commercial coffee (think grocery store), and not specialty coffee. Some roasters use more of a sliding scale between light to dark to give you a bit more clarity as to where exactly the roast level lands.
So if roast levels are subjective, what should you do? Well, in my opinion the best thing you can do is to drink the coffee brewed for you at the cafe before you buy the beans. Getting to know your favourite roasters will give you great insight into how they roast their beans. This will help you discover what you prefer to drink. And knowledge is power!
Or if you’re visiting a cafe you can always ask a Barista. They love what they do and are often willing to answer your questions to help you learn more. But if you can’t try it before you buy, this is where my fourth point comes in.
4. Tasting Notes
Coffee is very much like wine. It is incredibly complex, complete with a vast array of possible tasting notes that depend on factors like, variety, country of origin, processing method etc. Oftentimes with specialty coffee you’ll see these suggested tasting notes located in a prominent place on front of the bag.
These are the suggested tasting notes that the roaster has found in their tasting (a process referred to as “cupping”) While roasters do an incredible job in offering their insight, the human palate is a complex thing. You may in fact taste something different when you brew the coffee at home and that’s ok. Tasting notes are a great way of giving you a heads up as to what that coffee is most likely to taste like when you brew at home.
I have seen some pretty wild tasting notes in my time, notes like fruity pebbles, cotton-candy, jolly-rancher but oftentimes you’ll see notes on the bag like chocolate, caramel, or berries. Don’t be shy, and let your tastebuds tell you what you like and don’t like. And most of all be adventurous too…don’t always just stick to what you’re comfortable with. Coffee deserves to be experienced and enjoyed.
5. Whole Bean or Ground
Likely you don’t even need to read this on the bag, since when you grab the bag in your hands you’ll notice whether the coffee inside has been ground or is still whole bean. It goes without saying that to enjoy coffee at its optimum state, it is always best to grind it immediately before brewing. So in that case, it is best to only purchase whole-bean coffee.
Again, most specialty coffee only comes in a whole-bean option, but most roasters/cafe’s will grind it for you when you buy it. I am 100% ok with people doing this, if this means you are purchasing specialty coffee and that you are brewing it all up within a few weeks instead of purchasing much cheaper commercial coffee. But if you haven’t invested yet in a burr grinder I suggest searching for one ASAP. You will thank me.
If you want to learn more about how to brew great coffee at home make sure to read my article on that HERE
While there are certainly more pieces of information that you will likely find on that coffee bag you are holding in your hand, I strongly believe these are five critical things that will always help you to purchase the best coffee possible.
And while I will say I am a sucker for sexy design, and there is no shortage of beautiful bags out there in the specialty coffee community, it’s like they say… it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
If you have any other questions about coffee bags and what to look for leave feel free to contact me through my site.