Want to find the best-tasting coffee, but not quite sure where to start?
Hey, I get it.
With the rise of e-commerce, specialty coffee, and ubiquitous coffee chains, there are a lot of places we can buy coffee for brewing at home.
But along with these seemingly unlimited options comes the unfortunate psychological side effect of analysis paralysis (AKA paradox of choice, decision fatigue, etc.), which basically posits that decision-making is harder once one passes a certain threshold of choices.
In other words, choosing off of a menu with 3 items is much easier than choosing off of a menu with 500 items (cheesecake factory, anyone?).
So how do you buy great-tasting coffee while keeping the process quick and painless?
The Life Cycle of Coffee
Before we get started with the details of finding and selecting great quality coffee for home consumption, we first need to talk about coffee’s life cycle.
In other words, how does coffee change from the time it’s grown to the time it’s brewed?
Coffee cherries, not beans, grow on trees
For starters, coffee beans don’t really grow on trees.
Okay okay, I suppose I’m being nit-picky here, but coffee beans themselves actually grow within a fruit that is commonly referred to as a coffee cherry.
It is this coffee cherry that is actually grown on trees.
The coffee bean itself is the seed of the cherry.
Once the cherry has ripened, it is then harvested and sorted before any coffee beans are actually removed from the cherry.
Coffee beans are not naturally brown
Once removed from the cherry, you’d notice that the coffee bean actually has a light green color with a fairly heavy density.
The bean remains this way from the time it is processed (i.e. removed from the fruit) to the time it is finally roasted.
The coffee bean does not develop its dark brown color until it has been roasted.
Coffee beans must be roasted
While it wouldn’t surprise me if there was somebody out there brewing coffee with un-roasted beans, if we are to really drink coffee as we know it, the beans must first be roasted.
It is during the roasting process where coffee really starts taking the form we are all accustomed to.
Roasted coffee beans are far more soluble than their green/un-roasted counterparts, which is why you can’t really leave roasting out of the coffee production equation.
Coffee beans must be ground
It’s at this final stage of the coffee’s un-brewed life cycle that home baristas tend have the most control, since most of us are neither growing, processing, nor roasting our own coffee beans.
Naturally, at this point we’re left with grinding and brewing the coffee beans.
Since this is where most casual home baristas will take over, grinding coffee will be one of the main focuses after we’ve actually found great-quality whole beans.
Step 1: Buy Whole Coffee Beans
Like virtually every perishable food out there, coffee is vulnerable to air, light, and moisture.
As such, the smaller the coffee particle, the more quickly its freshness is compromised by these natural elements.
As such, a whole coffee bean can withstand longer periods of air/light/moisture exposure than a bean that is reduced to a small coffee particle.
Delicious aromas and flavors are compromised from exposure to the elements, so it’s in every coffee drinker’s best interest to buy coffee in its peak state.
Yes, this would generally mean buying green, un-roasted coffee beans.
But since most of us are probably not interested in home roasting (yet), freshly roasted beans will suffice.
Oh, and you’ll want to make sure you keep your beans fresh after you crack open the bag by storing them in an airtight container like the Airscape.
Step 2: Mind The Roast Date
One of the best ways to ensure you’re brewing fresh coffee is to buy coffee that is as close to the roast date as possible.
These days, most high-quality coffees will include a roast date on the bag so the consumer can accurately gauge the coffee’s level of freshness.
Typically, you’ll want to buy a bag of coffee with a roast date as close to today’s date as possible. However, generally anything within a week of the roast date is a solid target for optimal freshness.
Step 3: Know Your Roast Preferences
Once you’ve found a coffee source that has freshly roasted whole bean coffee, it’s time to start making decisions based on personal taste preferences.
Before anything else, you need to have a solid understanding of how different roast levels impact the way your coffee tastes.
And trust me, it will have a big impact.
In fact, most of the different coffee you already drink is probably roasted at similar levels.
Why do I make this assumption?
Well, because a coffee’s roast level tends to impact its flavor and aroma more than its origin, variety, or any of the other components of the bean’s DNA.
Of course, this is just my opinion, but I think most coffee enthusiasts and professionals would probably agree that the way coffee is roasted has a critical impact on how the coffee tastes once it has been brewed.
Generally, there are 3 broadly defined coffee roast levels that can be broken down as follows: light roast, medium roast, and dark roast.
Many coffee professionals take this even further, by describing coffee roast levels even more granularly (e.g. cinnamon, half-city, full-city, French, Italian, etc.), however, it gets more subjective and nit-picky at this point.
I highly recommend you check out this roast guide produced by INeedCoffee.com to gain a better understanding of the different coffee roasts levels out there.
Light Roast Coffee
Light roast coffee is generally characterized by its “brighter” (read: acidic, citrusy) flavors.
In Specialty Coffee, light roast coffee is generally more prevalent because it’s easier to identify the coffee’s unique aromas, flavors, and other characteristics at lighter roast levels.
It is also a common misconception that light roast coffee has more caffeine than dark roast coffee, so you shouldn’t really buy light roast coffee if you’re looking for an uptick in caffeine levels.
While it’s true that a scoop of light roast coffee has more caffeine than the same scoop of dark roast coffee, this is only because light roast beans are smaller and have more density, mainly because they don’t lose as much water in the roasting process.
In other words, if you measure your coffee by volume, light roast coffee has more caffeine simply from being able to fit more beans in your measuring cup or spoon.
However, if you measure your coffee by its mass (as you’re supposed to), dark roast coffee has more caffeine simply because it takes more dark roast beans to make up the same amount of coffee weight from light roast beans.
Confused? That’s ok. And I’ll tell you why…
The difference in caffeine levels between dark and light roast is negligible, no matter how you measure your coffee, since caffeine levels are not affected by the roasting process.
Bottom line: drink light roast coffee only if you prefer the taste, not if you think it will give you a higher dose of caffeine.
Medium Roast Coffee
Coffee Roast Levels 5 flickr photo by INeedCoffee.com shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license
Fun fact: in a recent survey I conducted for Coffee Concierge readers, more than 50% of respondents indicated their preferred coffee roast level to be medium roast.
Medium roast coffee is likely popular because it is often still light enough to detect bean intricacies but also dark enough to produce typical “coffee flavor” that is overwhelmingly present in dark roasts.
Medium roast coffees are versatile across brew methods, and in my opinion, the best option for producing delicious espresso.
If you don’t yet have a roast preference, medium roast coffee is what I’d personally recommend starting with.
Dark Roast Coffee
Here in the U.S., dark roast coffee was popularized by the likes of Starbucks and Peet’s, but it has been going out of vogue in Specialty Coffee because it typically masks a lot of the coffee’s unique flavor characteristics that are more noticeable in lighter roasts.
Still, as a society we’ve largely become conditioned to believe that dark roast coffee is coffee, and for this reason alone, it’s hard to adapt to lighter roasts when you’re already accustomed to darker roasts’ heavy body and smokier flavors.
If you are a regular coffee drinker, you’re likely already familiar with the way dark roast coffee tastes, because it’s still certainly the most popular roast level here in the States.
Step 4: Single Origin or Blend?
A single-origin coffee generally consists of beans that come from the same growing region, and sometimes, the same coffee farm.
Single origin coffees are popular because they allow coffee drinkers to have a better understanding about the unique characteristics that come from a certain bean from a specific location. It also gives the consumer a better understanding of the role of different coffees that may make up a blend.
Coffee blends are simply a mix of different single origin coffee beans, at a ratio that is usually determined by the roaster.
Blends are particularly popular for brewing espresso or French Press, since the intent is to offer complexities and balance in flavor that would not typically be present in a single origin coffee.
Where to Buy Your Coffee
At this point, you’ve done the majority of preliminary work that is required for finding the best coffee for you, personally.
To recap, you’re looking for:
- Whole bean coffee
- Roasted less than two weeks before today’s date
- At a roast level you prefer
- Blended or from a single origin, largely depending on how you like to brew your coffee or your individual taste preferences
Now that you know what you should be looking for, you need to know where to actually find coffee that fits these pre-requisites.
Step 1: Search Locally
Before resorting to ordering your coffee online, you should search for your coffee locally.
Buying coffee locally vs. online has several advantages:
- You get your coffee more quickly
- No need to wait for your coffee to arrive in the mail. Simply walk, bike, or drive to your local café or roaster and start brewing that same day.
- You are supporting your local economy.
- A vibrant local economy has a direct impact on your well-being. You are indirectly and directly supporting your friends, family, and neighbors by consuming locally.
- You are getting access to fresher coffee
- Sure, many coffee companies offer super-fast shipping, which often results in the coffee arriving at your doorstep just a few days off-roast. But the only way to get coffee the day it is roasted is by buying locally or roasting green coffee beans yourself.
So which local establishments should you support?
That of course, is entirely up to you, but I generally buy my coffee from independent coffee roasters over the grocery store.
This is the order I personally use:
- Independent coffee roaster with no more than a couple storefronts
- Independent cafe that sells coffee from local roasters
- Grocery store that sells coffee from local roasters
- Coffee chain or large, well-known roaster with wide distribution
Of course, this is just my personal order of operations…but I find that I can usually get the best quality coffee by sticking to this order.
If you don’t know of any local coffee roasters or independent cafés, Yelp.com is an excellent tool that I’ll often use when I’m traveling in cities I’m unfamiliar with.
Simply visit the homepage and type in searches like “coffee roaster” or “specialty coffee”.
The folks at Zippia also created an awesome resource where they researched the best 2 coffee shops in each of the 50 U.S. states.
This isn’t your typical subjective, poorly researched list post either. They actually collated Yelp and Google Places data to come up with their rankings.
Maybe one of these coffee shops is right in your neck of the woods!
Step 2: Subscribe to a Multi-Roaster Coffee Subscription Service
If you’re not satisfied with your local coffee options, or are looking for a little bit more variety, turning to the Internet is your next best bet.
But before you run off to Amazon to find your next bag of delicious coffee, I’d highly recommend that you try out a coffee subscription service that lets you sample coffee from a variety of roasters.
If you’re new to coffee subscriptions I recommend checking out The Ultimate Guide to Coffee Subscriptions, which I wrote to help others get a good understanding of how coffee subscriptions work.
I also put together a thorough comparison chart of my 5 favorite multi-roaster coffee subscriptions here.
Step 3: Order Coffee Directly from Your Favorite Coffee Roasters
At this point, you’ll probably already have a backlog of coffee you’ve tried and enjoyed.
Or, at the very least, you have started to develop preferences for the roasters you’ve had the opportunity to sample.
If you have a favorite roaster that isn’t local, you can likely order coffee directly through their website.
Many coffee roasters also offer their own subscription services, so you can continue to resupply stock of your favorite coffee and/or continue to try new coffee from a roaster you already love.
Like most things in life, coffee is a subjective, personal topic. As such, finding the best coffee starts with having a strong understanding of what your unique preferences are.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure you are starting your search with freshly roasted whole bean coffee, but make sure you understand your roast and blend style preferences before you go seeking your next bag of coffee.
Always start locally when possible, but don’t stop yourself from buying online if you’ve already exhausted your local options.
Yelp and Google are both great tools for finding local coffee roasters. Multi-roaster subscription services like MistoBox are a great starting point for finding delicious coffees online.
How Do YOU Find Great-Tasting Coffee?
Have some of your own tips for finding great-tasting coffee? Please share in the comments below!