Making a great coffee ultimately comes down to the coffee beans at your disposal.
Without having high quality coffee beans, your chances of producing a tasty, refreshing coffee is going to be slim – regardless of what machine you’re brewing it in.
Of course, one’s definition of quality coffee beans might be completely different to someone else’s. With that in mind, we decided to ask some of the roasters we know to define what characteristics the less experienced should look for in a coffee bean to weigh up whether it’s good quality or not.
Read on to find out what they had to say.
The beans should have a smooth texture and evenly coloured. If the ends are burnt or the colour is mottled, then find a new roaster. You should be able to crack a bean in half long ways with your fingers which means that the roast is through and through rather than just the outer portion of the bean.
If the bean is blonde or green on the inside or smells of grass or fresh bread, find another roaster. Lastly eat a bean and evaluate the flavour, it should be crisp, not chewy at all, with an even well balanced flavour.
A coffee is classified by its flavour and the absence of defects. As the taste is subjective (here you have to trust the Q graders of the SCA, for example, and your palate), what remains is the visual examination to look for defects.
At sight, it must not present defects, of the grain itself or of the roast. Green coffee defects are considered to be: split, immature, wrinkled, floating, parchment, crushed, fluffy, shelled, marbled, or shelled coffee beans. Some of these will show, others can be hidden from view with roasting.
This is why dark roasts are generally mistrusted. Regarding toasting, the colour must be opaque (avoid the shine of the oil that normally indicates that it has burned or roasted). Even the dark roast shouldn’t shine.
When evaluating coffee, there’s quality green coffee and quality roast.
High quality greens plus average roasts equals good coffee with narrow sweet spot.
Average quality greens plus high quality roasts equals good coffee with wider sweet spots.
High quality greens plus high quality roast equals SUPER GOOD COFFEE WITH HIGH PEAK AND WIDE SWEET SPOT.
The last is the pride and joy of specialty coffee. You can easily get good coffee from the other equations but more effort is necessary to dial in to get the best brews. If you buy the third combination, you will never get a bad brew in your whole bag as long as your water is good too. My advice, find a really excellent roaster and sample different origins at different price points.
From a consumer point of view, a good starting point is if the coffee beans has a roasting date rather than a best before date…that moves you into the realm of proper coffee from supermarket grade stuff. Supermarket coffee might’ve been sat on the shelves for months so they’re hardly going to tell you that!
Good aroma is a sign of fresh beans. The best litmus test is when you brew it. Dark roast could have good aroma, but that does not necessarily mean it is quality.
I would say price is good way of gauge. If a roaster is able to sell you at a cheaper price, you should question whether it is good or not. Good quality green beans cost a lot, especially micro-lot and it is impossible for any roaster to sell it at £7.50 per 250g for example.
For a layman, I would say you can judge by the price. There’s a lot of technical details to choosing and qualifying coffee beans and unless you’re highly experienced you might miss some of the nuances.