A Beginner’s Guide to the Label on Your Specialty Coffee Bag
The process of getting yourself a bag of coffee sounds like it should be a fairly straightforward affair. There used to be a time when grabbing a bag meant looking for what smelled good or what sounded interesting. With the rise of specialty coffee, coffee roasters have pushed for more transparency across the value chain, and this is reflective not just in a café or roaster’s products but in the way they present said products. We’ll take a look today at one aspect of that transparency in the form of how the labels on your specialty coffee bag help to explain what kind of coffee you’ll be having.
Single Origins vs Blends
The first thing you’ll probably check out is the name of your coffee, and this is a fairly good indicator off the bat on whether or not you’ll be getting a Single Origin coffee or a Blend. A Single Origin coffee is a coffee that only comes from one specific region or even a specific farm. Certain Single Origins focus on just the country of origin, while others go deeper by noting the farm/farmer of origin. Blends on the other hand are a collection of at least 2 or more coffees mixed together to achieve a certain flavor profile. Blends can be of different origins or even the same country of origin but of different processing types or farms.
Species and Varietals
There are two popular coffee species, namely Arabica and Robusta. In the Philippines, we also have the ever popular Barako or Liberica coffee. Arabica is the most widely consumed species of coffee, and will gravitate towards the sweeter tastes and complex flavors of coffee, while robusta will generally go the other way and be on the harsher and or bitter side. Coffee can then be subdivided into different varietals that can be compared to the different kinds of grapes that make wine. Each varietal comes with its own little quirk that make them unique. Coffee varietals started with Typica, with other mutations or types like Bourbon, Heirloom, and many others.
Elevation or Altitude
You’d be surprised to know that the altitude of the coffee can affect the quality of the coffee you get. The higher the elevation, the more complexity and acidity you can expect from your cup. This is of course factoring in the quality and care taken to growing those coffees, but generally speaking, if you’re a fan of those fruity flavors, you’ve got a good chance of finding those in lightly roasted coffees grown at high elevations around 1,400 miles above sea level (MASL) and above should be good bets.
In coffee there are two common processing methods: washed and natural. A washed coffee means that after the coffees are picked, water is used to remove the fruit and the mucilage around the coffee before it is dried. This results in a coffee that will be highlighted for just the bean itself. A natural coffee on the other hand will have the whole fruit still intact during the drying process. There are other processes as well like the anaerobic, honey process, and the wet-milled which you can check with your roaster.
The roast level of a coffee is quite helpful in determining the kind of coffee experience you’ll be getting. Those looking for fruitier or floral coffees will be looking towards the lighter end of the roast spectrum, while those looking for chocolate and nutty notes will be roasting on the medium side. Getting to a dark roast will start to showcase those bitter notes that may appeal to a subset of coffee drinkers.
Flavor notes are another great way of helping coffee brewers to know what kind of coffee they should expect. Typically the roaster will cup the coffees they roast to see what kind of notes they’ll get like fruity notes, nutty notes, and a myriad of other flavors.
Coffee Quality Awards
You’ve got something special if you see this on your bag of coffee. If your coffee received a distinction like the Cup of Excellence, you’ll be sure to see a badge of it on your bag. Other distinctions you could see are the score it received from Q (Arabica) or R (Robusta) graders. Specialty coffee starts with a score of 80, so scores around 88 and above typically get noted on the bag as well. You could also see some other awards like if the roaster won a roaster’s award.
Whole Bean or Ground
Last but not least, the bag should indicate if the coffee is whole bean or ground, which is fairly straightforward. Sometimes the bags won’t indicate if it’s whole bean or ground since coffees can be ground by the roasters on site or before delivery.