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Coffee

Coffee buying guide

Last updated: May 2013
Getting started

Getting started

The story that an Ethiopian goat herder discovered coffee when his berry-eating goats became frisky is likely apocryphal, but it's generally believed that coffee first came from that region.

When we test coffee, we look for smoothness and complexity with no off-flavors. The beans should be neither under-roasted nor charred, and the brew should have at least moderate aroma and flavor, and subtle top notes. Some sourness and bitterness are desirable, too, to keep the coffee from tasting bland.

All coffees consist of arabica or robusta beans, or a combination. Arabica beans are more expensive and tend to make better coffee. And as with wine grapes, where the beans are grown makes a difference. Coffee is cultivated across the world in a belt generally bounded by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Brazil is the top coffee producer, followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, and Columbia.

At Consumer Reports, we test the coffees that our readers are most likely to drink. We've tested Colombian because it comes from one of the most popular regions. We've also tested and tasted blends because they're the best-selling type of ground coffee. Blends contain beans from at least two regions or countries. We plan to test coffee from more regions, such as Kenyan, Kona, Jamaican Blue Mountain, and Sumatran.

The tastes of coffee drinkers have become more discriminating in recent years and coffee drinkers are demanding more flavor from the cup. Here are some things to remember when buying your beans.

Consider how you take it. Excellent and very good coffees taste fine black. Milk and sugar can improve a mediocre coffee, but not even cream is likely to help the lowest-scoring coffees.

Choose a good coffeemaker. The best coffeemakers reach 195 degree to 205 degrees F during brewing, the temperatures required to get the best from the beans and avoid a weak or bitter brew.

Consider grinding for fresher flavor. Even the best pre-ground coffee can't beat a good quality freshly ground when it comes to taste.

Types

Arabica and robusta are the two main types of beans for all coffee. Robusta beans are less expensive and easier to grow. Arabica beans tend to make better coffee. Roasting is what turns green beans into coffee that is ready to grind and brew. The type of roast is often listed on the label--you may have to experiment before finding the one you prefer. And different brands may characterize their roasts differently. Here are the types of coffee to consider.

Light roast

Light roasting produces beans are light brown and have a more sour taste.

Medium roast

Medium roast coffees have medium brown beans. The beans do not have an oily surface in this roast. The coffee beans can have a bright acidity, but specific varietal aromatics (e.g. floral, fruity, vegetable, berry, etc.) of the coffee are still apparent.

Dark roast

The beans in this roast have some oil on the surface and the color is rich and darker. The characteristics of the coffee are complemented by caramelization notes such as nutty, bread or baked goods, or chocolate, and the acidity has faded somewhat, bringing out a slightly bittersweet aftertaste. French roast is a good example.

Darker roasts

The darkest roasts have shiny black beans with an oily surface. In a good/well done dark roast, there is still some good acidity to liven the cup. Dark roasts run the gamut from slightly dark to extremely charred. Italian roast and French roast are darker roasts.

Features


With the popularity of coffee rising, it helps to become familiar with some of the features that appear on the label or in the cup. Here are some of the coffee features to consider.

AA

Denotes the second-largest beans on a Kenyan grading scale; usually sold at a higher price than any other grade.

C.A.F.E.

A Starbucks term, standing for Coffee and Farmer Equity. According to the company's website, those guidelines, developed with Conservation International, "help our farmers grow coffee in a way that's better for both people and the planet."

Caffeine

The amount of caffeine in a cup can vary greatly, depending on factors such as blend, method of brewing, and type of bean.

Decaffeinated

Caffeine is removed from green coffee beans before roasting. The green coffee beans are steamed and then the outer layers containing the caffeine are scraped off. The decaffeinated coffee beans are then returned to their normal moisture content levels, ready for roasting. The processing almost always affects the flavor and decaffeinated brews may taste flat or dull.

Fair trade certified

Part of a nonprofit, international program that advocates sustainable production and fair prices for small farmers. TransFair USA, the certifying organization, also works for safe working conditions (and no forced child labor), limits the use of harmful pesticides, and supports credit plans and training for farm workers.

Flavored

Brews with the taste and aroma of Hazelnut, Vanilla, Irish cream, and others are made by adding flavoring agents to the roasted beans.

Growing region

Coffee is grown throughout the tropics worldwide. Regional influences have created a wide variety of coffees with unique tastes and smells. Coffee connoisseurs tend to favor one region over another.

Organic

Means that the coffee was grown without synthetic fertilizers and most industrial pesticides.

Rainforest Alliance certified

This nonprofit group has determined that chemical pesticide use was limited, water and soil were conserved, and workers were treated fairly.

Coffee-growing regions

Like wine, coffees can come in different varietals, which means from different country, region or even a single mountain. While blends are still the best-selling coffee, more and more people are sampling varietals from regions such as the ones below.

Colombian

The coffee could have slight to moderate floral aromatics and could have barely perceptible to slight fruity character. It could have barely perceptible to slight-moderate green/sharp notes and earthy base notes.

Kona

The coffee could have slight to moderate floral aromatics and could have barely perceptible to slight fruity character. It could have barely perceptible to slight-moderate green/sharp notes and earthy base notes. A high quality Kona should further have a winey, spicy character distinctive to the varietal.

Kenyan

Desirable top-notes for a Kenyan coffee may encompass a variety of characteristics and may include fruity (specifically various types of berry or citrus aromatics), green/sharp notes, earthy base notes, and a slight to moderate body, which provides the feeling of fullness in the mouth. A high-quality Kenyan coffee may also possess a fairly high positive acidity or "brightness," without being so acidic as to produce a jarring or unbalanced character. High-quality Kenyans are also associated with clear, distinct flavors.

Sumatran

Desirable top-notes for a Sumatran coffee may encompass a variety of characteristics and may include fruity, vegetable (e.g. cucumbers, fresh peas), green/sharp notes, and earthy base notes. The coffee may also possess aromatics particularly associated with the varietal, such as aromatic woods (e.g. cedar or pine). A high-quality Sumatran coffee should possess moderate body to full body, which provides the feeling of fullness in the mouth.

Storing coffee

Decorative glass canisters may look great on your countertop, but they are not the best way to store coffee. To maintain freshness and flavor, coffee must be kept away from moisture, heat, light, and strong odors. Coffee can pick up strong odors from other foods stored near it. Refrigerating your daily supply of coffee is not ideal because moisture will quickly deteriorate its quality. Instead, try these tips.

Keep it airtight

Invest in an airtight ceramic, glass, or non-reactive metal container. If you buy coffee in large amounts, divide it between two containers, keeping the larger, unused portion airtight until it is needed.

Keep it cool

Store your coffee in a dark, cool location away from the oven. Don't pick a cabinet on an outside wall if it gets a lot of sun during the day.

Purchase smaller quantities

Coffee loses its freshness quite quickly after it has been roasted. Buy fresh roasted coffee in amounts that will last one to two weeks to preserve its freshness and flavor.

Java jargon

Connoisseurs have terms for describing the characteristics of a brew. Generally, subtle flavors and aromas are described as "notes." Top or base notes are good, off-notes are bad. Knowing the lingo can help you analyze and appreciate your coffee (and impress your coffee-drinking friends).

Astringent

Dry, puckering feel of unripe fruit or over-brewed tea.

Balanced

Ideal blend of sour and bitter; not dull or flat.

Body

Feeling of fullness and weight in the mouth.

Cereal or grainy

Like a cooked wheat cereal.

Cooked

Like coffee that has been heated too long.

Earthy

Hints of aromas and flavors similar to potato skins or root vegetables. (But dirty is a harsh off-note.)

Green

Has two meanings. A green/sharp or bright coffee is clean and light, with pleasing acidity. A green/under-ripe coffee suggests unripe beans.

Nutty

Like fresh toasted nuts.

Papery

Like damp cardboard.

Woody

Like damp popsicle sticks.

   

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