You’re at your favorite coffee shop and while picking up your usual drink, you feel inclined to buy a bag of specialty coffee beans to drink at home. The bag looks cute, the aromas from the bag smell great, but what’s with all these words? Your mind starts to wander to connect the dots with random things you've seen before...
Washed coffee… well I guess the beans should be washed before they’re sold right?
Single Origin… sounds sophisticated, it’s the same idea like pure bred puppies right?
Elevation 2000M… well that sounds really high up there, I guess even plants need clean air!
Varietal Caturra-Catuaí… Catu… what?
Often times, we get super confused by these labels and just go ahead to buy the coffee that sounds and feels the most exotic, but wouldn’t it be great if we actually knew what they were saying? If that was possible, then perhaps we might be able to understand ourselves a little better and figure out what kind of coffees we actually like.
Well have no fear because Otaku Coffee Lab is here! Today we will be teaching you all about how to read these labels :)
Single Origin or Blend
The idea of Single Origin Specialty Coffee isn’t that far off from that random thought earlier about pure bred puppies. The term “Single Origin” refers to coffee that comes from a specific region or farm. In other words, it’s coffee that isn’t mixed with other places. It comes from one place and one place only. Sometimes you might also see the word “micro-lots” as well and that refers to small areas of land where a farm might grow their coffee is a special way.
So why does it matter if a coffee is a single origin or not? It matters because coffee taste different depending on where and how it was grown. Single Origin Specialty Coffees also tend to be really high-quality, so when brewed correctly, they all have very unique flavors and aromas that you wouldn’t want diluted by other coffee tastes.
In the case of blends, this happens when a coffee roaster combines multiple coffees together because they think it tastes better that way. Ethiopia is known for producing really light and fruity coffees, but what if you want that fruit to feel more thick and wholesome in your mouth? In this case, the roaster can mix in a coffee with a little more body like a Colombian coffee bean to get a taste that a single origin cannot produce.
When you think of coffee, the first thing you usually think about is a brown colored bean right? Well, a coffee bean isn’t really a bean. It’s actually a seed found inside of a bright red fruit that looks like a cherry! Also, removing all that sticky fruit from the coffee seed isn’t the easiest thing to do, so that’s where processing methods come in!
Just like how wine grapes are processed in different ways to make different flavors, coffee has it’s own processing methods to bring out it’s qualities as well! Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones.
Image Credit | bonga1965, Shutterstock
This is a process where the red flesh of the coffee cherry is removed and then a small fermentation process takes place to break down any remaining flesh still stuck to the seed. Afterwards, just as the name states, the seeds are washed clean to make sure nothing else remains. People love this style of processing because it removes all the things on the coffee seed that might affect its flavors. Ultimately, you get the most pure natural profile of the coffee.
Image credit | PxFuel
This is where coffee is left to bask in the blazing hot sun to dry the coffee cherries. Once fully dry, the coffee cherries are hulled to separate the seed from the dried flesh. By taking time to dry in the sun, the coffee seeds absorb more of the sugars from the flesh of the cherry. When done properly, you’ll get coffees with sweet fruity tastes like blueberry, mango, and pineapple! When done poorly, the coffee could be inconsistent in taste and some might even emit a rotten fruit flavor… yum…
Honey & Pulped Natural
Image Credit | Maren Barbee, Flickr, licensed under CC 2.0
This is kind of like the middle ground between the Washed and Natural process. The coffee cherries are de-pulped like you would in a Washed Process, but instead of washing the coffee seeds clean, some of the remaining sticky mucilage is left on there and the coffee is dried all together in the sun like the Natural Processed coffee. This results in a coffee with more complex flavors than Washed coffees, but nothing as intense and fruity as Natural Coffees.
Elevation is normally measured based on meters above sea level. The idea here is that the higher a coffee plant is located above sea level, the cooler it is and the slower it is for a coffee plant to grow. When the coffee plant grows slowly, it gives the plant more time for its sugars to develop. This can ultimately lead to a sweeter and more complex coffee.
Ultimately you just need to know that the cooler the temperature, the higher possibility it is for a sweeter and more complex coffee. This is important to know because elevation is really only helpful when you are comparing two different coffees from the same region. There are places on our planet where the elevation for coffee isn’t too high, but because the region by default is cool, you already know you’re going to get great coffee!
For many people who drink wine or just walk down the aisle in a supermarket, they are very familiar with names like Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Noir, , Zinfandel, and the list goes on. These names aren’t just the names of the wine itself, but they are a reference to the variety of grapes used to make wine.
Just like how wine has it’s varieties in grapes, coffee has it’s varieties in coffee cherry plants as well and there are currently over 1000 varietals currently in production in the world! The thing to know about varietals is that each varietal produces a different tastes. Now it would be too long to go into each and every varietal here in this article, but let’s just cover a few popular ones that you might see when you go coffee shopping.
Image Credit | Pinterest
Ethiopian Heirloom: This one is a popular one that you often see and there’s a reason for that. It’s because Ethiopia is said to be the birthplace of coffee! For that very reason, since it’s been around the longest, Ethiopia will of course have the most variety in its coffee plants. The problem here is that the varieties are estimated to be around 6,000 to 10,000 due to the coffee plants just cross pollinating out in the wild. Due to the sheer number in varieties, there just hasn’t been enough genetic testing to figure them all out. So what do we do in that situation? We just group them all together and call them Ethiopian Heirloom! Ethiopian Heirloom coffees tend to have a very floral and fruity taste to them, but depending on the region they are grown their characteristics could vary.
Typica Varietal: This particular varietal is known for having a very clean and sweet taste.
Bourbon Varietal: Bourbon is a variety of coffee that mutated from Typica and transformed into something completely different. It is 30% more productive than Typica and is known for having a taste profile that is more complex and more sweet when compared to Typica.
Geisha: This is the unicorn varietal due to its record breaking reputation at auctions. The reason why this particular varietal is so special is because it’s history is rooted in Ethiopia, but after being transplanted to South America, somehow it was able to retain the taste profile of both it’s Ethiopian roots as well as the new flavors that come from South America. As a result we get a coffee that merges the best of both worlds.
Image Credit | Specialty Coffee Association
Tasting/Flavor notes are a taster’s way of describing the aroma, taste, and texture of a coffee. When we drink a coffee and experience flavors, those flavors are expressed as a combination of what we taste on our taste buds as well as what we smell in the aroma of the coffee.
The sense of taste on our tongue will help us define sensations like what is sweet, sour, bitter, or savory. Our sense of smell on the other hand will help us better pinpoint and define flavors. Whenever we swallow something, our body natural exhales some air and whenever we drink something we naturally inhale air. This inhale and exhale channels aromas into our nasal cavity to help us interpret what it is that we are consuming. The majority of what we sense as flavor comes from the aromas that our coffee emits. That is why it’s so important to grind our beans right before we brew coffee, as most coffee aromas escape shortly after the beans are ground.
So now that you know how flavor is translated by our brain, let’s talk about how these notes help you when choosing your coffee! Keep in mind that tasting notes are really just there to help steer you towards or away from a coffee. Ultimately when you drink coffee, it should still taste just like coffee. The tasting notes are really there to help describe what additional aromas you might register when you are drinking your brew.
If you taste flavors of citrus, fruit, or floral, that’s usually describes a coffee that might be roasted to a lighter degree so that the pleasant sensations of acidity are highlighted in a coffee. These coffees tend to have a very light, bright, vibrant, and juicy characteristic to them. In darker roasts, you might get notes like chocolate, caramelized sugars, toasted almonds which don’t have as much acidity, but in turn will give you a coffee that has more balance, bigger body, and richness.
So there you have it! This was a long article to help you understand how to read a coffee label. In the end, what’s important is that there isn’t a single item on a label that will define what a coffee would taste like. Each description only helps to paint one part of the picture. When combined, they illustrate a sense of what a coffee would taste like, but ultimately what you taste and what is written on a label could be entirely different! Don’t stress about it too much if the bag says blueberry and you don’t even get a single whiff of berry flavor in your coffee. We all come from different walks in life with different cultural backgrounds. What some might taste as blueberry on one side of the world, might see that same flavor as lychee in another country, but that’s what makes coffee so interesting! A label is only there as a descriptor to help steer you in the direction that you would like to take with your coffee.
Ultimately you should go out there to try out all sorts of coffees and save the labels on the coffees that you like.
That way the next time when you go coffee shopping, you can reach peak Otaku levels and know what descriptors to look for to achieve your ultimate brew!