How to Choose the Best Coffee Beans: A Beginner's Guide

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Are you stumped whenever you try to choose coffee beans? There are certain criteria you can use to help you pick the right coffee for your needs every time!

Every year, 70 countries in the Coffee Belt produce approximately 10 million tons of green beans. Given these numbers, trying to choose coffee that suits your tastes can feel overwhelming.

So, how do you go about selecting coffee? Are there special criteria apart from taste and fair prices that can help when choosing coffee beans?

Oh yes, there are!

In this foolproof guide, I’ll teach you everything you need to know to help you pick coffee beans when faced with an endless variety.

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Overview: How to Choose Coffee Beans

One thing’s for sure, choosing coffee beans can involve a challenging decision.

There’s an endless variety of coffee beans from all over the world, all with different flavor profiles. This can be confusing and intimidating for the average coffee drinker.

When you choose coffee at a grocery store or coffee shop, look out for the following general characteristics:

Varietal/Cultivar (Bean Variety)

Commercial beans are available in two main varietals or cultivars: Coffea arabica (Arabica beans) and Coffea robusta (Robusta beans). These two varieties vary in their cultivation, taste and cost.

Arabica Coffee Beans
Robusta Coffeebeans

Arabica coffee has a smooth, sweet and delicate flavor with sugary chocolate undertones. These beans can also contain wine, fruit or berry notes. On the other hand, Robusta is earthier and grittier with a heavier body and bitter aftertaste.

Arabica tends to grow at higher altitudes and in cooler average temperatures. In contrast, Robusta grows at lower elevations and thrives in higher average temperatures.

Robusta is also easier to grow and yields more coffee per hectare than Arabica. As such, it’s more abundant and costs less on the market. Because of this, higher-quality coffee tends to either be 100% Arabica or a blend of Robusta and Arabica beans.

Single Origin Coffee vs Blends

Are you mad about specialty coffees? These high-quality coffees comprise blends and single-origin coffees. But what’s the difference? Does single-origin coffee equal better coffee?

Single-origin coffee comes from coffee cherries harvested from a specific region or country. Sumatra Mandheling, Brazil Cerrado and Hawaiian Kona are perfect examples.

These coffees are only available seasonally. Each has an exotic flavor garnered from its growing location’s soil and rainfall conditions. This allows coffee lovers to savor the purity of the bean as well as the aroma, acidity and mellow, balanced flavor profile.

Blends, on the other hand, consist of beans from several geographical locations with various flavors. They are well-balanced and provide specialty coffee drinkers with a harmonious taste that hits all the right notes.

Single origins are usually Arabica coffee, while blends are often a combination of 90 percent Arabica and 10 percent Robusta coffee.

Roast Level

Roasting Fresh Coffee

The roast level of your beans is significant, affecting the flavor profile, tasting notes and mouthfeel of coffee. As beans roast for longer, changing from light roasts to dark roasts, the original flavors and caffeine content decrease.

  • Dark roast: Dark roasts contain less caffeine and are less acidic. Darker roasted beans are oily and have a deep, smoky flavor. A dark roast is ideal for espresso, cold brew or black drip coffee with cream and milk.

  • Medium roast: Medium roasts are popular because of their well-rounded flavor profile and moderate mouthfeel. They are less acidic and fruitier than light roasts, but less rich than dark roasts. Medium roasts are sweet, smooth, mellow and chocolaty; perfect for espresso or pour-over coffee.

  • Light roast: Light roast coffee is light brown and has no oil on the bean’s surface. These coffees have a sharp acidity, gentle body and vibrant flavor profile. Lighter roasts preserve the roasted bean’s distinct and original characteristics. This makes light roasts perfect for pour-over or drip coffee.

Freshness

There’s nothing like a cup of freshly-roasted coffee! When choosing coffee beans, always ensure that your beans are freshly roasted. You should consume roasted coffee within a specified time frame. This is because, over time the flavors formed by the chemical reaction during the roasting process disappear.

Most coffee connoisseurs agree that brewing coffee beans anywhere from 7 to 21 daysafter the roast date yields better coffee. Always check each coffee bag for a roasting date and buy the most recent one.

Tips for Choosing Coffee Beans: 7 Considerations to Help You Make the Best Selection

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned coffee drinker, shopping for coffee can be a hassle. I’ve listed a few tips to help you get a general idea of what to look for when you choose coffee. My goal is to help you pick the right coffee, every time!

What’s Your Desired Taste Profile?

Do you like your coffee black or with milk? Whatever kind of coffee you prefer, always get good quality coffee; it has freshness, aroma and taste that’s hard to beat. Once brewed, it is smooth and pleasant on the palate, with low acidity and minimal bitterness. The flavors you’ll experience result from the coffee you choose.

High-grade brewed Arabica beans have floral, fruity and citrus flavors with bright acidity and wine notes. In contrast, Robusta has a heavy body, distinct bitterness and earthy flavor. It also displays low acidity, and a sometimes nutty, sometimes dark chocolate aftertaste.

Growing Regions

Kaffeebohnen in Bali

Coffee grows in over 70 equatorial countries in the Coffee Belt. It thrives in rich soils at higher elevations with cooler temperatures. Each growing region produces a unique coffee bean flavor profile.

Floral, fruit and wine notes are prominent in African coffees from Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya. They are bright and flavorful with a distinct sharp acidity.

In contrast, Central Americans from countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua are clean and well-balanced. They also show fruity tones and moderate-to-high acidity.

South American coffees (Brazil, Peru and Colombia) contain pronounced chocolate and nut flavors. They generally have medium body and acidity with hints of plum and brown sugar.

In Southeast Asia, coffee tends to be earthy, nutty and spicy. These coffees have a rich, heavy body, bitter aftertaste and silky molasses undertones.

Growing Altitude

You’ll often see the elevation at which coffee was grown printed on the package. This will be a number followed by “masl,” which means “meters above sea level.” This is important, because elevation has a big impact on a coffee’s flavor profile.

  • Low-altitude coffee (1250 masl) tends to be earthy with a heavier body and refined acidity.

  • Medium-altitude coffee (1250 – 1500 masl) has a little more acidity and sweetness with a more luscious mouthfeel.

  • High-altitude coffee (grown at 1500 – 2200 masl) is more aromatic and complex in flavor. It also has pronounced acidity with sweet fruit flesh or wine grapes undertones.

Processing Method

While this may seem inconsequential, your coffee’s processing method after harvest really affects its taste.

Natural processed coffees tend to be sweeter and fruitier, with a more complex flavor. These dry-processed coffees also have a larger body, lower acidity and undertones of chocolate, cherries and dried fruit.

African American woman cleaning hands from coffee beans during honey process

In contrast, washed coffees have a cleaner, brighter and fruitier flavor profile. These coffees shine due to their unique high-grown flavor and refined acidity.

Semi-washed or wet-hulled coffee beans are rich and earthy, with a unique sweetness and acidity that other coffees can’t match. This is typical of Indonesian coffee from Sumatra, and offers coffee lovers a one-of-a-kind taste experience.

Finally, the honey processing method (pulped natural coffee) gives beans a sweeter taste than washed coffee. The coffee has a cleaner flavor, complex acidity and more juiciness than natural processed coffees.

Caffeine Content

There’s nothing worse than the coffee jitters! When choosing coffee, the amount of caffeine you desire (and can handle) is critical. Too much might have adverse effects on your general health.

As a result, many coffee enthusiasts seek coffees with lower levels of natural caffeine. Robusta coffees, on average, contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica coffee beans.

What’s Your Preferred Brewing Method?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “different strokes for different folks.” The same goes for coffee! Some coffees tend to be better for specific brewing methods than others.

Bean origin also counts. Although there are two main coffee varieties – Arabica and Robusta – it’s not that simple. You might feel like the best coffees are 100% Arabica or an Arabica-Robusta blend. Different types of coffee have distinct qualities, which impacts which preparation method suits them best.

Breville Barista Touch Pulling Shot of Espresso

Darker roasts from Brazil, Kona, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ethiopia often make the best espresso. They are resplendent with rich chocolate and spicy and nutty caramel notes. The extended roasting period gives the beans a deep, dark color and brings out more oils to the surface. This yields a shot with a sweet, nutty, balanced taste and rich, thick crema.

Light, medium or medium-dark roasts from Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Colombia are ideal for pour-over coffee. Manual brewing brings out the fruity and floral or nutty and chocolate flavor profiles. It also highlights the bright acidity typical of these coffees. Besides, the extraction here is much slower than for espresso.

Ethiopian, Costa Rican and Guatemalan coffees are your best bet if you prefer light roasts. This roast profile highlights the rich, zesty and floral tones in these coffees, best experienced as drip coffee.

Sustainable Coffee Farming and Fair Trade Initiatives

It’s no longer enough that coffee tastes good. Third wave coffee culture consumers now demand that producers explain the “story” behind their coffee.

Did the farmer use sustainable coffee farming methods and an eco-friendly drying process? What about pesticides? These questions matter a great deal to consumers. And so they should!

According to estimates, Brazilian coffee farmers (the world’s top coffee producers) use 76 million pounds of pesticides every year. Since 2019, they have licensed a further 475 pesticides, a third of which are considered toxic and banned in the US and EU.

That’s not to say all Brazilian producers are farming this way. In fact, many are doing quite the opposite. However, it’s food for thought.
Nowadays, consumers seek out this information and make purchasing decisions based on their values.

Another critical question for coffee lovers is whether the production methods harmed any animals. To think of Kopi Luwak and all its horrible effects on the well-being of palm civet cats makes my blood boil! As delicious as this coffee is, many, including me, won’t buy it due to this fact.

I’d recommend training yourself to look out for these types of coffee concerns whenever you choose coffee.

Choosing Coffee: What to Avoid

Despite the industry’s emphasis on quality, bad coffee does exist. And I do encourage you to avoid bad coffee as much as possible as you could end up consuming harmful E-numbers, mixed-in dirt or worse roaches (yes, you read that right!). Not only will brewing bad coffee beans ruin your morning, it can also affect your health.

So what should you look for when choosing coffee based on quality? Consider the following factors when you choose coffee beans from your local grocery store or coffee shop:

Low-Grade, Mass-Produced Coffee

Unless you’re buying different types of coffee for bulk use, avoid coffee packed in large bags. Good quality coffee beans come in 12-ounce (340-gram) and 5-pound (2.3-kilogram) bags. Reputable coffee producers roast and pack their coffee beans this way to ensure fair prices as well as flavor and freshness in every cup.

Fresh Coffee Beans in Package

Vacuum-sealed bags that preserve roasted coffee’s flavor, freshness and aroma are a must for the perfect cup. These airtight, watertight bags ensure coffee beans remain fresher for longer and save them from mold and oxidation.

And please, whatever you do, don’t fall for the marketing gimmicks! While glass jars and clear bags may look pretty for storing coffee, they let in light, a primary enemy of coffee beans.

Unethical and Non-Eco Friendly Coffee

Another factor to consider is that a high-quality coffee cherry is often hand-picked. This labor-intensive harvesting technique requires a reputable coffee farmer who avoids slave labor practices and pays workers well.

Conscientious farmers also strive to work for the good of the local people. They ensure locals benefit from their coffee production with, for instance, Fair Trade initiatives that bring more money to the local economy.

Finally, reputable coffee producers will focus on sustainable coffee farming. They’ll likely use pollution-free solar coffee dryers or sun-dry green beans on raised beds. Other favorable initiatives include cutting water and pesticide use, and replacing any trees cut for heating and other uses.

Scantily Labeled Coffee Bean Bags

Labels on a coffee bean bag define the character of your beans, origin and blend, along with grind and brewing instructions. Red flags to look for on your labels to help you avoid bad coffee include:

  • Lack of provenance: Avoid any coffee that doesn’t label its origin. A label with the country isn’t enough; it should show the farm or region in which your coffee plant grew. This is vital for the ultimate transparency and traceability of beans.

  • Whole bean vs pre-ground coffee: Whole beans stay fresher for longer. They also allow coffee drinkers to customize the grind of their beans to different brewing methods. These include espresso, pour-over coffee, filter coffee or Turkish coffee.

  • 100% coffee: This is a dead giveaway, especially with pre-ground coffee. The label “100% coffee” isn’t a sign of quality but an indicator of a lower-quality blend. Your label should read “100% Arabica beans” to guarantee the highest quality.

  • Dates: Another red flag is a “best before” instead of “roasted on” date on the label. The latter determines the freshness of your coffee beans rather than when they become undrinkable.

ProTip: Look out for Organic Coffees! Here at Coffeeness, we value small, independent roasters who work closely with coffee producers. And that includes organic coffee farmers.

When choosing coffee (especially organic coffee), make sure it’s USDA-certified. It should have the “100% Certified Organic” or “Certified Organic” seal on its packaging.

Final Thoughts: How to Choose Coffee Beans

There is no right or wrong way to choose coffee! Ultimately, what matters is that the quality is good, it’s ethically and sustainably sourced and you love the taste!

For coffee enthusiasts who source coffee as I do, it’s worth ensuring that your beans are grown to high standards. Non-negotiables include excellent bean color and high cupping scores – preferably above 80.

Try as many coffees as possible to open your palate to diverse flavor profiles and tasting experiences. This way, you’ll make an informed decision whenever you choose coffee and get the most from this must-have beverage!

I hope this guide has informed you on how best to choose coffee that meets your tastes. Have I overlooked any other tips for choosing coffee? I’d love to hear your opinion. Let’s meet in the comments section!

How to Choose Coffee Beans FAQ

Good coffee beans have superior taste, aroma and freshness. Many coffee lovers also look for tasting notes which range from bright, lively and floral to earthy, chocolaty and nutty with lower acidity and no bitterness.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned drinker, always look for the different varietals (cultivars) of your beans. Check the blend or single-origin, flavor profile, grind, roast level, caffeine content and origin. This simple checklist will give you a general sense of how the coffee beans will taste.

Most coffee lovers prefer Arabica coffee beans over Robusta beans because they offer a sweeter, smoother taste. Ethiopian Harrar, Tanzanian Peaberry, Panamanian Geisha, Sumatra Mandheling and Hawaii Kona are among the best-tasting Arabica coffee beans in the world.

Arabica beans are the best option for beginners in the early stages of their coffee adventure as they’re sweeter and smoother in taste. Robusta beans have complex, earthy flavors, which, while delicious, might be too strong for people new to coffee.

Updated: 3. February 2024

Added our Top 5 Picks on Amazon.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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