With great choice comes great responsibility. In an exciting Indian market with hundreds of new coffee options being added every day, you might be confused regarding the terms used, the jargon on the packaging, and the difference between coffee in supermarkets and coffee online. How do you choose the best coffee that suits your requirements and simultaneously get the most bang for your buck? Here are ten tips to help you sieve through your options and pick the best coffee that will ensure satisfaction.
While there are a few points covered on instant coffee, the primary focus of this article is on how to identify and purchase the best coffees that are freshly roasted.
1. Pick the ideal buying channel – Supermarket vs. Café Outlets vs. Online
Supermarkets are the most traditional channel to purchase coffee. This is where most folks will begin their coffee journey. While there is great convenience in shopping for coffee through this channel, it isn’t necessarily the channel in which you will get the best quality. Coffees on supermarket shelves are roasted in large batches and degassed for long periods of time before being packed and sent off for distribution. This allows supermarkets to market batches of purchased coffee for long periods of time on their shelves. Logically, we can conclude that freshness is difficult to achieve when scale is a priority.
Café outlets are a great option to get your hands on good coffee. Most cafés that roast their own coffees will ensure they’ve got the freshest lots moving on their shelves. The advantage with cafés is the opportunity to converse with baristas. You can learn more about the various options that are available and the best ways to brew them at home.
The Impact of E-Commerce
The specialty coffee movement has been greatly supported by the evolution of e-commerce. With automated integration between e-commerce platforms, coffee roasters and logistics providers, it is now possible to have your coffee freshly roasted after you place an order and have it delivered to you just on time to brew it. Your options to buy coffee online are endless. Most specialty coffee roasters operate their own websites in addition to retail platforms serving as aggregators of multiple brands. Almost all websites selling coffee online also offer you the option to chat live with customer service. They can answer queries and make coffee recommendations.
We recommend purchasing coffee online to ensure you always get fresh coffee and the largest variety to choose from.
2. Look for Freshness – Roast Date vs. Packaging Date
There are two systems used to describe the best window within which a bag of coffee should be consumed. The system used for instant coffee and mass-produced roasted coffee will describe the best consumption window after the packaging date. For example – best before 6 months after the date of packaging. The products that use this system will often not mention the coffee’s roast date. With freshness being a major determinate factor for coffee quality, this system makes it difficult to gauge how good a coffee might actually taste.
Most specialty coffee roasters will mention the roast date on their products. While several roasters will also use a “best before x months after date of packaging” system for their products, they will also mention a roast date which will typically be very close to the date of packaging. With information about roast date, you can be reassured that you are buying fresh coffee. You will also have more control over brewing as 5 – 35 days after roasting is the best window to brew.
Our suggestion is to purchase coffee products that are freshly roasted (at least within 20 days of roasting). It is better to buy from brands that mention the roast date on their packaging. The best option is to purchase coffee online from roasters who typically only roast your coffee fresh on order.
3. Choose Traceability
You will often come across coffee roasters using the name of an estate to brand their products. These are roasters who have a focus on traceability and would like their customers to know the exact farm from which the coffee is sourced. Craft Coffee brands will also go into deep detail in their product descriptions to tell you the story of the producer. They will also explain the history of the estate, unique characteristics about terrain and biodiversity, and the positive environmental impact of sustainable farming that is practiced by most producers with a focus on specialty coffee.
Mass-produced coffee and instant coffee focus on consistency, repeatability and scalability of operations. With this combination of factors, traceability usually takes the backseat. This is because it is economically unviable for large roasters and instant coffee manufacturers. Traceability requires tying the identity of their products to specific farms whose focus is on research, experimentation and differentiated quality rather than commercial coffee production and growing volumes.
Cost of Traceability
Traceable coffees are inherently more expensive due to the excessive effort needed from an operational standpoint for both farmers and roasters. Specialty coffee roasters would not put in these excessive efforts to offer traceable coffees if they were not of the highest quality. Customers can be ensured that brands that focus on traceability do so not only because of valuable relationships with coffee farmers and producers. They focus on traceability because it also ensures unique and top-quality coffees that will exhibit their own signature flavour profiles.
Our suggestion is to purchase coffee online from brands, roasters and platforms who give information about the regions and farms from where they source their unroasted coffee beans.
Click here to learn more about Naivo’s approach to sourcing and roasting coffee.
4. Understand Roast Profile
Roast profile plays a big role in determining the end result in brewed coffee. Choosing the right roast profile depends on your preference of flavour. Light roasts will typically be livelier, juicy and bright coffees and will suit filter and manual brewing methods. They will have higher acidity and will exhibit subtle notes ranging from floral to fruity on the flavour spectrum. Medium roasts are more balanced in character and are suitable for those looking for a balance in flavours with no particular characteristic standing out. Dark roasts will have smokier, caramelish notes and often also exhibit a chocolatey tinge.
Like Naivo, some roasters will categorize roast profiles as Filter, Espresso & Omni Roasts. Filter roasts are usually light- to medium-roasted coffees that are suitable for manual and filter brewing. Espresso roasts will be medium- to dark-roasted coffees that have higher solubility and flavours that suit espresso brewing. Omni-roasted coffees are those which are suitable for both manual- and espresso-brewing.
We recommend choosing coffees that suit the range of flavours that you prefer. If you like juicy, sharper coffees with exotic floral and fruit notes, go for light-roasted coffees. For balanced cups, go for medium roasts. For espressos with thick crema, great body, and chocolatey flavours, choose coffees that are roasted darker.
Click here to learn more about Naivo’s approach to roast profiles.
5. Pick Your Preferred Processing Method
Post-harvest processing also plays a large role in determining the flavour profile of coffees. Traditional, washed coffees exhibit more acidity and will carry the signature “coffee” flavour. These coffees are usually very consistent. They will suit those who are looking for a no-nonsense coffee that delights both the mind and senses.
Sun-dried coffees – often referred to as “naturals” will carry more exotic flavours due to their higher sugar content. There are several options for both aerobically- and anaerobically-processed naturals in the market. These will be perfect for those coffee adventurers who are on the lookout for new and exotic flavour notes.
Honey-Processed Coffees – They have balanced acidity and higher sugar content than washed coffees. These coffees are suitable if you are looking for unique flavour notes that do not disturb the overall balance in the cup. Red and Black honey coffees are ideal for those who want a coffee with higher sweetness but balanced acidity.
Depending on your preference, this is another piece of information that will help you select the right bag of coffee to purchase.
6. Choose Beans over Ground Coffee
We always recommend purchasing beans over ground coffee. This is for the simple reason that beans have a longer shelf life. The moment coffee is ground, the aromatics and a lot of the other good stuff begins getting released into the atmosphere.
Furthermore, who would want to deny themselves one of life’s greatest joys – the joy of grinding coffee fresh before brewing it?
However, grinders can be extremely expensive. If you prefer not to invest in one, look for the option to select grind size for your preferred brewing method. Most coffee roasters will offer you the option to select your preferred grind size when you buy coffee online.
Storing your coffee also plays a big role in maintaining the quality of coffee you have purchased. Most roasters will include a one-way valve on their bags. This allows gas to escape from the bag but doesn’t allow it to enter the bag. Oxygen, being detrimental to coffee quality is kept out of the bag in this way. To learn more about coffee storage, click here.
7. Buy the Right Amount of Coffee
This depends on your frequency of consumption. Are you someone who drinks three to five cups of coffee a day? In that case, we recommend you reduce the number of times you purchase coffee by buying a larger volume each time. However, if your consumption is lower, we suggest buying 250g of coffee (or any size variant close to this) each time. The goal is to make sure you are always brewing fresh coffee. By buying the right amount of coffee, you will always be consuming it within the time window that is recommended for best results.
8. Develop Your Own Understanding Of Flavour Notes
This is always a controversial topic to address as the art of flavour notes comes down to a balance between objectivity and subjectivity. Most roasters describe flavour notes on their packaging as a reference point to understand what to expect from a bag of coffee. Flavour notes are not “actual flavours”. They are reference notes used to describe how a coffee tastes. It is also important to remember that roasters describe flavour notes relative to other coffees present in a cupping session. For example, a Kenyan coffee might be more grapish (taste more like grapes) than an Ethiopian coffee cupped along with it. However, when brewed and consumed as a standalone coffee, the Kenyan lot might exhibit fruit notes but not anything grapish in particular.
As a customer, remember that floral notes along with citric fruits and berries generally describe brighter, higher acidity coffees. These will be juicy and typically low to balanced in body. Caramel, chocolate, and smokier notes will be heavier in their body with a long aftertaste. Coffees with notes of tropical fruits and nuts will be sweet and balanced. Again, this is my subjective view. But it is a framework you can use through which you can develop your own understanding of flavour notes.
9. Mindfully Navigate The Price Factor
Like it is the case for everything else in life, it is an undeniable fact that good coffee costs more than bad coffee. A lot of effort goes into curating and producing a bag of great-tasting coffee. These efforts logically translate into the higher cost.
However, it is only fair that a customer always pays for what is received. The best way to approach the price factor for a mindful coffee consumer is through experimentation. It is key to try coffees from different roasters at different price points. This way, you can find out for yourself which bag of coffee gives you the most satisfaction from an experiential and economic perspective.
For example, a unique coffee that hits all the sweet spots costing INR 600 for a quarter-kilo bag can make you feel much more satisfied than a good quality but not-so-impressive bag of coffee priced at INR 450. The art is in finding the balance and settling with what you are comfortable with. Shopping for coffee online will give you the opportunity to research a large number of brands and coffees before making a purchase decision.
Coffee is one of the most volatile commodities in the world when it comes to pricing. This article on the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on coffee pricing is a good example of how volatile coffee prices can be.
10. Steer Clear of Permanent Opinions
The final and most important point is to continuously forget opinions that you develop about coffee. This is perhaps the most important skill to ensure absolute enjoyment of great coffee. The coffee universe is infested with endless opinions and you might end up overwhelming yourself if you take down too many notes or develop too many opinions yourself. In addition to new brands offering new coffee experiences every day, roasters themselves are continuously working with producers and traders to identify new ways to push specialty coffee development to its limits.
By keeping these ten tips in mind, you can go out into any crowded marketplace – online or offline –and find yourself the ideal bag of coffee that will satisfy you. And remember, the art is to keep experimenting and never stop learning! Happy Brewing!
Some of the points made by the author in the above article were inspired by the video,