If you are a pedestrian coffee drinker like I am, facing the decision of which beans to buy for home brewing can be daunting. There are too many brands and too many variables to make immediate sense of it all.
So I turned to my friends Joe Speicher & Mark Wickens of Ground to Grounds (www.groundtogrounds.com), a rad online coffee publication, to come and help me get a handle on where to start when choosing the best (for me) coffee beens.
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Step 1: Learn What You Like
There are only two types of commercial coffee beans available, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is grown in high altitudes and is known for it's smooth, slightly acidic taste. Robusta is grown in lower altitudes and is known for it's stronger, more bitter taste. From what I understand Arabica is considered a higher grade bean, but that again depends on how it is grown and treated on it's journey to the roaster, and doesn't necessarily guarantee a quality product. (As an example, Maxwell House instant coffee is 100% Arabica...) So unless you plan on becoming a connoisseur, I would suggest not worrying about the type of bean, and instead focus on finding a (local & ethical if possible) brand/roaster that looks after that for you and makes a quality bean that meets your caffeine content and taste bud needs.
How to determine what you like:
If you're like me, you want that first coffee of the day to be consistently delicious. Finding that dream cup will take some trial and error.
Since most coffee drinkers have been to a Starbucks at least once, an easy place to start is for me to ask if you like their house coffees. If the answer is no, then you are most likely going to want to be on the look out for a light colored and dry bean (as pictured on left). This is going to offer you a smoother taste, with different levels of acidity depending on how it was roasted without that classic Starbucks dark, bitter bite. If your answer to my question is yes, then chances are you are going to like a bean that has been roasted longer, which brings more oils to the surface of the bean giving it a dark and shiny appearance (as pictured on right) and a bold, bitter taste. It's worth figuring out that out to start and then you can delve into the subtleties within each of those groups to find 'the one(s)'.
Contrary to common sense,dark roasts actually have less caffeine than medium or light roasts - light roasts having the most of all three. Espresso beans tend to be in the medium roast realm, so if you are looking to maximize your caffeine intake that way, go for a medium-light roast. Medium-dark will offer fewer high kicks.
Step 2: Ground Vs. Whole Bean
If you prefer to buy pre-ground beans, another way to tell the difference between the dark/oily beans and light/dry ones other than color, if they're too close to tell by looking alone, is to test the consistency of the grounds. If when you tip the bag the grounds are sticking together and moving in crumbly clumps, then that's the dark/oily bean (as pictured on left). If when tipped, the grounds all run smoothly downhill as sand would, then that's the light/dry bean (that's them on the right).
Without a doubt the freshest and best tasting coffee is going to come from beans that were ground only moments before being used (for either espresso or drip coffee), so buying whole beans is highly recommended. But whichever choice you make, try and make sure that what you're getting is fresh. Fresh means that it hasn't been on the shelf for more than a week before going home with you. I would recommend asking for the best selling bean to start your taste testing, as that will undoubtably be the most replenished = freshest!
I would like to thank Joe & Mark from Ground to Grounds (www.groundtogrounds.com) once again for giving me the seeds of info I needed to start making better decisions for my morning brew!
Now go forth, explore your local roasters, and find your favorite!
For my Instructable on How to Pack an Espresso Shot, click here!