Have you ever picked up a bag of coffee just to be overwhelmed by the amount of seemingly arbitrary information on the label? Process, variety, elevation, region, origin, taste notes, flavor profile are all common and often accompanied by even more information! Like the vast world of wine, it’s difficult to know what is important to know and what is just information vomit.
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of including unnecessary information on a bag, but there are primary categories that will inform you on how the coffee will taste! Let’s take a look at what these are.
Really, all we need to know is what a coffee tastes like, and this is the obvious place to start. Unfortunately, taste is subjective and can shift wildly depending on how the coffee is brewed, the quality of the gear and the water used to brew. There also needs to be a fair level of trust between the customer and roaster. Some coffee descriptors are hyper specific and are only detectable while cupping (industry evaluation tasting) and don’t translate well in a drip brew.
I personally like generic taste notes to allow more accessibility and let the consumer decide what they are tasting. It paints a broader and usually more accurate portrait of what the cup will taste like when brewing at home.
I recommend reading taste notes through a lens of what they mean. For example, if you see Honey, Vanilla, Sugar, Peach, Strawberry, then you can infer that the coffee will be Sweet. These descriptors are usually more accurate and tastable in the cup.
If you read, lemon, floral, honeysuckle, cardamom or bergamot, you can assume the coffee is highly Aromatic, yet Delicate and Bright. These coffees can be really special when brewed well, but typically are much less prominent when brewing at home unless you have a really nice brew gear and a well practiced brew recipe.
If you see descriptors such as rich, heavy, or syrupy, then you can assume the coffee has thick texture or lots of Body.
We could go on and on about flavor descriptors, but the point is to read past the specifics and look for what they are trying to communicate.
Process is perhaps one of the most helpful “silent” descriptors. Process refers to how the coffee was handled from berry to raw, green coffee. There are infinite possibilities with process, but it can be summed up to 3 main categories: Washed, Semi-Washed and Natural.
After the berries are harvested, the coffee is then depulped (or pitted), then transferred into large tanks full of water. From here, the coffees are scrubbed (washed) to remove the mucilage surrounding the coffee seed. This process can be repeated or done in different styles, but that’s the gist! From there, the coffee is fermented either in or out water.
Washed coffees are among the most prominent in the specialty industry and are the most familiar because they are clean, articulate and delicious! They tend to have that classic caramel-like flavor, lots of balance and a clean/bright aftertaste.
Check out our Kiluku, which is our currently featured washed coffee.
Semi-Washed or Honey
Semi-washed may appear with alternative names such as Honey or Pulpled-natural. While Honey and Pulpled-naturals are unique in their own right, but the point is that all these processing styles fall somewhere between washed and Natural (more on natural soon).
Like washed coffees, they are depulped after harvest, but they are not submerged in water and scrubbed, rather are left to ferment in the mucilage that has extra juices and sugars from the fruit. When the coffee is drying, the mucilage becomes super sticky hence the name Honey. Semi-washed usually implies the closest to washed while pulped-natural is closest to Natural.
These coffees typically have all the goods that washed coffees do, yet have added complex-candied sweetness and body. A well done Honey process is my Holy Grail in the coffee world, and no one does it better than Costa Rica. Some drawbacks can be lack of clarity and cleanness in the finish.
These processes are also great because they save on water and are much better for the environment, but they are tricky to process and somewhat risky, which is why they are less common and often expensive.
Unlike Washed or Semi-Washed coffees, Naturals are not depulped. Rather, they are picked from the tree, and left to ferment and dry inside the berries. After the coffee has done it’s thing, then the fruit is removed from the seed.
Naturally processed coffees are wild, complex and jam-packed with flavor, but can sometimes be funky or fermenty and not really taste like coffee as you might recognize it. Think candy-like sweetness and a lot of texture. If you’re into adventure, naturals are for you. Like Honey processed coffees, Naturals also save on water and share the same risks we discussed.
Check out our Tega & Tula as our featured Natural
Not to be mistaken by Region, Origin refers to the country the coffee comes from. Certain countries have somewhat of a signature flavor, yet we are seeing more deviation with new processing methods and more know-how. However, some countries are known for certain flavors. Let’s look at a few Countries where this is most true.
Bright, Acidic, Sweet, Floral, Clean, Tropical fruits
Kenya Bright, Acidic, Juicy, Dark-rich fruits, Thick texture
Thick, Juicy, Sweet, Savory, Bell Pepper, Complex
Nutty, Earthy, Lower Acidity, Medium Texture, Familiar
Balanced, Caramel, Fruits, Graham Cracker, Clean
Very Complex, Clean, Sweet, Bright, Balanced
Obviously, I left out some major producing countries, but you can usually associate their flavors based on proximity to the ones I mentioned.
Of course, there are many other factors that make a coffee taste the way it does; Variety, Elevation, Soil, Region, Harvest and so on. But, this information doesn’t come with rules as to how they affect flavor, and therefore, are unhelpful when buying coffee. Unfortunately, facts such as High-Elevation or Shade-grown have been associated with quality, when there are amazing low-grown and non-shade-grown coffees that have their own uniqueness from their micro-climates.
Next time you are buying coffee that you have never tried before, focus on these categories to get the most informed buying information. Happy Shopping!