If you’re a serious coffee drinker, you know that not all beans are the same. Even the best brewing equipment can’t make up for low-quality coffee beans. But how do you sort through all the coffee out there and find that perfect bag?
The first step is to think about what you’re looking for. Do you simply want the best-tasting coffee? Are you looking to sample interesting, unique flavors, or do you want your coffee to be ethically sourced?
To help you find the best coffee, we’ve put together this guide on how to recognize great coffee beans and where to buy them. Read on, and get brewing!
What does great coffee look like?
There are two main types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. The highest-quality variety, Arabica, makes up most of the world’s coffee. Robusta beans, often found in blends, are lower-priced, more bitter, and have twice as much caffeine. If you’re looking for high-quality coffee, you’ll want to keep an eye out for 100% Arabica beans. You can read an in-depth description of all four types of beans here.
Coffee grows in the equatorial “Bean Belt” — the area between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer — spanning over 50 countries. Each area offers different coffee flavors, so if you’re interested in trying something new, look for coffee from countries other than Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia, the world’s biggest coffee producers. Brazil alone exported almost 6 billion pounds of coffee last year!
Just as important as where it’s grown is where (and when!) the coffee is roasted. Most exported coffee is shipped green, because as soon as it’s roasted, coffee begins to lose freshness through contact with oxygen. To minimize the time between roasting and brewing, find roasters near you or roasters that ship their coffee beans out quickly.
The most important factor in coffee flavor is how recently it was roasted. Many coffee bags have a roast date. Look for coffee roasted within the past one to two weeks for the freshest flavor.
Another freshness factor is whether you buy coffee ground or whole bean. You can’t beat the convenience of pre-ground coffee, but keep in mind that coffee beans begin to lose flavor as soon as they’re ground. For the most flavorful coffee, buy whole bean and grind it right before brewing. Don’t have a grinder? Check out our guide and pick one up! You can also use them at grocery stores and even big discount chains like Costco.
Have you ever noticed holes on the side of a coffee bag? That’s a one-way valve that lets carbon dioxide escape while keeping oxygen out. Look for vacuum-sealed bags with one-way valves for added freshness. Learn more about how to keep your coffee fresh here.
Does high quality mean ethically sourced to you? There are two different seals to look for. The Organic seal, certified by the USDA, means that the coffee is grown without chemical pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones. The Fair Trade seal, certified by the Fair Trade nonprofit, ensures that coffee growers are treated fairly and have good working conditions.
Where can I buy it?
Now that you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to get shopping! But with so many options, where should you start?
Buying coffee online is undeniably convenient. Click a button, and a bag of coffee shows up on your doorstep, just like magic!
A couple of our favorite roasters sell coffee directly online. For healthy, sustainable coffee, try Lifeboost’s impressive Nicaraguan beans (You can save 50%!). And if you want gourmet, roasted-on-demand beans, why not choose from Volcanica’s extensive selection?
RELATED READ: 12 Great Online Coffee Roasters
Looking for interesting coffee but don’t have time to shop? Coffee subscriptions are a great way to sample unique beans from different countries. They also make great gifts — even for yourself!
The range of options you’ll find in stores depends on where you live. If you live in or near a big city, chances are good that you’ll have plenty of great options. A bit farther afield? You may find a better selection online.
Have a favorite local coffee shop? Check if it roasts and sells its own beans. Most grocery stores also offer a good selection of coffee — just don’t forget to check the roast dates!
Bargain hunting? Costco offers whole bean coffee at discount prices online and in-store.
Time to start brewing!
You can’t go wrong if you look for freshly roasted, whole Arabica beans. Whether you join a coffee club, check out your local coffee shop, or buy directly from a coffee roaster, you’re sure to find amazing coffee.