How to Buy the Best Coffee Beans for Your Specialty Coffee System

Coffee 101 – Part 1

Using low-quality coffee beans in a premium coffee system is like putting regular gas in a Maserati: it will work, but it would be doing a disservice to the machine. To produce the ideal espresso, Americano, latte or cappuccino, specialty coffee makers need Specialty Coffee beans.

What’s so Special about Specialty Coffee?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America defines Specialty Coffee as the highest grade of Arabica coffee, scoring a minimum of 80 out of 100 points on a standardized system by a certified Q-Grader.

But Why Arabica?

Only the Arabica coffee species has the incredible aromatic and flavour potential for great coffee. Like fine wines, they are able to express a sense of place. And under expert coffee roasting, the beans develop a complex and balanced taste with crystal-clear origin characteristics.

A note of caution: Many fast-food chains advertise their coffee as being made from “100% Arabica”. But this doesn’t make them high quality – it just means that there is none of the other coffee bean species, Robusta, blended in. The coffee can still be of varying quality.

Where Do Arabica Beans Come From?

Specialty Coffee originates in three primary growing regions, each with distinctive characteristics to experience.

  • In the Americas, Guatemala is known for medium acidity, with chocolate and subtle fruit flavours.
  • In Africa, Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee) is known for tealike or blueberry aromatics depending on the processing.
  • In Indonesia, Sumatra is known for its syrupy body and pungent, earthy notes.

What’s the Difference between Single Origin Coffees and Blends?

Single origin coffees, as the name implies, come directly from one specific location, while blends are created by mixing two or more single origin coffees to create the desired taste.

A single origin coffee can be from a co-op, a farm, or even micro-lot within a farm and is usually sold by its location name, like the Gichichi Kenya, El Injerto Guatemala, or Carmo Estate Brazil Cold Brew from JJ Bean.

As coffee is a seasonal crop, blends are created by coffee companies to offer consistent flavor year-round. Coffee roasters also use blends to maintain complexity and balance in coffees that are designed for espresso. Each company has a distinctive name for their blends, like JJ Bean’s Eastside, Espresso JJ, or Railtown.

What Determines Coffee Quality?

When coffee connoisseurs discuss what makes a good coffee bean, they consider three factors:

  • Varietal refers to the type of bean, each with inherent flavour possibilities that develop based on the terroir.
  • Terroir refers to the complete natural environment in which the coffee is produced, including soil and climate. The most important factor, however, is elevation: bean density increases with elevation, and denser beans have more sugar, acidity, and complex aromatics compared to softer beans from lower elevation. The ideal elevation for growing coffee is between 1200m-1850m – about twice the height of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
  • Processing refers to the method of converting the fruit to green coffee that’s ready for roasting. The most common processes are washed (clean, pronounced acidity), semi-washed (rustic, less acidity), and natural (fruit, ferment).

These aspects are what establish a Specialty Coffee’s “sense of place”.

What’s the Importance of a Good Roast?

Every coffee is unique and requires special attention when roasting to coax out their inherent origin flavours and harmonize their levels of sweetness and acidity. The best roasters maximize complexity and balance in coffee beans, without diminishing origin characteristics.

When Should I Buy My Beans?

Coffee generally tastes best 2-7 days after roasting, so think of it like produce and buy just enough for your week. But you can help your beans taste great by storing them in an airtight container in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight. After roasting, no amount of voodoo can prevent coffee from losing its vibrant freshness and going stale within 10-14 days. Don’t jump the gun either: brewing on the same day as roasting results in an overly fresh cup, lacking complexity or nuance.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

You’ve probably realized by now that brewing a good cup of coffee can be as interesting and complex as finding and enjoying a great bottle of wine. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of our Coffee Series. If you're looking for

With information provided by JJ Bean Coffee Roasters, one of the few companies in Canada to have a certified coffee Q-Grader on staff.