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Coffee Labels: Judging Coffee by What's on Its Cover

Updated: May 4, 2021

How do you typically pick out your coffee? By the label? Or roast? Origin, varitale, flavor notes, fair trade...the list goes on.

Ever wonder...

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Origin is the country the coffee comes from. “Single origin” means exactly what it sounds like—the coffee comes from a single producer, crop, or region in one country. Coffees that are not single origin are typically blends. Origin can refer to any number of the coffee-producing countries along the equator, also known as the Coffee Belt (or how we refer to it: Inner Loop), such as Indonesia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Costa Rica, Brazil, and even Hawaii.

  • Blend. This one is a bit self-explanatory too. Many roasters will mix beans of various roasting levels in order to offer a custom flavor profile that is more complex and unique than what can be found in a single origin roast.

  • Varitale is the type of plant the bean comes from. The two primary ones are Arabica (the most common) or Robusto.

  • Roast level. These can range from a light golden brown to dark, and the time roasted can greatly affect the coffee’s aroma, flavor, and color when brewed. Although there’s a more detailed scale from light to dark, coffees are usually labeled as simply light, medium, or dark. Typically, lighter roasts are more acidic and/or floral tasting whereas darker roasts bring out more bitter, earthy compounds, such as chocolate or molasses. If you’re all about the caffeine game, check out this Medium article written by a coffee scientist that concluded lighter roasts have just as much caffeine as dark roasts.

  • Altitude. Coffee trees grow best in mountainous regions. The higher the altitude where the plant is growing, the slower it grows, making it more concentrated and intensifying the flavor. Typically, the higher the altitude the better quality of beans.

  • Tasting Notes. Similar to wine (you’ll see that comparison a lot) some people can identify flavor notes in coffee, while some can’t. That’s okay. The main thing to look for is a balance between sweetness, bitterness, and sourness. Like wine, you may find that you prefer coffees from particular regions like Africa (fruity or floral) or South America (chocolate or caramel) because of the standard flavors pronounced in their beans.

  • Certifications. Coffee labels may contain different sustainability certifications that are granted to coffee roasters by different inspection and sustainability authorities such as UTZ (for sustainable farming), Organic, Rainforest Alliance, Fair trade, Bird Friendly, or Shade Grown.

We’ll dive even deeper into some of these areas in future blog posts.

Phew. Okay. You still with us? Good.

To simplify this a bit more, look at coffees that are roasted medium to dark for more traditional coffee flavors and that have flavor notes like chocolate, stone fruits or other earthy notes. Want something light and fruity or floral? Go for a lighter roast with tasting notes of berries and/or flowers.

A common question or misconception we hear is whether there is a difference in the coffee beans used for espresso versus drip? The short answer is no. It all comes down to the roast level as well as the grind of the bean. Espresso uses a finer grind level whereas drip is a coarser grind. A darker roast is most frequently used for espresso. (Inner Loop will grind your order to your specifications).

Try a variety and see if you notice a trend in the origins, roasts, or tasting notes you like best. Most likely, you’ll start to see that you have more of a preference than you previously realized. And if you just want to choose your coffee based on the label design (like we do for wine), that works, too!

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