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Sat Jan 19, 2013, 01:55 PM

Coffee 104: Coffee beans

It's been a while since my last installment in the coffee series. I wanted to speak to the other subjects first before I started discussing beans, because at least that will give some reference or at least some hints on what to do with these great coffee beans you're going to run out and buy after reading this. The rest of them may be found here:

Coffee 101: Brewing devices
Coffee 102: Grinders
Coffee 103: Water

The objective of this post is to perhaps teach some of you a bit about coffee beans so you may make informed decisions when it comes time to buy and so you can get the most out of your coffee experience. This post covers a lot of different subjects, so rather than just ramble on, I've divided it up into specific topics. I'm really just touching on these topics rather than going into each one in painstaking depth.

Coffee "Beans"
Coffee beans aren't really beans at all. They are actually the seed from the fruit of a coffee plant. This fruit must be processed to remove the seeds and this is generally done either on the coffee plantation or nearby. From there the "green" coffee beans (seeds) will go through a supply chain network until they reach the roaster, at which point they will be roasted and will go through another supply chain network before you ultimately buy it. I'm not going to discuss the first part of that here other than to say it is possible and quite economical to roast your own coffee at home. Most people are going to buy their coffee already roasted, and hopefully if you read Coffee 102 you'll understand the importance of buying whole bean coffee.

Coffee Bean Origin
Coffee generally grows only in the tropics and generally at higher altitudes. Most commercial coffee is usually a blend of coffees from different places to achieve a consistent flavor year to year. Single origin coffee comes from one country, and usually one coffee plantation or a co-op of plantations in the same area. Different soils and climates will produce different results, but perhaps the biggest difference comes from what altitude the coffee was grown. This link explains the altitude effect on coffee and can be used as a guide to select what you might prefer if you are looking into single origin coffees.

Light Roast or Dark?
When coffee is roasted the sugars inside the coffee will start to caramelize and essential oils will start releasing. Coffee roasters usually categorize their roasts into several different levels rather than just light or dark. The names of these roasting levels vary somewhat from roaster to roaster, but a good explanation can be found here which describes the most common terms in use. The lightest roasts will have no visible oil present on the beans. The darkest roasts will be very oily. Everything else falls somewhere in between. With lighter roasts, you are tasting more of the character of the bean itself. With darker roasts, you are tasting more of the character of the roast. Darker roasts remove some of the acidity in coffee, so if you have problems with stomach acid and have problems drinking lighter roasts, you might want to try darker roasts.

Freshness and Storage
One of the best things you can do to improve the quality of your coffee is to buy freshly roasted beans. Green coffee will keep for a year or two, but once coffee has been roasted you have a small window of opportunity to get the most flavor that coffee bean has to offer. I take coffee freshness very seriously. I generally will not buy coffee unless I am reasonably sure it was roasted within a few days of when I receive it. The coffee you buy at the grocery store, Starbucks, doughnut houses, etc. is a big unknown. They keep their coffee until they sell it, so there's just no telling when it was roasted. I almost exclusively buy coffee directly from the roaster. There are a number of high quality mail order roasters that will ship within a day or two of roasting so that's my preferred method. Many large cities will have a really good coffee roaster in town. Some coffee houses have their own roasters. Some Costco stores have a roaster. After the coffee is roasted, it should be bagged and sealed soon after it cools. The bag should have a one way air valve to allow the roasted coffee to de-gas. Roasted coffee will de-gas for a few days, at which point it will be at the optimum flavor point. So mail order is not a bad way to go since by the time you get the coffee it will be very close to its prime.

When you get the coffee, it should be stored in an air-tight container, preferably opaque. The bag the coffee came in is usually not a good storage option after it has been opened unless it has a ziplock type sealing device. I keep my coffee in a opaque canister jar with a rubber seal and clamp. Any coffee I don't plan on using within 1-2 weeks goes into vacuum sealed bags in the freezer parceled out into 1-2 week supplies. I don't recommend freezing as an option for long term storage. Freezing buys you a bit more time for freshness, but this has its limits. I never buy more coffee than I plan on using in 2 months.

Recommendations on where to buy roasted coffee online
I have a few online roasters that I regularly buy from, but I also like to look for something new from time to time and when doing so I always consult the roaster recommendations at Home Barista. It's hard to go wrong with any of these roasters and if you're lucky you might find one nearby so you don't have to pay shipping costs.

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