We loved every minute of our tour of the certified organic coffee plantation at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn in Costa Rica, but the best part came when the tour was over. That’s when we cornered our guide, Leonardo Vergnani, and picked his brain about how to buy coffee to ensure that you’re getting the best quality. After more than 25 years in the coffee business, Leo had a thing or two to say. We also tapped into Andy Newbom. He has recently shifted his focus to craft beer, opening Brew Revolution on El Tunco Beach in El Salvador. But before that he owned Barefoot Coffee in California and spent years traveling in Central America sourcing the best beans. Based on their expert knowledge, here are the top 10 tips for buying quality coffee.
1. Read the label
“Nowadays, choosing a good coffee is not an easy task,” Leo admits. But there are a lot of clues right there on the label that will help you sift through what’s on the shelves. Look for:
• 100% Arabica coffee and nothing else.
• High altitude or mountain grown, ideally above 3,000 feet (900 meters). These are coffees known as HB (Hard Bean) or SHB ( Strictly Hard Bean) and they’re most likely to remain whole during the roasting process to ensure a homogeneous and even roast. By their nature they hold better quality and quantity of natural sugars and have greater density for better roasting results. It all boils down to better flavor, color and aroma.
• Originating from a country known for quality coffee, but it has to be specific. “If the bag only says something like ‘Central American’ or ‘Colombian’ and nothing about the farm or region, put it down and walk away,” says Andy. “That’s like saying a wine is from ‘Europe’.”
• An expiration date.”If the bag does not have a ‘roasted on’ date within the past two weeks, don’t buy it,” says Andy.
2. Packaging matters
It doesn’t have to look pretty, but the composition of the bag your coffee comes in is important. Leo recommends laminated packaging made up of an oxo-biodegradable plastic inner layer and a paper outer layer. This type of packaging is nicer to the environment and better than a simple paper bag when it comes to ensuring freshness. The other main types of packaging–plastic and aluminum–are impossible to recycle. Avoid vacuum packed coffee altogether. The process of vacuum packing actually removes some of the essence of the beans.
3. Buy whole beans
Ground coffee provides a greater surface area that could be impacted by the three enemies of freshness (see tip #8). Also, it takes a higher density, higher quality bean to remain whole during the roasting process. Lower quality coffee beans grown in lower elevations often break and split during roasting.
4. All that glitters isn’t good
Coffee beans naturally release essential oils and natural sugars during roasting. As they flow toward the surface of the bean they create a shiny coating (the shinier the beans, the darker the roast). That sheen can be a sign of quality and freshness because old, stale coffee would look dull. However, sometimes coffee beans are over roasted (not a good thing) to make them shine. Over roasted coffee will shine but it will also taste burned, bitter and sour. A medium roasted high quality coffee will probably not shine much but the essential oils and natural sugar content are there in the core of the bean which is where it counts in the cup.
4. Don’t stock up
For freshness’ sake, Leo recommends buying enough coffee to last a week. “If we buy less coffee more often in proper packaging (see tip #2) from a reputable source we will always enjoy a better cup of coffee,” he says.
5. Look for freshness valves
Those little plastic air valves in some coffee bags are important. They preserve the quality of coffee because they allow excess gases built up during the roasting process to exit the package. Once the internal pressure of the package is equal to external pressure some gas remains in the package where it helps keep the coffee fresh. That’s why they’re called “freshness valves.”
6. Don’t trust your sniffer
One drawback of the freshness valve is the temptation to judge a coffee by the way it smells when you squeeze the bag and gasses come out of the valve. “Judging a coffee from its smell is only part of the experience,” says Leo. “It’s the combination of fragrance and flavor that determine quality. You can cover the smell of a pig by spraying perfume on it, but that’s certainly a waste of perfume.”
7. Expensive isn’t always better
However, Andy believes that any coffee under US$8 a pound will not be good quality.
8. Foil coffee’s three worst freshness enemies
“Humidity, exposure to air and sunlight are the worst enemies of coffee,” says Leo. Foil them by storing your coffee in its original packaging (you followed the advice in tip #5, right?) and seal it as tightly as possible. Once the package has been opened try to use the coffee as soon as possible (not a problem with Karen around). Never store your coffee in a clear glass container since that lets sunlight in.
Storing coffee in the freezer is a good idea if it takes you more than a week to get through your coffee because lower temperatures slow down the molecular activity of coffee and the quality is better preserved. Coffee will not freeze into a block because it holds no moisture. Warning: some people believe that the viscosity of the essential oils in coffee are affected by low temperatures and they say that when coffee beans from the freezer are ground the oils are more likely to adhere or stick to the blades or burrs of your grinder and not stay in the coffee.
9. Learn to spot the tricks
A common trick to make low-grade coffee look high-grade is to add sugar to the beans during roasting to produce a glossy, dark color. To see if your coffee was roasted with sugar put a teaspoon of ground beans into a glass of cold water. If the water quickly turns golden brown, your coffee was roasted with sugar.
10. Invest in the right tools
Andy recommends using a French press. “It’s nearly fool-proof, makes killer coffee and lets all the flavor shine through,” he says (we actually travel with an insulated, non-glass French press and we love it). Andy also recommends spending “at least $125” on a good grinder.
“Making coffee is actually simply extracting the soluble compounds from the beans evenly,” Andy says. To do that, you need to slice the coffee beans, not grind them into powder. That job is best left to something called a “burr grinder” which uses two or more plates to slowly slice (not chop or grind) the beans into finer and finer pieces that are as even as possible.
Still skeptical that a $125 (and up) burr grinder is really that much better than your $14.95 traditional grinder? Andy suggests you visit a reputable coffee bar and buy a top shelf coffee. Ask the staff to grind half the bag in their expensive burr grinder then grind the other half in your chopper cheapo grinder at home the same day. Now make separate batches of coffee from the two different grinds using the same brewing methods and amounts. He promises you will taste the difference.