How to Buy Coffee
WRITTEN BY: Devorah Freudiger
I’ve worked in coffee for my entire adult life yet I still agonize over picking coffees to buy. Purchasing from a cafe is easy: I tell the barista what I’ve been drinking and they suggest a similar coffee or something they think I’ll enjoy even more. But when it comes to shopping for coffee online or picking up something new when I'm out grocery shopping I get easily overwhelmed. What if I pick something I don’t like and my family has to deal with me under caffeinated? To save my loved ones the trouble, I’ve found three criteria that my favorite coffees have in common: ethical sourcing, objectively high quality and flavors that suit my palette.
I believe that my purchase matters especially with goods like coffee, laden with its own legacy of exploitation and colonialism, and the supply chain from which it is produced. The reality is that coffee sourcing can either be an act of empowerment for farmers or an inequitable process that may keep their families and communities impoverished. If I’m buying directly from a roaster online or in a cafe, I look for the details about their relationships with the people growing their coffee. If they specify the price paid to the farmer or the number of years they have been purchasing from a group, I trust that they are supporting the people along their supply chain as actual partners. Third party certifications can contextualize this process a bit clearer. Fair Trade, the most well known, sets standards for price of the raw product and guidelines for equitable business practices. B Corp certification takes this even further by grading individual companies’ positive economic, social and environmental impact. All of this information that can infer the ethics upon a given coffee is sourced, roasted and sold.
There are telltale features I look for on coffee packaging to assess the quality of the product within, the first being a simple valve. A valve will help keep coffee from showing its age too quickly by preventing oxygen from degrading the beans over time. I like to see farm or cooperative names listed on single origin coffees and regions listed on blends to better understand the relationship between the roasters and the coffee growers. Details about variety, processing method and altitude, either on a bag or in product descriptions, are good general indicators that the roaster possesses a depth of knowledge, not just about this specific coffee but coffee in general. Finally, I check for a “roasted on” date, rather than an expiration date so I can be sure I’m enjoying my coffee fresh.
Finding a coffee to suit your taste can be tricky. It’s helpful to take note of coffees you’ve enjoyed in the past, especially if you want to try unfamiliar origins and roasters. Look out for words or terms on the bags of those enjoyable coffees whether they be flavor notes, origin country or processing to help define your tastes and preferences. If you’re looking for something new, I’d encourage you to pay closer attention to those terms rather than roast level, which tends to be less descriptive to the actual taste of a given coffee and can keep you from trying coffees you might love if judged by that alone.
Coffee is a very personal beverage and finding coffee to suit your taste is an evolving journey of flavor exploration. I know coffee purchases can be daunting but I hope that with the suggestions listed above you feel empowered to try something new and play with your coffee selection. Have fun with trying new things and don’t be afraid to explore.