What's on my coffee bag, and why does it matter?
Bought a new bag of coffee and unsure where to start as far as an espresso recipe goes? Did you know that the information on your coffee bag not only tells you what to expect from the coffee but can teach you to be a better barista? From tasting notes to roast dates, we’ll uncover the secret code to that perfect recipe.
Arguably the most critical piece of information to find on your bag - the roast date. Depending on your roaster, you might find this on the bottom, side, or front of the bag. But make sure it’s there! Ideally, you’re aiming to buy a coffee that is five to ten days off roast.
Once a coffee is roasted, it begins to release carbon dioxide gas that was generated during the roasting process and remains inside the cell structure of the bean. This gas is released slowly over time and when water is introduced to coffee. To a shot of espresso, this is your crema. The older your coffee is, the more time it’s had to release co2 - and therefore, it will leave you with a shot of espresso with little to no crema and brew times that lead to watery, bland tasting shots. Be sure to buy coffee that is under ten days old.
To help fight against aging coffee as you work through the bag, you’ll need to grind finer to help the water pull any remaining flavor from the coffee into your shot. You’ll also want to keep it away from oxygen, whether that is tightly kept in its original bag or in an air-tight container.
Don’t throw out an old coffee just because of an old roast date. Try grinding finer first, if that doesn’t work, use it for other brew methods that are less dependent on the age of coffee.
Roast levels are unregulated, and there isn’t an industry standard as to what makes a certain roast profile light or dark. However, roast level drastically changes the density of the bean, how it will extract, and how you will need to adjust your recipe. The longer a coffee is roasted, the more moisture and structure is removed. As the barista, you’ll want to focus on your brew temperature, grind size, and water to coffee ratio as it pertains to roast level.
Since lighter roasted coffee beans spend less time in a coffee roaster, they are denser and need hotter water, finer grinds, and longer brew times. We recommend starting with a ratio between 1:2-1:3, a brew temperature between 200-205, and a grind size that allows your shot to pull between 28-34 seconds.
For medium roasts, we recommend starting a ratio between 1:1.5-1:2.5, a brew temperature around 200, and a grind size that allows your shot to pull between 25-30 seconds.
For dark roasts, we suggest starting with a ratio between 1:1-1:1.5, a brew temperature between 195-200, and a grind size that allows your shot to pull between 25-30 seconds. Just because a coffee bag says “dark roast” does not guarantee it needs these specifications, but it’s a good place to start.
Region and Elevation
Often a coffee will be named after its growing region. The tasting notes will be reflective of its origin. The three main growing regions are South and Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, which all run along the equator. Coffee plants need rich soil, mild temperature, frequent rain, shaded sun, and high elevation to develop fully.
The best coffees are typically grown between 2,000-6,000 feet above sea level. This is because higher elevations have less oxygen, which slows the development of the cherry. The longer it takes for the coffee to mature, the more complex sugars and flavors it will have. When coffee bags show the elevation in which the coffee was grown, it’s just indicating how intense and apparent the flavors’ notes may be.
If you see a coffee bag that says “chocolate, caramel, or blueberries,” these are notes that should come from the coffee when brewed properly and are not added to the beans. Pulling a shot of espresso and being able to taste specific notes takes a lot of work. You’re working against the natural bitterness and intensity in coffee but if it was roasted well, you should be able to use your recipe guidelines previously mentioned to work in its favor.
Blend or Single Origin
When choosing a coffee for espresso, pay attention to whether you’re buying a blend or a single-origin. A single-origin coffee means that all the beans came from the same region or the same farm. A blend can be from multiple regions and farms. Blends are made by the coffee roaster who carefully chooses the coffee and how to roast them. Do not feel tied down to seeking an espresso blend. However, these can be a great place to start when you’re new to drinking coffee. Espresso blends mean that a coffee roaster has curated these specific coffees to be used for espresso— it’s usually a safe bet! Blends are great for milk-based espresso drinks as they are balanced and can complement your milk of choice. Single-origins typically shine as straight espresso or Americanos where their tasting notes can stand out.
Processing is the last stage coffee goes through at its origin until it’s shipped to be roasted. How the coffee bean is removed from its fruit has a significant impact on the flavor of the coffee. The most common methods are washed process and natural process. The natural process is the original way which involves leaving the coffee seed in its fruit under the sun for several weeks until the fruit dries up. These coffees are the most fruity and flavorful coffees you’ll find and are typically done in regions that already produce fruity characteristics like African coffees. Washed process is the most common because it’s the fastest and least labor-intensive. This is the use of water to remove the beans from the coffee cherries. Coffees that have been washed are more mellow and balanced.
That's a wrap
Next time you’re searching for a new and exciting coffee to try, take a little time to read and digest everything on the bag. With our tips and a clearer understanding of the qualities to look for, you’ll be pulling excellent shots at home as the roaster intended. From roast levels to the growing regions, apply your new knowledge to explore the world of coffee and enjoy the delicious process.
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