HOW TO READ A COFFEE LABEL & UNDERSTANDING KEY INFORMATION.
We talk about quality and flavor rather frequently. Many different variables contribute to both. Most of which happen before the roast process: the climate, soil, and altitude in which the coffee is grown, the amount of rainfall, the amount of shade, the presence of animals or coffee diseases, and the post-harvest processing method’s. Then of course the length of time in which the “green” coffee is roasted.
Wether it’s Bauer’s Brew or any Specialty Coffee brand (we hope) - there are some consistent terms you’ll come across during the buying process. All of which will give you a window into what the flavor and quality will be like. Understanding what these terms mean will help you make a more informed decision and lead you to the correct type of coffee you’re looking for. This blog post is not intended for the already coffee connoisseur and will not go into extensive detail. Rather we'll be discussing the basics and leave the journey down the rabbit hole to you.
So... lets discuss what you typically see on our labels.
SPECIES & VARIETY
- Kingdom: Plantae
- Family: Rubiaceae
- Genus: Coffea
- Species: C. Arabica
- Variety: ex: Bourbon
The coffee we all know, drink, and love - is the seed (but commonly, and falsely referred to as a bean) located inside the fruits that grow on the Coffea plant. There are hundreds of species of Coffea, and thousands of varieties that branch off (pun intended) from those species. Think of it like Apples. In general; apples are apples; but not all apples are equal - depending on the variety or “version” - the look, color, taste, and more - are different. So, when it comes to coffee, the 2 main species we’re familiar with are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (Robusta) - we’re going to focus on Arabica because that is the main species of coffee Bauer’s Brew and most high quality coffee companies deal with. Arabica Coffee is a general term for the species; from that point, there are different “types”, (think apples again, ‘Granny Smith’ / ‘Fuji’ / ‘Gala’). On our labels and descriptions of roasts and cold brew - you will see the coffee variety that is used - such as, ‘Bourbon’, ‘Typica’, ‘Pacamara’, ‘Caturra’, ‘Catuai’, and so on…. This is one of the most important terms to understand, because again (like apples), these “versions” differ vastly (and most importantly) in taste. Becoming familiar with coffee varieties over time and how they differ - is a good thing to know.
In order to gain more points to reach that 80 point or above (specialty) grade - one variable that can be controlled by producers is the treatment of the coffee once it is picked. One way or another, you’ve got to get that fruit off the bean somehow - this is where different methods of post-harvest processing begins. A crucial step that is reflected in the final cup you taste. *We’re going to describe these 3 methods in general terms. Because if you couldn’t tell by now - coffee is super complex and at the mercy of numerous factors and resources. Especially dependent on the farmers location, knowledge and history. Like we always say - coffee is an art, not a commodity. The post-harvest method is one of the paint brushes. Different processing techniques, beyond these 3, are emerging and undergoing a revolutionizing change in the industry Especially fermentation techniques. Still, we’re going to stick with the 3 standard methods and not branch off with nerdiness.
Sometimes referred to as “wet process”. In general, this involves removing the fruit and mucilage surrounding the seed, typically within 24 hours, and before it is set out to dry. Why does this matter? The overall flavor profiles you get from this method include: clarity, clean, bright acidity, crisp, articulate tasting notes.
Sometimes referred to as “dry process”. Relatively speaking - it’s sort of the opposite of the washed process. Instead of removing the fruit from the seed quickly before drying - the fruit is left intact and set out to dry still whole. Why does this matter? The overall flavor profiles you get from this method include: fruity, wine, boozy, deeply complex tasting notes.
No, it does not involve actual honey unfortunately. This process gets its name due to the look it has. The sticky, gooey, substance known as “mucilage” is left on the bean and set out to dry. The fruit is partially, or totally removed, but the protective, honey looking layer stays. Think of it as sort of a combination of washed & natural process. Why does this matter? The overall flavor profiles you get from this method include: jammy, caramel, sweetness, fruit forward tasting notes.
METERS ABOVE SEA LEVEL (MASL)
The elevations the coffee is grown. For Arabica - generally starting at 1000m. (Robusta can grow below 1000m - a key difference between the 2 species.) Higher elevations are associated with sweeter, more complex coffee flavors, but it’s actually correlation, not causation. The real cause of this due to temperature.
At lower temperatures, coffee trees will grow more slowly. The cherries that contain the seeds we roast and call coffee beans will also ripen more gradually. This means they have more time to develop complex flavors. There are downsides to this: coffee trees can yield less fruit, require more care, and harvest later in the year. Coffee shouldn’t be grown in too warm a climate, but neither should it be grown in one that’s too cold. That is why coffee can only be grown in certain parts of the world - look up the “bean belt”. Understanding the MASL and its correlation to flavor is helpful knowledge.
*It’s important to note (pun intended again), the flavor descriptions you see on labels are generalized indications on what WE tasted. Everyone’s senses are different and YOU can perceive a coffee slightly different. However, it’s more likely than not, you’ll taste notes within the ballpark of what we put. This information is one of the more important things you read on the label because most of the work is done for you - and you can have a general idea on what the flavor will be like. All of the coffee we buy goes through a rigorous "cupping" (tasting) process to ensure accurate descriptions.
The information most are familiar with. But what does it mean exactly? The roast level has a major influence on flavor. It also has an influence on how it will brew hot, caffeine %, storage (degassing), and more. There are many different roast levels and alternate names, but again, we wont bombard you with too much. We'll stick with the standard types. Some head roasters may have a slightly different definition of each type of roast. Universal language like the "crack" times were established to keep some sort of baseline for everyone. During the process of roasting coffee you will hear popcorn like noises (expansion and moisture release in the bean) - these cracking stages are generally used as the baseline for roast levels. However, things like technique, temperature and timing play a role in this - and more importantly the style and type of roasting machine they use. Not all "medium" roasts are created equal for example. We bet if you were to buy a "medium roast" from some brand at Costco - it will look like charcoal hahaha. Budget, non-specialty brands, typically roast so dark (and gross) in order to dull out and hide the true origin flavors because it was grown terribly and won't taste pleasing in any way (still doesn't though). Anyway, here is what we mean by certain roast levels:
Are roasted for the least amount of time. Lightly roasted beans generally reach an internal temperature of 356°F – 401°F, right after the first crack occurs. These beans tend to not have the oils on them because they haven’t been roasted at a high enough temperature. The longer a bean is roasted the more the heat pulls out the caffeine and the acidity. This means light roasts have the most caffeine (by volume) and the most acidity. Light roasts can have a different taste profile because the shortened roasting process prevents some chemical changes from occurring inside the bean. Origin flavors of the bean are more recognizable in light roasts since the flavors that come from the roasting process often aren’t prominent. We often recommend trying to drink light roasts black, nothing added. So you can get a real glimpse into the intrinsic flavors of that coffee.
Medium Roasts reach internal temperatures of 410°F-428°F. This is after the first crack and just before the second one occurs. They have a little bit more body than a light roast and less acidity. Medium roasts are what the average American coffee drinker is used to. These roasts are considered to have balanced flavors. The acidity and body of a medium roast can vary but are usually somewhere in the middle. Some examples of medium roasts are House blend, Breakfast roast, and American Roast.
Beans roasted to medium-dark reach an internal temperature of 437°F – 446°F. This is during or just after the second crack. This roast will also start showing the oils on the beans’ surface because the temperatures are high enough. These roasts have a richer, fuller flavor, more body, and less acidity. Vienna Roast and Full-City Roast are some examples of a medium-dark roast coffee blend.
The roasting temperature for a dark roast is between 464°F – 482°F and well after the second crack. There are visible oils on dark roast beans. Typically you cannot taste any origin flavors, just the effects the roasting process has on that type of coffee bean. Dark roasts have sweeter flavors because the sugars in the coffee beans have time to caramelize. The longer roasting process helps it to develop a richer flavor and full body, which often leads to it having a buttery finish. They also have the least acidity of all coffee roasts. Dark roasts have the least amount of caffeine because they’re roasted the longest and some burns off. (Shocking - we know. Many associate dark roasts *and espresso* with more caffeine.) French roast is considered the darkest roast and has a pronounced smoky flavor. If coffee beans are roasted longer than a French roast (482°F), the oils and sugars in the bean will burn. Dark roasts often have European names because of the popularity of dark roasts in Europe, such as Italian roasts
The roast and the roaster, is a major paint brush when referring to our motto; "coffee is an art, not a commodity." Roasting coffee correctly, and bringing out the flavors that were meant to be, is not any easy task. When you taste Bauer's Brew - just know that a lot of work went into bringing that joyful cup to you.