When staring down a wall of jargon-strewn bags filled with small-batch coffee, it’s difficult to know where to start. There’s no harm in grabbing whatever seems most interesting, but isolating certain details — such as roast date and country of origin — can give you a better sense of what you’re buying, and the kind of coffee you’ll ultimately brew from it. Thomas Costello, formerly of Counter Culture Coffee, a North Carolina–based roastery that heralded coffee’s third wave in 1995, outlined three pieces of information to look for on a bag of coffee beans that are most often reflective of quality.
Keep It Fresh
"Look for something that’s [been roasted] at least within the month, if not within the week," Costello said. Coffee takes 48–72 hours to de-gas, or settle, after roasting. Consume coffee too close to the roast date, and you’ll end up with an uneven extraction; wait more than a few weeks, and the beans will have released too much carbon dioxide, setting them past peak freshness.
Packaging contributes to freshness, as well. Counter Culture’s beans are packaged in non-porous Biotré bags with a one-way valve, preventing air from passing through but allowing carbon dioxide to escape during de-gassing. Look for a resealable container, whether a zip closure, twist-tie or tin.
Look to the Source
"Just like when you’re looking for a bottle of wine. You’re going to look for tasting notes, especially if you have an idea of whether you like fruity coffees or really chocolate-y coffees, sweet coffees or something with a little more acid to it. Usually, [tasting notes are] something that an expert coffee taster has analyzed and tested and decided that that’s how the coffee [in the bag] is best described," Costello said.
More often than not, flavor and country of origin go hand in hand. As a general rule, Kenyan coffees skew savory, Colombian coffees have chocolate-like notes, and Ethiopian coffees tend to be fruity. Sampling single-origin coffees is the best way to understand and appreciate regional differences among beans.
Check That “Fair Trade” Is Really Fair
"Everybody has a direct-trade story. Very often, it’s written on the bag, but it's good to not take that at face value," Costello said. "There's a lot of greenwashing, like claiming some amount of sustainable purchasing practices without following it up. It’s like saying ‘free-range eggs' — that can mean a lot of different things." He recommends taking to the roaster’s website, searching for evidence that the company is supporting its producers — that there’s an effort being made to pay farmers more money for their crops or to improve farming practices in one way or another.