By James Gallagher for Steampunk Coffee
Bags of speciality coffee and online descriptions of coffee can contain a lot of jargon. You may be looking at a coffee and wonder: what does all of the information on the label mean?
The information on a coffee label serves two main purposes: to show you the origins of the coffee and to help you make a more informed decision about the coffee you are buying. There is no need to feel intimidated when you read words like "variety" or "process" on the label. To help you understand these words, I have written a short guide on how to read a coffee label. I am using the label from Steampunk's Ethiopian Bale Mountain coffee as a reference. Let's get started.
Coffee labels usually tell you the location where the coffee was grown. I love reading this part of a label because I sometimes start to think about how amazing it is I can drink coffee from the exotic locations written on labels. This morning I had a Kenyan coffee that was roasted in Scotland.
You will see a few pieces of information about location, including:
- Farm name (if applicable)
- Region / district / subgroup
The farm name only appears on coffees that are from a single farm. Some coffees are mixtures of coffees from multiple farms so they usually name the region from which the coffee was sourced rather than a particular farm.
Example: West Arsi, Oromia. This represents the West Arsi zone of the Oromia region in Ethiopia, seen on the Steampunk Bale Mountain coffee label.
The altitude at which a coffee is grown can influence the taste of the beans. Coffees grown at higher altitudes tend to be fruitier and more acidic. Coffees grown at lower altitudes usually taste a bit more chocolatey or nutty. These are general rules and, as always, there are exceptions.
Altitude is not a factor you need to worry too much about on a label. Great coffees can come from any altitude. Although, altitude does tell you the roaster who prepared the coffee has a good understanding of where the coffee has come from.
Altitude is often represented in ranges because coffee farms are often not a flat plane. Farms vary in altitude. You will sometimes see the word "masl" on altitude descriptions. This word is short for "metres above sea level," a common measurement of altitude in the specialty coffee industry.
Example: Altitude: 1,950 to 2,200 masl.
Sometimes listed as "varietal," the variety refers to the type of coffee that has been harvested.
As you read more coffee labels, you may start to notice patterns in the varieties grown in certain countries. This is because some varieties are more common in some countries than others. For instance, SL24 and SL28 are common in Kenyan coffees. You will see "Heirloom" attached to a lot of Ethiopian coffees, which refers to the cross-breeding common in Ethiopian coffee plants, especially those which are not part of larger coffee farms.
The variety will have an impact on the taste of the final cup of coffee, just as different types of grape change the flavour of the wine being produced.
Example: Heirloom. This refers to coffee that has been grown on Ethiopian heirloom plants.
The process through which coffee cherries pass to become the green coffee which is then roasted has a big impact on the taste of the final cup. There are three main processes used in coffee production:
The process used to produce a coffee is based on a mixture of resources available to farmers, tradition, cup profile, and a range of other factors. Some coffee drinkers build a preference for a particular process but it can take a while to learn how these processes impact the cup.
Some people think that natural coffees taste "funkier" than washed coffees; washed coffees tend to be "cleaner" and a bit more acidic. But these are guides. Every coffee is unique.
Tasting notes are one of the biggest factors I consider when I am buying a new coffee. I do not buy a coffee if I do not think the tasting notes will appeal to me. What is the point in buying something I think I will not enjoy?
Tasting notes usually fall into four categories:
- Chocolates and caramels
You will likely see 2-3 tasting descriptors on a bag of coffee. These descriptors have been chosen by someone who works at a roastery who has cupped (professionally tasted) the coffee and taken notes on their impressions. Tasting notes should not be seen as exactly what you should taste, rather as a guide to what you might taste in a cup.
Tasting notes may also include some general impressions about the cup. If a roaster thinks a coffee has a juicy body, for instance, they may list that characteristic in the tasting notes.
Example: Forest fruits, honeysuckle, complex
Description of the Coffee
Most coffee labels gave the information we have discussed above. If a coffee comes with a card with more information, you are likely to see a longer description of the coffee. This description is usually available on the website of the roaster who roasted the coffee.
The description of the coffee contains general information about how a coffee was produced. You can expect to see information like:
- Who produced the coffee, with reference to farmers or co-operatives.
- How a bean is roasted.
- What makes the coffee unique (i.e. a new step added to processing).
- The way in which the coffee travelled to arrive at the roaster.
- Facts about the community around the coffee farm.
- Information about how the coffee was sourced (i.e. direct partnership vs. working with an importer).
Coffee descriptions range in size. The longer the description, the more thought I know the roaster has put into every detail of their coffee, from roasting all the way to learning about the origins of the coffee. That's not to say that coffees without descriptions are bad in any way. I have had great coffees that had only a few sentences in their descriptions. But on the whole, a good description is a sign the coffee roaster knows a lot about the beans they are roasting in terms of their origin.
Reading a Coffee Label
Reading a coffee label is a skill you will pick up over time. Learning about all of the processes and some varietals is not something you do without spending some time drinking coffee and perhaps doing some reading. I learned how to read a coffee label by looking up terms that I did not understand and reading coffee labels on the websites of roasters I trust.
Try your hand at reading a coffee label on a bag you have at home. If there is anything that you are particularly interested in, go online and research what has piqued your curiosity. Are you curious about what Brazilian speciality coffees tend to taste like? Or was a bag of coffee you have processed in a way you have never looked into? Do some research and answer your questions.
Also consider asking the business who roasted your coffee if you would like more information. Most roasters with whom I have chatted have been happy to share more details about the coffees they roast.
Learning to read a coffee label is an investment in your coffee making. The more you know about reading labels, the easier you will find choosing a coffee that you are likely to enjoy.
Contributed by James Gallagher, a home brewer and coffee enthusiast. View his excellent blog at jamesg.blog