Hey there! I hope this article will help you get better coffee in your cup in a simple, clear way. Basically you should look for three things: Altitude, Processing, Location.
Pick high altitude beans.
The higher up, the more flavorful the bean. When a coffee plant struggles, it can’t churn out huge quantities of cherries. So instead of mass-production the plant puts all its energy into a few cherries that are lovingly packed with flavour.
Coffee trees that are grown 1,000m and below are slackers: beans are soft, flat and mellow. The good stuff come from coffees that are grown above 1,000 meters. Way up there the plants cope daily with blazing sun and frigid nights for a long period of time (long maturation).
Look at the processing method
Processing methods have a large impact on the taste of the final coffee. No process is better than another, just memorize the processes that create the flavors you like.
Cherries are picked, quickly cleaned the surface and dried as a whole cherry in the sun for a few weeks. During this time the cherry flesh ferments and cherries shrivel up. The outer pulp is then stripped by machine.
Result: Sweet, fruity, can be a bit “wild” with tropical fruit-like flavours due to fermentation.
Washed or Wet Processed
Cherries are pulped by machine, then soaked in a tank of water for several hours to a few days where fermentation is done, the parchment beans are then washed and dried in the sun for 2-3 weeks or by machine with continuous flow of hot air for a few days.
Result: Has the “cleanest” taste with a brighter acidity, medium body.
Pulped Natural/Semi-Washed / Honey Processed (by SCA definition)
Cherries are pulped with machine then left immediately in the sun to dry without washing (water tank fermentation), normally there will be some flesh (mucilage) left on the surface. After drying to the target moisture content the parchment is stripped by machine. This results in a taste that has maximum sweetness and a complex floral or fruity flavor unless the flesh is totally stripped at the very beginning (like those from Brazil).
Result: Very sweet, floral, fruity and a complex flavor
Anaerobic Fermentation + Wet Hulled
This is originated from Indonesia, a way how the local Mandlehing tribe processes coffee. The beans start out like the honey process where they are pulped, they are then fermented anaerobically without water and left to dry in the sun for a shorter period of time. The parchment beans are then hulled when moisture content is high and then dried again in the sun for another short period. The resulting beans are normally higher in moisture content.
Result: Earthy, cedar, mossy flavors, spices
Check the Location
The information below is so broad it borders on being criminal, but it works as a starting point for trying out different beans.
Colombia, Peru, Bolivia
Coffee is grown up in the mountains (in Bolivia, it’s way up, over 2,500 meters!). Beans usually go through the washed process with sweet, bright acidity and medium body. Nuts / honeyed / caramel are common flavors, some varietals bear characteristic apple note owing to the rich malic acid produced during maturation.
These are low altitude beans that are mostly processed by pulped natural method. Low acidity, mild with good body. Good for blending.
Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico.
Beans are usually washed and have that “Classic Coffee” taste with a medium body and medium acidity. Nuts, chocolate, fruit and citrus flavors are common, for some varietals floral flavor is the signature.
Extremely expensive. Silky light body, complex floral aromas and honey-like sweet.
These beans are very expensive due to labour costs, not quality. Generally medium bodied, somehow berry with hint of citrus notes. Aromas of light flowers and vanilla are common.
These come in two types, both of which have pretty unusual flavour profiles:
Anaerobic Fermented and Wet hulled beans are earthy and mossy with spices. An acquired taste.
Washed or natural processed beans from Indonesia are somehow floral with sweet spices like cinnamon, caramel with cedar notes when beans are roasted light or medium. Some have aromatic herbal aromas. Dark chocolate is usual when it is roasted dark.
Papua New Guinea
Washed processing here gives the coffee milk chocolate, light citrus, vanilla and somehow floral notes. Coffee from Papua New Guinea is famous for its good balance.
The origin of coffee, this continent has a wide, wide variety of beans to explore.
The OG of Arabica coffee. Thousands of varietals, styles and sub-regions are found here making it pointless to categorize but let’s try anyway, right?
Natural/Honey Process beans from Ethiopia are wild, fruity and may have complex berries or wine like sweetness to them
Washed Process Ethiopian beans like typical Washed Sidamo or Yirgacheffee are light bodied, very floral and citric.
The coffee mills here some adapt a unique processing method. The cherries are washed and undergo double fermentation (soaked in water twice). Finally the cherries are stripped, dried and ready to go. The result is very acidic, sweet but fruity with a heavy body.
These coffees are floral and milk chocolate alike with prolong sweet finish. The acidity is also bright and smooth.
Another important thing to pay attention to in terms of the effect on coffee flavor is the bean varietal. So long as they are 100% arabica, you probably notice some differences among varietals. It is way too much to cover but for the sake of completeness below are some of the more common coffee varietals you may come across.
Like Heriloom, one of the original coffee varietals and the one you are most likely to find on the shelves of your local roaster.
No relation to the alcoholic drink (unfortunately), instead it is a natural mutant of Typica. This varietal’s name comes from its home, Bourbon, which is/was an island near Madagascar. The island has since been renamed Réunion. These beans are normally sweet with good body.
Really big beans. Taste-wise they are the same as Typica but richer.
Native varietals that are found in Ethiopia, usually classified by the area they are grown in, i.e. Harrar, Sidamo, Yirgacheffe.
Very complex and floral, eye wateringly expensive, accidentally discovered in Panama as a wind-shielding plants.
SL-28 / SL-34
Obviously named by a botanist and not a marketer. Cultivar under the effort of Scott Lab. These beans are more fruity with brighter acidity. SL-28 has a curious blackcurrant flavor.
A hybrid vigor crossing Caturra with Hybrid de Timor. Made to be easier to grow and disease resistant but sadly it wasn’t grown for its flavor. Sadly.
Like the Timor Hybrid, these are fast growing, cherry producing machines that are resistant to rust and some diseases. Worse than Catimor they suck at tasting good. Expect notes of cardboard and a very bitter finish. Avoid.
Not a varietal but actually beans with stunted growth. About 5% of all coffee comes out smaller and rounder than the normal ones, there is only one cotyledon in the cherry (single seed). These cute little beans are separated from their bigger brothers and sisters because they need to be roasted differently. No major taste difference here except a higher acidity but some marketers thought there was money to be made so now Peaberries go for a premium price.
There you go! Commit that to memory and you will be able to hold your own at any cafe.
However, if your memory sucks like mine, here’s a summary:
Good coffee cheatsheet
1,000 meters or above < most important!
Check the process method:
Natural : fruity, tropical, fermented
Washed : clean, coffee taste
Pulped Natural/Semi-washed/Honey : between dry and wet, sweet
Anaerobic fermentation + Wet hulled (Indonesian) : Mossy, herbs, cedar, spices
Check the location
Americas – Nutty / Chocolate / Classic
Asia – Spices / Earthy / Cedar / Herbal
Africa – Floral / Fruity / Citrus
The Varietal Doesn’t Matter
Unless it’s Geisha (good!) or Robusta (bad!) doesn’t really matter.