Deciphering the Coffee Bag

If you want to make sure you are buying high-quality coffee, it’s important to understand the parts of the label and why they are important. While the prettiest and best-designed bag is bound to grab your attention first, make sure to check the other information listed on the label as well.

Generally speaking, the more information the better. But what does each part mean? Let’s take a look at the following picture and go through it item by item.

Picture from Pull & Pour Coffee.

#1 | Roast Date

This is a crucial part of the coffee label. Some roasters only supply a “best by” date, which doesn’t inform you of much. Some people claim coffee is at its best 2-4 weeks after roasting. Some say up to two months and no flavors or aromas are lost. Others say three months is fine. It depends on the coffee, the roast, and the packaging, but my general rule of thumb is to let the coffee “rest” for a few days after roasting (releasing carbon dioxide from the roast process), then enjoy the coffee within 30 days. If only a “best by” date is provided, you have no idea when the coffee was actually roasted. Some roasters list this date as 12 months after the roast date… there is no way to know how fresh the coffee really is.

#2 | Country and Region

At the very least, a coffee label should list the country and region in which the coffee was grown in. These give indicators of the flavor profile (albeit very general) and provide for traceability. If the roaster doesn’t list these things, be suspicious of where this coffee is actually coming from.

#3 | Farm or Producer

If the roaster wanted to go into further detail, listing the farm or producer is usually an indicator of quality coffee, although even this doesn’t guarantee anything 100%. However, coffee that has more traceability usually does have more quality, because there is more understanding of where it came from and how it was processed. High-quality roasters often know where exactly on the farm this specific coffee came from and the date it was harvested. The more info, the better!

#4 | Elevation

The elevation, usually listed as meters above sea level (MASL), should be included on the coffee label as well. The general rule is that higher-quality coffee beans are grown at higher elevations. The temperatures at higher altitudes allow for the coffee cherries to develop more slowly, thus having more time to store nutrients and improve the flavor as a result. 1,000 to 2,000 MASL is generally where you want to look for high-quality coffee, but remember that some amazing coffees grow at lower altitudes too.

#5 | Processing

The processing of coffee refers to how the cherries/beans are washed and dried. There are three main categories of processing: washed/wet, natural/dry, and pulped natural/honey. Each category tends to have multiple names, making it confusing to understand for the beginner. The type of processing used can clue you in to how the flavor profile will be changed. For example – generally speaking – coffees using the natural process dry with the cherry intact, so these beans are usually sweeter and fruitier compared to the same beans using the washed process (removing the cherry pulp and drying the beans separately).

#6 | Whole Bean vs. Ground Coffee

If you have a grinder (a very worthy investment), always seek out whole bean coffee. Coffee that is ground immediately starts to lose aromas and freshness. I recommend grinding only before you brew, to have the freshest, most flavorful coffee possible.

Do this test yourself and get back to me with your results: grind some coffee and put it in a container. In a few days, grind the same coffee and smell the aromas of the freshly-ground coffee along with the coffee that you ground before. Do you notice any differences?

#7 | One-Way Valve

This is super important! All coffee bags should have a one-way gas valve on them. This lets the carbon dioxide escape from the coffee (a result of the roast process) without letting oxygen inside the bag. Oxygen messes with aromas and will negatively affect the taste of your coffee. I make sure to use these for the coffee I roast and ship worldwide so that it arrives as fresh as possible.

#8 | Flavor Notes

This is arguably the least important information on a coffee label. For those who have a lot of experience drinking or cupping coffee, it is a nice guide to see what kind of flavor notes you can expect the coffee to have. The flavor you get in your cup will also depend on the quality of the water used, how the coffee is prepared, and your individual taste palette. I prefer to taste coffee first without having any preconceived ideas of what it should taste like, but that’s just me. Only after will I compare my observations with those of the roaster.

#9 | Blend vs. Single Origin

A blend refers to coffee that has beans from 2+ locations, usually from the same country. “Single origin” refers to coffee beans that come from one place, usually with the exact farm being known. If you are buying coffee from a high-quality roaster, chances are the blend will be high-quality too. That being said, if you don’t want to take any chances and you want more traceability with your coffee, go with a single origin to increase your chances of a more unique cup of coffee.

#10 | Certifications

Certifications can be a good indicator of quality, but a lack of certifications shouldn’t stop you from purchasing. I personally know a lot of small specialty coffee producers in Brazil that grow organic coffee but can’t afford the certification. I’ve also been told stories of producers who have an organic certification but use chemicals because the administrators of the organization don’t check up on the farmers.

Do your research and look into the ethics and how the organizations behind these certifications guarantee quality. I would argue not to base your buying decision on this factor alone.

#11 | Roast Level

This is a very subjective indicator, but specialty coffee tends to be roasted on the “lighter” side. This allows more flavors inherent in the bean to shine through without adding in heavy flavors and aromas developed during the roast. However, people like what they like. If you like a super dark roast, go drink your coffee super dark. Don’t let anyone stop you! There is no “correct” way to prepare or drink coffee.

#12 | Variety

While the graphic above doesn’t have a number next to variety, this is also an important feature so I am adding it here!

Just like there are many different types of grapes that result in different types and flavors of wine, the coffee plant also has many different varieties. Some types grow better in certain climates and at certain altitudes. Their flavor profiles can be drastically different as well, so knowing this information can give you insight into the taste of the coffee as well as provide more traceability.

Do you now have enough information to make an educated decision among the many different coffee bags at your local grocery store, coffee shop, or roastery? If you still feel hesitant, don’t be afraid to ask employees at a coffee shop or roastery what they recommend and why. Usually, they will be excited to share more details about where their coffee comes from and what makes it special.

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