How to Buy Gourmet Coffee Beans

Does it matter if they’re from Sumatra or Guatemala? While certain regions cultivate distinctive flavors, geography isn’t everything. Growing at higher altitudes is what produces the better bean, says Katie Carguilo of gourmet roaster Counter Culture Coffee, in New York City, and the winner of the 2012 U.S. Barista Championship. Before you buy, scan the package for these other clues of quality.

  • Bag: Packages with one-way valves keep coffee fresher longer.
  • Bean type: Arabica is more expensive, offers a complex flavor, and comes in many varieties, like Typica, Bourbon, and Blue Mountain. Robusta is more bitter and is often used as a filler in lesser-quality coffees, but it has a higher caffeine content.
  • Origin: There are too many nuances to get into the specifics of each region here. But if the roasting company is willing to list a country, a farm, or a cooperative, that gives you a clue that the beans are of good quality and have been responsibly sourced.
  • Roast: This doesn’t signal how strong or caffeinated the coffee is; it simply indicates how long the beans have been roasted. Light roast is closest to the true coffee-bean flavor. Medium roast is sweeter, because the sugars have been caramelized. A dark roast produces a prominent smoky, charred taste. Sometimes companies may dark roast inferior or older beans to disguise the flavor. “Italian roast” and “French roast” are pure marketing terms, but they usually qualify as dark, says Carguilo.
  • Roast date: “If this—not the sell-by date—isn’t stamped on the bag, then the coffee isn’t worth your money,” says Carguilo. Beans that are more than a month old will taste stale because the aromatics (a huge factor in flavor) will have seeped out by then.