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How to Read Coffee Bag Labeling at Your Local Grocery

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Grocery stores offer more coffee choices, but which is right for you?

If you are a beginner at coffee brewing or just want to up your game without too much effort, here’s what you should know when reading coffee bag labeling at your local grocery store. Plus, one accidental discovery of an inexpensive bag of beans from a local grocery store that proved to be surprisingly good.

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I remember my first espresso machine; It was a single serving basic model with a frothing attachment. In spite of its simplicity, it was well-made and a good starter espresso machine.

What makes it particularly memorable was that I was a stay-at-home dad working freelance and caring for two very small children who became very entertained watching their father brew and drink 10 or more separate shots of coffee as I tried to “just get it right” let alone perfect my technique. For once in my life I could run circles around my kids and speak in tongues. All at the same time.

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It would have helped if I had known at the time what I know today, which primarily was how to choose my bagged coffee. Unfortunately, I had chosen a well-known brand name, of which I expected to achieve name-brand results. A newbie mistake.

Hence, this advice is intended for the common man and common woman on how to read coffee bag labeling. In particular, someone with their first expresso machine and needing some trial runs on home-brewing their first cups.

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This advice is not intended for a true coffee devotee or someone in search of the best craft coffee experience. The reason for this is that there’s a bewildering array of if’s, but’s and other exceptions when it comes to the minutia of great coffee beans and great coffee. More than a book’s worth. Literally.

However, that does not mean that the uninitiated or those “not in the know” cannot at the very least enjoy good-to-very-good coffee right in their home with a bag of beans bought off the shelf.

Here is my general guide that I have found serves well when standing in a shopping aisle entirely filled with coffee products:

Step #1: Survey the world of coffee before you—At first blush, the bewildering array of coffee products to choose from can be intimidating. Especially today when you can now find entire aisles occupied with nothing but coffee products. Fear not. Those aisles are typically broken into sections that separate instant coffees from non-instant; big name brand from lesser-recognizable brand names; and sometimes bagged whole bean from bagged ground.

Step #2: Go to the whole bean bagged section—You will want whole beans because you want the best taste reasonably possible. Right? Therefore, if you have your first espresso machine, you will also need a coffee grinder for grinding those whole beans. Pre-ground coffee has less flavor due to that coffee is aromatic and grinding ahead of time results in less of the desired brewed flavor. If you do not have a coffee bean grinder, at this stage, you can save some money by buying a relatively inexpensive blade grinder rather than a true burr style grinder.

Step #3: What’s in a name?—Dark Roast, Medium Roast, Light Roast, Blend, Single Source, French Vanilla flavored, Arabica, Robusta, it’s all so confusing. But it need not be.

First, avoid any flavored bean coffee. You are defeating the purpose of your goal by going down this path. You can return to it later after you have learned how to properly brew, but you will see why this bit of advice is important after discovering the difference in taste and quality between non-flavored and flavored coffee beans.

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Second, in this section of the aisle, almost all of your bean choices are going to be arabica. Instant coffees, however, tend to be from robusta beans. Think of the difference between arabica and robusta as the difference between a kiss on the cheek and a slap across the face respectively. However, there are exceptions in that some bean choices will be a blend of mostly arabica and some robusta for a variety of reasons we will not go into here.

Third, you may see bags labeled as a “Single Source” or as a “Blend.” Single source means that all of the beans came from the same region if not actual plantation. A blend is a mixture of beans from different sources. Blend, however, can also mean different things. At best, it means a blend of two sources of arabica bean that results in an improved experience over either bean source by itself. At worst, it can mean a blend of both arabica and robusta where the goal is to hide some flavor or add flavor to an otherwise bland arabica bean experience; or, it could just be a blending filler of a more expensive bean with a cheaper bean of either type.

In any case, in the grocery store most bagged coffee beans will be a blend. Single source is typically a craft coffee trait, but groceries are beginning to offer craft coffee beans as well, so you just might find some single source bagged coffee there as well.

Regardless of this info, a bag with “Blend” labeled on it is typical and should not affect your choice of one bag over another at this point.

Step #4: Choose a dark roast over a medium or light roast—The reason for this is not about taste. The reason is that one of the marks that you are brewing your espresso correctly with your machine is the appearance of crema—a light caramel colored foam that forms on the surface of your espresso as it drips into your cup. Dark roasts are easier to manage a crema than are lighter roasts for beginners. If you do not get a crema with a dark roast, then it is likely your technique needs improving, like better ground tamping or a different grind. You cannot produce a really good cup of coffee until you’ve gotten the techniques nearly correct.

Step #5: Ignore the Advertising—Call me a cynic, but when it comes to advertising on the bags I tend to be distrustful. Whether it be claims of “Fair Trade” or “Rainforest” or “Organic” or “Rich, Complex and Full-Bodied,” I do not let it sway my buying decision. I’ve tried a wide variety of bagged coffees in grocery stores out of a sense of curiosity and adventure and have found that advertising is what it is…but rarely all that it claims to be.

Step #6: Look for the most important label info…the roast date—Not all bagged coffee beans will list the roast date…but they should. The roast date is a fair criteria for predicting the life of your bean and its expected flavor. Brewing a coffee immediately after roasting is typically not encouraged because of too much bean de-gassing going on at the time, which affects flavor. Too long after roasting and the bean is likely to have gone flat. If you can, find a bag that is within a month of its roasting date.

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Step #7: Have an open mind and an open palate—Part of the fun of drinking coffee is making a discovery of a bag of beans that yielded a new taste experience that you can share with others.

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A Noteworthy Accidental Coffee Discovery

HemisFares Coffe in Kroger

My most recent accidental discovery was a bag by HemisFares called ‘Chiapas” that I found newly stocked on a shelf in my local Kroger store that had some light advertising that offered an indication of origin; claimed to be shade grown and single origin; no roast date, but an expiration date of April 2021! Why did I buy it? I got it for under $5 a 12 oz bag and took a chance. Surprisingly, it proved to be a pretty good bag of beans in a light roast that most—even non-coffee drinkers—enjoy from what I’ve observed when serving this coffee.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between coffee and healthy living. For continual updates about the benefits of coffee on your health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image courtesy of Pixabay and the writer

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