The coffee world can be confusing, exciting, and a bit overwhelming. You can only consume so much caffeine per day, so picking the right coffee can be daunting. Most people I talk to will pick coffees based on the information they have (which is often not nearly enough to make the best decision). Whether it is a specific country or a roast level, it is hard to step outside your comfort zone. I feel your pain, before I was a coffee professional, I really had no clue what made coffees different.
I'm here to help! I am going to do my best to categorize coffee into major flavor categories (I was highly influenced by Greg Engert's beer tasting system). Greg did 7 categories for beer, I'm doing 4 categories for coffee. Please keep in mind, these are broad generalizations, and there are exceptions in every category but this should give you enough info to make an informed decision.
1. Fruit & Floral
This category includes coffees that are highly aromatic. They tend to have assertive brightness and tons of complexity. They feature ripe fruits, intense floral aromas, and a sweet finish. These coffees are exemplified by African coffees such as my Tanzania: Sambewe AAA, but you can also find this in some high elevation lots from Central and South America such as my Costa Rica Sonora. The flavors can run the gamut of fruits and sugars from tropical, berries, stonefruit, to raw sugar, honey, and marshmallows. These coffees tend to be lighter roasted, as the dark roast will mute or remove the fruit and floral notes completely. If you like manual drip brewing methods like pour-over, these are going to shine. Common origins in this category:
- Ethiopia (washed)
- Papua New Guinea
2. Citrus & Chocolate
This is the standard profile for Central American coffees such as my Guatemala: Acatenango Quisache. These coffees tend to be high-grown washed coffees using older varietals and their modern derivatives (Bourbon, Caturra, Typica). Because of this, I put Rwanda in this category (a country that grows Bourbon variety almost exclusively), such as my Rwanda: Kilimbi. The roast level on these can vary from medium-light to medium-dark. A bright citrus acidity with a milk chocolate or dark chocolate base make for a very classic profile. These are your everyday drinking coffees, delicious for their simplicity and are often marked by a caramel or brown sugar sweetness. They also tend to have other fruit notes, but the citrus notes are primary. They tend to handle a wide range of brewing styles and can be great from pour-over to espresso to French press. Common origins in this category:
- Costa Rica
3. Spice & Nut
This is a very distinct flavor profile that tends to emphasize body and flavor over aroma. Not that these coffees are weak on aromatics, but they are not the fruit and floral powerhouse that you find in African and most Central American coffees. They tend to be grown at lower elevations, have a natural or wet hulled process and have lower perceived acidity. My Brazil: Fazenda Progresso (which has some great peanut butter notes) is a perfect example of this profile. These coffees are often great as espresso or in full immersion methods such as the French Press. You will find many of the deeper notes such as aromatic wood, baking spices, all types of nuts (both roasted and raw). They will show some fruit and chocolate notes, but they often dark chocolate and deeper fruit notes such as cherry, berries, and dried fruit. Sumatra: Gayo Takengon is another example that shows many of these dark fruits along with spice notes. Coffees in the Spice & Nut category are often medium to medium-dark roasts. Very light roasts tend to not work well with these coffees (though there are plenty of exceptions). Common origins in this category:
- Ethiopia (naturals)
- Island coffees (Hawaii, Jamaica, Puerto Rico)
4. Chocolate & Smoke
This category is a bit different than the other three as it connects a wide range of coffees that are all roasted into 2nd crack (medium-dark to dark roasts). At this point the coffee bean will begin to break down and carbonize. The more this happens the more smokey and bittersweet the coffee will get. The flavor of the roast comes through with the origin flavors playing a supporting role (or disappearing completely in very dark roasts). My Mexico: Chiapas Jacinto has been our signature dark roast for 3 years now. It is classic and dependable, and our dark roast fans love it. Flavors tend to be dark chocolate and a noticeable bittersweet bite. The aroma is often smokey sweet and the acidity is muted or non-existent. The flavors in these coffees tend to hold up better to the addition of cream and sugar, so this is your best choice if you want to taste the coffee and you like to add a generous amount of cream and sugar to your cup. If this coffee does have fruit notes they will be only dried fruits such as dates and raisins. My Colombia: Huila is a great example of this. I won't list origins for this category since most any coffee can be dark roasted. We find that high-grown, dense coffees that are relatively straightforward make great dark roasts.
Roasted coffee is a complex thing with over 800 flavor compounds. There is a bean for every pallet. If you want to do some exploring with our coffee you can try our 2 for $22 deal. Put the category you want to try in the notes column and I will send you two coffees in that category.
Also, in about a month, you can come talk to us in person at our new roastery and coffee bar in Richmond, TX. We are working hard on getting it open and we can't wait to share it with our community.