Know What You're Buying

How to Read a Bag of Coffee Beans


December 14, 2019 Home By Photo by Henry Phillips
Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

When staring down a wall of jargon-strewn bags filled with small-batch coffee, it’s difficult to know where to start. There’s no harm in grabbing whatever seems most interesting, but isolating certain details — such as roast date and country of origin — can give you a better sense of what you’re buying, and the kind of coffee you’ll ultimately brew from it. Thomas Costello of Counter Culture Coffee, a North Carolina–based roastery that heralded coffee’s third wave in 1995, outlined three pieces of information to look for on a bag of coffee beans that are most often reflective of quality.

1Keep it fresh. “Look for something that’s [been roasted] at least within the month, if not within the week,” Costello said. Coffee takes 48–72 hours to de-gas, or settle, after roasting. Consume coffee too close to the roast date, and you’ll end up with an uneven extraction; wait more than a few weeks, and the beans will have released too much carbon dioxide, setting them past peak freshness.

Packaging contributes to freshness, as well. Counter Culture’s beans are packaged in non-porous Biotré bags with a one-way valve, preventing air from passing through but allowing carbon dioxide to escape during de-gassing. Look for a resealable container, whether a zip closure, twist-tie or tin.

2Look to the source. “Just like when you’re looking for a bottle of wine. You’re going to look for tasting notes, especially if you have an idea of whether you like fruity coffees or really chocolate-y coffees, sweet coffees or something with a little more acid to it. Usually, [tasting notes are] something that an expert coffee taster has analyzed and tested and decided that that’s how the coffee [in the bag] is best described,” Costello said.

More often than not, flavor and country of origin go hand in hand. As a general rule, Kenyan coffees skew savory, Colombian coffees have chocolate-like notes, and Ethiopian coffees tend to be fruity. Sampling single-origin coffees is the best way to understand and appreciate regional differences among beans.

3Check that “fair trade” is really fair. “Everybody has a direct-trade story. Very often, it’s written on the bag, but it’s good to not take that at face value,” Costello said. “There’s a lot of greenwashing, like claiming some amount of sustainable purchasing practices without following it up. It’s like saying ‘free-range eggs’ — that can mean a lot of different things.” He recommends taking to the roaster’s website, searching for evidence that the company is supporting its producers — that there’s an effort being made to pay farmers more money for their crops or to improve farming practices in one way or another.

The 6 Best Coffee Makers of 2019

The best coffee maker is the one that fits your kitchen, budget and style, but never compromises on excellent coffee. Read the Story

Emily Singer

More by Emily Singer | Follow on Contact via Email
Start Your Week
with Daybreak
Productivity hacks, coffee recommendations, workweek style inspiration and more.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy and to receive email correspondence from us.