How To Read A Specialty Coffee Bag

There’s a lot to consider when buying coffee to brew at home. Luckily, we’ve put together a brief guide to help you navigate specialty coffee bags with ease.

An Uncommon Coffee Costa Rica bag

Let’s start with origin: nowadays, origin is often prominently featured on packaging--and for good reason. Although there are countless factors that influence a coffee’s unique flavor, origin is a major one. There is no definitive conclusion you can draw about a coffee’s flavor based on origin alone, but there are some general flavor ranges often found in coffees from particular origins: 

South/Central American coffees typically have medium body, low acidity, and exhibit chocolatey or nutty flavors.  

Indonesian coffees are often very bold and sometimes smokey or cedar-y. This is partly due to the predominant coffee processing method in the region, wet hulling. 

African coffees generally have tea-like, lighter bodies with a higher acidity. Many are described as fruity in flavor.   

Next, let’s talk about coffee varieties. 

A coffee’s “variety” refers to the type of coffee plant your beans came from. Typically, a few varieties are listed. Variety is primarily important to those who take a special interest in coffee growing. Varieties are important in ensuring coffee's future through climate change.  

A pourover brewing

Okay, now let’s consider altitude/elevation. 

You’ll be happy to know that a coffee’s growing altitude is a lot simpler than its variety: distinct flavors are associated with different altitudes. This is because the elevation a coffee is grown at affects the way the sugars develop in the coffee cherry as it grows, as well as the physical shape and density of the bean. 

Coffees grown at very high altitudes are typically said to be more complex and have subtle floral or spice flavor notes. For these sought after flavors, look for altitudes of 2,000 masl and above. 

Coffees grown at medium to high altitudes (1,000-2,000 masl)  have flavors ranging from citrus and chocolate, to nutty and sweet. 

Coffees grown at lower altitudes (1,000 masl and below) are generally bland and earthy in flavor. 

Several Uncommon Coffee bag labels 

What about processing methods?

A coffee's processing method can have a huge impact on its flavor. We'll be sharing a longer post about processing methods soon, but for now, here are a few common processing methods and what they mean for your coffee's flavor:

Washed: The coffee cherry is removed before the seed is washed and dried. This method is consistent and creates crisp, clean flavor profiles.

Natural: The coffee cherry is left on the seed, which ferments and dries inside the coffee fruit before being pulped. This creates more juicy, sometimes fruity flavors.

Wet Hulled: Predominantly used in Indonesia, this process is very similar to washed processing, except the coffee seed is only dried to a 30% moisture content (higher than in a traditional washed process). This creates earthy, full-bodied, and sometimes woody flavors. 

Honey: The muselage layer of the coffee cherry is left on to dry and the seed ferments within. This process is similar to natural processing except less of the coffee cherry is left on the seed. Honey processed coffees are often sweet, thick, syrupy, and smooth. 

A mug of coffee next to a plant and book

Lastly, what do Organic and Fair Trade Certified labels really mean? 

While Organic and Fair Trade certified coffee labels do indicate that a coffee has met these organization’s standards, they are not the only marker of an “ethical” coffee. The reality is that less than half of products that achieve any certification are sold with such a label (source: Dr. Janina Grabs' talk at Re;Co Symposium in 2019). So, just because a specialty coffee isn’t labeled “fair trade” or “organic” does not mean they don’t meet those guidelines; it just means they haven’t gone through the certification process. Many coffee farmers do not pursue certifications because the processes are often lengthy and expensive.

Another point worth noting in regards to specialty coffee is that the Fair Trade Certified price is often lower than the price that specialty buyers will pay.  Although the specialty price is more contingent on the quality of the coffee, the fair trade price isn’t the end-all-be-all of fair pricing structures for coffee farmers 

A pourover setup

We hope this guide will help you in your exploration of specialty coffees. As always, send us an email if you have additional questions!