How to Read Your Coffee Label

Posted by on Nov 1, 2013

We get a lot of keen coffee drinkers that are eager to know more about where their favourite fix comes from. While most understand the concepts, there is a disconnect with what the information really means.  The altitude is 1800 metres, great, but why does it matter? Does it taste better than 1700 metres? Why not grow it at 4000 metres? Hopefully this guide will help unlock all the secrets of the nerdiest of coffee lingo and jargon.


Estate: The estate is the farm where the coffee is grown. Some coffees come from a group of farms growing the same type of bean, but single estate coffees are often seen as more consistent and higher quality. Farms can be as small as a few acres and produce just a few thousand pounds of coffee per year, and others are able to harvest a few thousand pounds per day. Our Kenya AA is a single estate coffee which comes from the Mtaro Estate – an 18 hectare farm with 300 full time workers.


Region: This one is pretty straight forward – the geographic area where the farm or farm group is located. Each area will have unique mix environmental factors that will impact the final flavour like soil composition, air moisture content, temperature, and weather patterns. The most obvious difference can be seen in the colour and size of the bean. Coffee that comes from drier, more arid conditions will be much smaller, and lighter in green. Areas with heavy rainfall will produce bigger beans with a more brownish colour. The highest quality coffees are grown by families of farmers who have been growing coffee in the same region for generations.


Altitude: Elevations from 1,200 up to 2,500 metres are the typical range for specialty coffees. Like all the other regional factors, the altitude at which the coffee is grown has an effect on how it develops and therefor how it tastes. As the elevation increases, the temperature lowers, slowing the growth cycle and the development of the bean. The slower growth cycle allows for the construction of more complex sugars which create more complex flavour profiles during roasting.
High, mountainous regions also have more efficient drainage making the fruit more concentrated. Many popular Central American beans have their own labels for altitude like SHB (Strictly Hard Bean) for Guatemalan coffees grown higher than 1,300 metres or SHG (Strictly High Grown) for Nicaraguan coffees grown higher than 1,400 metres.


Variety: This is where we start to get into some serious plant science. The variety AKA varietal AKA cultivar is the scientific name given to the type of coffee plant. Just like other species of plants, coffee has been cultivated and bred to improve yield, flavour, resistance to disease, size, and a slew of other characteristics that can be manipulated. There are hundreds of cultivars in the coffee world and all fall under arabica or robusta. All of our coffees are arabica, so we’ll focus on those. Arabica Typica is the cultivar that was first harvested in Ethiopia, which then made its way through ancient trading routes before spreading across the world. It is known for it’s high quality, cleanliness in the cup, and remarkable sweetness. Our Mexico Pluma Real is a Typica Pluma cultivar, which is a Mexican mutation of this strain. Not bad mutation, think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mutation. Our El Salvador is a Pacamara which is a hybrid between Bourbon Pacas and Maragogype.


Process: From coffee to cheese, everything needs to be processed before it can be delicious. The “process” of coffee refers to what happens to the cherry after it has been picked in order to go from palate bending bitter fruit to roast-ready green bean. The big divide in processes comes with the use of water. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, a quick anatomy of a coffee bean. There is the cherry, which is bright red when ripe and kind of looks like a grape. In the very centre is two seeds, referred to the world over as a coffee bean. Between those two are a thin layer of parchment (kind of like a skin) and a thin gooey layer of mucilage, which looks just about how it sounds. Wet process coffees use a combination of water, smashing (friction), and more water to prepare the green beans. First the beans are ripped out of the cherry using a depulpling machine. After that, the mucilage is completely washed away leaving only the bean to deliver flavour. Washed coffees are typically more mild, and balanced, and preferred in the China. Natural process is the original method of processing coffee – the beans are left out to dry without anything removed. Inside the fruit are sugars, both complex and simple, as well as alcohol and other compounds that have an effect on the final flavour. This all is absorbed into the bean during drying process which creates a much more complex flavour profile. More flavour more problems? Sometimes. Natural process coffees can lack the balance needed for a great cup and, especially in China, can leave the drinker wondering if what they had was coffee or a cup of fruit tea.


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