Coffee seems complicated: innumerable factors influence the aromas, tastes, and structure in a cup before it’s even roasted. We want to make you smarter about coffee and help you to choose coffees that you will enjoy drinking with this introductory coffee guide.
It all starts with taste.
Our guiding principle is “the best taste wins.” But what are we tasting for? For easy reference, here’s how to taste coffee like a pro.
What factors influence taste?
Specialty coffee is magical because it can express a sense of place in its flavour, called terroir. Terroir denotes the geography, geology and climate of a growing region and includes soil types, weather conditions, and farming practices. Elevation is critical for great coffee, ideally between 1200m and 1800m above sea level. As elevation increases, so does the density of the beans and denser beans have more sugar, more acidity, and more complex aromatics compared to softer beans from lower elevations.
While no two coffees are alike, coffees that hail from the same major growing region exhibit a family resemblance. To keep it simple, here are three essential flavour families:
Classic and balanced
Often nutty, chocolaty, and toasty. They can also be fruity and floral but in a supporting way. If you like a classic cup, look for single origin coffees from Latin America, especially Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Brazil. If you want this flavour profile but you prefer a bit more body and a little less acidity, go for the Espresso JJ blend.
Fruity and floral
Classic flavours almost disappear, supporting aromas of berries, stone fruit, black tea, citrus oil, and flowers. This is Africa’s jam. Look for single origins from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda. The Eastside blend gives you a good dose of fruit from the natural Ethiopian, but balanced with classic and earthy elements.
Earthy and mellow
If you think coffee just isn’t coffee unless it’s a little rugged (full-bodied, earthy, and reminiscent of Seattle in the ’90’s), Indonesia may be your region. We don’t serve Indonesian coffees as often as other regions because they’re inconsistently good, but when we do they are generally from Sumatra. If you like this flavour profile, there is always an Indonesian component in Eastside, imparting hefty body. If you like it darker, Railtown.
Like wine? What’s your favourite grape? Cabernet Sauvignon? Chardonnay? Coffea Arabica has many varieties (or varietals, cultivars), each with their own characteristics that express uniquely depending on the terroir. Pinot Noir grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon will share similarities with the same grape grown in Burgundy, France, but will taste markedly different due to differences in terroir. The same is true of a Bourbon coffee grown in Antigua, Guatemala and a Bourbon planted in Kivu, Rwanda.
Some varietals you’ll commonly see listed on our labels:
Bourbon: Natural mutation of Typica with excellent cup quality.
Catuai: A productive and sturdy dwarf hybrid of Caturra and Mondo Novo.
Caturra: Dwarf natural mutation of Bourbon with similar cup quality with higher yields.
Ethiopian Heirloom: Some of the most aromatically amazing coffees ever. Often floral and lemony, especially in Yirgacheffe.
Geisha: Ethiopian variety made famous in Panama for its floral and citrusy characteristics. Very pricy because of rarity.
Maragogype: Massive size. Can be fruity.
Mondo Novo: Natural Brazilian cross of Typica and Bourbon with high yields.
Pacas: Natural mutation of Bourbon. A classic of El Salvador.
Pacamara: Large-size hybrid of Maragogype and Pacas with creamy body and lovely fruity characteristics.
SL-28: Excellent, distinctively fruity/winy variety produced by Scott Laboratories in Kenya.
SL-34: More disease resistant than SL-28 but perhaps not as high in cup quality.
Typica: The OG coffee variety and the mother of many, taken from Yemen and spread the world over. Low yields but high quality.
Villa Sarchi: Dwarf mutation of Bourbon first grown in Costa Rica.
How the coffee is converted from a cherry to a green coffee bean ready for roasting has a tremendous impact on its flavour. This conversion from cherry to green bean is called a processing method.
There are three general categories of process: washed, semi-washed, and natural.
Washed coffees are the cleanest tasting coffees (notable absence of earthy or ferment flavours) with the most pronounced acidity. With some exceptions, most great specialty coffees are processed using the washed method.
Semi-washed coffees often have less acidity and more rustic flavours than washed coffees. Of the many versions: pulped-natural Brazilians have a tobacco-like note, honey-processed Costa Ricans may exhibit raisin or prune-like notes, and wet-hulled Sumatrans are usually intensely earthy and herbal.
High quality natural processed coffees from Brazil are less fruity than those of Ethiopia, which explode with berry and other fruit flavours.
The final flavour of coffee is produced through roasting, even if the coffee is roasted to a very light colour. Lighter roasts have become fashionable and exciting, but some taste vegetal and grassy which is just as bad as a darker roast tasting burnt. The real question is, “Which roast do you like?”
Light to medium roast
Origin characteristics are best expressed at this stage (the flavours that reflect terroir, varietal, and processing method). Tastes reminiscent of toast, malt, raw sugar, and the lighter stages of sugar browning are upfront in Latin American coffees but in the background of most African coffees at this roast level. The body will be lighter, with acidity taking center stage. Sound good? Drink single origin coffees.
Body develops and acidity is muted, creating balance. The coffee will be rounder, fuller, and mellower. Aromas produced by the roast at this stage may include caramel, roasted nuts, cocoa, and chocolate. This is our go-to espresso colour for Eastside, Espresso JJ, and Decaf and it allows all of these blends to be used for espresso and drip.
You’ll find lots of body, no acidity, and smoke! Throw in a little earthiness, too. You’re looking for Railtown. Nothing else will satisfy you.
Learn more about our coffee roasting philosophy: flavour and freshness.