Cafe Hacks — How to Read Speciality Coffee Labels
If you’re new to speciality coffee — or even if you’re an old hat or a pro — it’s still easy to be baffled by some of the things you find on a label for speciality coffee. Don’t fear, we’re here to try and demystify some of those elusive terms and help you understand labels and choose your coffee better.
The different information you can find on labels will help you work out if you’re going to like the coffee and if it’s suitable for how you tend to make your coffee. If you’re buying in person then asking is always a great idea to get a recommendation or even a taste, but perhaps you’re fiercely independent or just want to know how to do this for yourself. Let’s go over some of the things featured on labels and how to work out what they mean.
This varies from roastery to roastery, but we generally have a name that signifies something specific about the coffee — like the farm, the producer themselves, or the washing station. We also have two coffees where the name stays the same — The Fields and The Broadway Blend — but the coffee that is used changes.
Know where your coffee comes from. The country that a coffee is from can indicate many things about how the coffee is going to taste — it can also sometimes be misleading (not all coffees are typical of their country) and should always be considered alongside the other information on the label. We colour code by continent and then highlight the country.
We could typecast a Kenyan coffee and say it’s going to be full of berry flavours, with plenty of acidity and sweetness, but all the other factors are going to affect what the coffee actually tastes like. You could say a Brazilian coffee is generally going to have more “traditional” coffee flavours like chocolate and nuts and a bigger body than a Kenyan coffee, but there are many exceptions to any of these “rules”.
You can be a bit more fast and loose (generally) about making assumptions on taste from whole regions than you can from countries. You could say that generally South American countries will have more tradition chocolate and nut tastes, whereas an African coffee will generally have more acidity and probably be fairly complex and fruity. Central American coffees will often sit between these two descriptions, with classic yet delicate flavour profiles. But, again, generalisations are kind of ridiculous and very often inaccurate within speciality coffee.
The processing method has a significant effect on flavour and body on the coffee. Loosely the processing is everything that happens to the coffee between being picked and being shipped from the farm or washing station. Generally, this refers to the process of removing the seeds (aka the coffee bean) from the cherry (the fruit).
The two most common methods of processing are natural and washed. With a naturally processed coffee, the cherry is dried with the skin on. The coffee is laid on drying beds (these vary from place to place — sometimes brick patios, raised beds, or a number of other ways) and then turned regularly while the skin dries to avoid fermentation and mould forming. Natural coffees tend to have bigger bodies and funkier flavours and carry more risks for farmers as a lot can go wrong in the drying process. They can often be quite divisive and there’s a bit of a marmite factor with naturally processed coffees.
The washed process means that the flesh of the cherry is removed prior to the drying of the seed. The cherry is pulped to remove the outer flesh, then controlled fermentation takes place in water and then washed to remove anything that is left of the flesh — the coffee is then dried. This is a much more expensive way of processing coffee because of the water and machinery involved. The washed process is generally always going to produce a much cleaner cup of coffee, allowing the inherent flavours of the coffee to shine through and usually have a lighter body than a naturally processed coffee.
There’s an in-between process, often called pulped natural or honey process, and there are varying degrees of how close this is to fully washed or fully natural. Usually, the coffee is pulped to remove most of the flesh and then dried with the remaining flesh.
The genus — often called variety or varietal — is the particular species of the coffee plant. This affects everything from the size of the bean to the shape of the tree, where it can grow, and almost certainly the flavour of the coffee. The jury is still out on how much the genus actually determines the flavour you get in the resulting cup of coffee, but there are some genera that always demand a much higher price than others. We’re looking at you Geisha.
The elevation of the coffee very loosely determines quality (depending on the country/region). Altitude can translate in the cup to clean, sweet and fruity flavours, with a concentration of flavour due to its long maturation periods — you generally get more nuance in flavour with every meter above sea level.
These are decided by the Climpson’s coffee team: the roasters, brewers, and quality control team. The coffee is cupped multiple times to try and find the common denominators in what they’re tasting — these are people who have been doing this for years and can pick out esoteric notes like hibiscus, or more likely lychee Rubicon and Lion bars. What we end up putting on the label is hopefully something that gives people an idea of what they might taste in their cup, but is by no means the be all and end all.
So that’s it. A brief explanation of everything we put on our labels and what they might indicate about the coffee contained inside.