the beginner's guide to buying coffee online 2020 edition text overlay on a male hand holding coffee bag

Beginner’s Guide to buying coffee beans online [2020 Edition]

This is the ultimate guide to rule all other coffee guides on buying your coffee beans online.

Coffee, Glorious Coffee!

It’s the golden liquid that gets most of us up in the morning and helps us stay awake during the long working hours.

Believe it or not, Coffee is the MOST consumed beverage on the planet with over 80% of the population consuming it daily. Yep, it beats Beer, Wine and Coca-cola in terms of daily consumption (Water is not classified as a beverage for this study). But despite being so popular, most people cannot even tell you what is in a Flat white, let alone name a common variety of coffee tree.

If you want to learn more about what coffee really is (hint: it ISN’T even a bean) and where it comes from, check out this video

And for those of you who are wanting to become their own barista at home, this guide will help you understand where and what coffee you should buy for your home, how to get the best results and how to avoid any online pitfalls.

INDEX OF IMPORTANCE

Below is an index to help you understand the main topics of this blog post. You can jump directly to the topic by clicking on the link.

COFFEE QUALITY

PRICE OF COFFEE

COFFEE CUPPING SCORE

COFFEE ROAST TYPE

HOW YOU DRINK YOUR COFFEE

COFFEE FLAVOURS

COFFEE VARIETIES

COFFEE ROAST DATE

GROUND COFFEE OR WHOLE BEANS

SHIPPING

 

COFFEE QUALITY

Before all else, you need to understand that all coffee is not created equally!

Just like cars; which can have four wheels, a steering wheel and gets you from A-B, coffee wakes you up. But we wouldn’t walk into a Rolls Royce dealership and complain about the $500k price tag because we saw a Kia down the road for only $15k. Because we’re educated about cars from birth, we inherently know that the quality of the Rolls is unlike any other car. We may not understand all the ins and outs of every part and feature, but we recognise that the craftsmanship is second to none.

However, with coffee, there hasn’t been ANY education to the public about what drives quality. So I’m going to help change that for you.

 

PRICE OF COFFEE

Roasted Coffee beans online prices can range from the cheap and nasty $14/kg

Koffee Kult Dark Roast Coffee Beans

 

to high quality, rare and expensive at over $780AUD/kg.

 

The Yemen Trilogy

 

The quality of coffee is nearly always represented within the price. This extreme pricing tells us two things: 1) All coffee isn’t created equal. 2) People will buy just about anything.

CUPPING SCORE

What most people don’t know (yes, that even includes all our fancy hipster friends with the stretched earlobes and latte art more complex than their sleeve tattoos) is that coffee quality ranks on a scale of 1-100 (100 being the highest quality). It’s not a linear scale either, it’s an exponential scale, which means it’s a lot harder to get a score of 80 than it is to get a score of 70 and much much harder to get a score of 90!

The problem is that the cupping score is rarely in any descriptions or on any packaging – one of the more important differentiators of coffee quality is not even used!

So how do we tell the difference in quality? Well… the price.

Coffee is always going to give you a hit, but how enjoyable that hit is going to be is directly linked to price. If you can stomach something that resembles flavours of burnt cedar and petroleum, then jump on that $14 coffee.

Sin City – Medium Dark Roast Blend

 

This coffee has probably got a cupping score around 40.

But if you’re more interested in savouring your coffee from the first sip to last instead of downing it like some dirty cough medicine, you can probably find something great for around $60AUD/kg which will have a cupping score of 80-85.

There is one place where you can see the cupping scores of the coffees, and that’s here at Coffee Beans Delivered where you can see the entire range of coffee blends & single origins and other HELPFUL information to make informed decisions. All the coffees on the website are 82+ cupping scores.

 

KNOWING YOUR ROAST

Now that you understand why coffees vary so widely in price, you need to understand what sort of roast you are going to need. There are three main roast types Light/Medium/Dark and most decent online stores will tell you this information.

Dark Roast coffee

Unless you like the sort of flavours that kick you in the teeth, you should stay away from Dark Roasted coffee. Dark roast is the coffee equivalent of a Well-Well-Well-Done steak. Most people understand that if you want to cook a lousy cut of meat, you cook it for longer and the protein molecules breakdown further and make it less tough to eat. The same rule applies to coffee. A mediocre quality coffee (with a low cupping score of 70 or less) needs roasting for longer. However, just like a steak, dark roasted coffee tastes bland and “roasty” without any of the gorgeous subtle flavours of a medium or light roast.

Dark roasts are still ubiquitous in coffees from USA and Europe and Asia although the shift to medium roast is happening slowly. The variety that was most easily accessible up until about the mid-2000s was Robusta and this is the reason for the popularity of dark roasts (I’ll get to Varieties in more depth later, or you can skip ahead here). Robusta is, as the name suggests, a robust plant that will grow just about anywhere in the world, has a lot of caffeine, will produce a lot of cherries, and is resistant to a lot of diseases and pests. The trade-off, however, is that it tastes very bitter and unpleasant. And as I explained before, the way to counter the awful flavours is to roast it darker.

In the last couple of decades, we discovered that another variety called Arabica tastes so much smoother and has a vast range of natural flavour profiles. Arabica now accounts for 60% of the world’s production, but obviously, there are still varying degrees of quality produced.

Dark roasts are easy to spot when you’re in a cafe because you can see how dark and oily they are in the hopper, but how can you tell when you’re shopping online?

Obviously, you can see if it says Dark Roast like these:

Koffee Kult Dark Roast Coffee Beans 

Caribou Coffee

 

If they have an image of the beans, you should be able to see that they are oily and dark/black in appearance.

There are other names for dark roasts, and these include Full City, Vienna, French or Italian roasts.

These will usually be cheaper than other coffees because the more expensive the beans, the more you want to keep the original complex flavours and not ruin them with a ‘roasty’ taste.

Medium roast coffee

Medium roast is sometimes also called espresso roast when you’re buying online.

Medium roasted coffee is kind of like the All-rounder of coffee roasts. It’s absolutely perfect for espresso-based drinks but also for other brewing methods such as plunger, filter, cold drip etc. While some people may prefer to make their filter coffee using light-roasted coffee, unless you’re specifically after specific flavours in a filter coffee without milk, medium roasted coffee will still be great.

The natural characteristics of coffee shines through with a medium roast, and you can experience a myriad of different flavours that you won’t find in a darker roast.

If you’re buying coffee online in Australia you should be lucky because this type of roast is the most common – but don’t forget that if the price is lower, it means low-quality beans and they will be dark roasts.

Light Roast

Light-roasted coffee is specifically for black coffees with any brew method other than espresso.

For a short time, people went crazy and used light-roasted coffee in their espresso drinks. But, just like Darwin’s theory of evolution, thankfully these guys died out. There is too much carbon dioxide in light roasted coffee and when you apply the pressure of 9 times the earth’s atmosphere, you get a very very sour cup.

No, Light roast should be kept for brewing methods that use natural gravity to extract the flavours from the grind.

So when shopping online, look for FILTER or LIGHT in the roast type if you’re after something for a black coffee made on virtually anything that doesn’t use pressure to extract (exceptions to the rule are Aeropress and Delta press which can still use light roasted coffee although its best to still go for a medium)

Ok, so Now what we’ve learned so far is:

Price = quality – the cheaper the costs the lower the quality and sharper the flavours
Roast type is important to your brewing device.

Since, we now have the right TYPE of roasted coffee, we can begin to match it to our own flavour preferences.

HOW YOU DRINK IT

With or without milk?

This is a very important variable that isn’t often covered online and ought to be. Not every coffee is good in milk and vice versa: not every coffee bean is good as a short black.

Milk Coffees

Milk has it’s own flavour characteristics so you need to understand that trying to taste jasmine and citrus in a milk-based drink just isn’t going to happen.

You need to be realistic about the flavours you will get after adding milk. For the most part, they are going to be basic and broad characteristics like Caramel, Chocolate, Malt Punchy and on occasion: Berry, fruity.

If you’re drinking it with milk try to avoid floral and citrus flavours because they will often be tasteless and flat or worse, grassy and sour/spicy.

The main flavours you will come across with blends in milk are Chocolate and Caramel. This is a coffee that tastes like sweet and rich buttery chocolate. It cuts through the milk very well and gives that nice punch.

Tall, Dark & Handsome

Another blend that goes well in milk is Il Caramello. It is smoother with more malt and caramel flavours.

Il Caramello Coffee Blend

Remember, different kinds of milk have their own flavour as well so if you’re using cheap milk it’s going to taste quite different, so bear this in mind if you are looking at cheap coffee. I always prefer to buy the unhomogenised local milk as that has loads more cream and hasn’t been watered down with… literally water!

If you are looking for a single origin to use in milk, stick to the deeper flavour profiles like Chocolate, malt, caramels and some stonefruits. Try to avoid terms that say Citrus, floral, tea or bright and intense. As a rule of thumb, the process you should look for is Washed but this isn’t a strict rule. We’ll get more into understanding the processing of coffee in a bit.

Black Coffees

If you are drinking your coffee without milk you open up your range of choice for flavours.

Because milk has its own flavour characteristics, with Black coffee you can hone in just the flavours within the coffee.

This is where understanding your palate and the flavours you prefer will help you decide which coffees are good for you.

When you get above the 80+ cupping score, all the coffees are great so if you don’t like a coffee, you probably aren’t making it correctly, or it just doesn’t suit your palate.

This is the flavour wheel. How you use it is by starting in the middle and working your way out. Firstly use the broad flavours descriptors, then move outward to hone in on the ones you like. This super cool interactive flavour wheel will help you start identifying the different flavours in your cup. This is from the website notbadcoffee.com

flavour wheel for coffee with broad flavours in the centre and more specific flavours on the outside of the wheel

FLAVOURED COFFEE BEANS

Of course, there are also some crazy flavours you can get from coffees that have been soaked in barrels or have had artificial flavours added. These can sometimes work exceptionally well in milk if you want specific flavours. Just remember though, these are more like lollies than coffee flavours.

Here are some of the craziest flavoured coffees I’ve found

Maple Bacon

Salted Caramel 

Fruit loops 

Toasted Marshmallow

Spicy Taco


Starbucks 

Blends VS. Single Origins

Difference between a blend and a single origin

In order to understand what coffee is right for your brew, you need to first understand the difference between a blend and a single origin.

Single Origin Coffee

A single-origin coffee refers to one origin (Country). It’s not completely exact because there can be a hundred different farms in one region of the country which can have very different flavours (just like wine, for instance). But since we aren’t yet at the stage of ordering coffees by the variety of tree yet, we tend to lump all coffees from one country into a single “Origin”.

In a broad sense, coffees from one country will be similar usually because of the varieties that have been cultivated there and their processing methods.

For instance, in African countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda) they don’t have a vast amount of water so they extract the seeds (coffee beans) from the cherries by first drying them all out on beds in the sun. This process is called “Natural or unwashed” and creates a more intense and often citrus flavour in the coffee.

Alternatively, in the Central and South Americas, they have an abundance of water and so they “Wash” process their coffees. This removes the flesh of the cherries very early on so they will have a much more cleaner and balanced flavour profile.

Guatemalan Single Origin Coffee

There are now a lot more ways of processing the coffee using a combination of both methods and other fermentation methods borrowed from the wine industry, but we’ll go into the processing a bit deeper later.

So, now you understand a single-origin coffee.

Papua New Guinean Coffee

Blends

A blend is much easier to understand because as the name suggests, it’s a blend of different coffees. These are normally blended using different single-origin from around the globe. The reason for blending is usually for cost because you can use a cheaper single-origin as the base and then highlight certain flavours with some more expensive single origins. Blends can range from using 3-6 single origins usually.

Now that you understand the difference between the two types of beans you’ll need to work out which one is best for you and the way that you drink it.

BLEND OR SINGLE ORIGIN?

Well, if you are drinking your coffee with milk, blends will be best as they are designed to cut through. You aren’t limited to blends but if you go to a website that has two blends and a million single-origin coffees then you probably can’t go too wrong just picking a blend.

If you try to figure out which single-origin you want and there is no tag that says “good for milk” then you might end up with something that tastes horrible when adding milk.

Here are the things to consider when drinking it with milk:

Washed processed coffee is better with milk. This is just a guide so if the website says it’s only good for black coffee, then follow its instructions. A washed coffee has the outer flesh of cherry removed by a washing technique which means the complex sugars that give a coffee its intense citrus flavour is not as present. With washed processed coffee you’ll find more of the mild and earthy flavours like cacao, stonefruits, malts and light acidity.

Natural Processed coffees are better without milk. Natural process means ‘unwashed’ and this means the cherry flesh remains on the seeds (beans) as it dries out in the sun. The complex sugars that create a sweet intense and citrus flavour seep into the bean and give a great citrus, floral, high acidity flavour. These are just delicious without milk but because milk neutralises all the citrus, you either end up with a flavourless latte or a sour one.

Honey process, Black Honey, Wet Hulled, Semi washed, macerated and any other crazy names you might see are just somewhere in between the two main processing. People are starting to experiment with the processing stage by using techniques that are borrowed from Wine fermentation. As a rule of thumb, unless you drink it black, stay away from these methods.

A QUICK NOTE ON VARIETIES

Most coffees are of the Arabica variety these days, so often it isn’t specified on websites. Specialty coffee is ALWAYS Arabica so you don’t even need to search website if this is what they sell.

There are two major varieties that are commercially used and so we’re only going to talk about these. There are another 5 or 6 main varieties but these are either undrinkable or too rare. We’ll focus on the two main ones.

Robusta (accounts for 30% of the world’s production) is low quality, rougher and more bitter flavoured bean used mostly these days in instant or supermarket coffee. It has twice the caffeine of Arabica but as a result, tastes considerably worse (caffeine is actually quite a bitter flavour)

Arabica (Accounts for 60-70% of the world’s production) and although it’s more expensive to cultivate which is why it’s more expensive to purchase, the flavours you can extract from it are so much broader and nicer than that of its sister varieties.

If you’re looking for an old school flavour then you can get a cheap Robusta coffee that does the trick. However, if you are after finer tasting coffee without the bitterness, stick to Arabica beans.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

There’s usually a lot of information on coffee sites now, but unfortunately, they don’t exactly detail what this information means and how it affects the flavour for your drink. Here’s a list of the most common information you’re likely to come across:

Processing

The processing takes place after the cherries have been harvested. This refers to the way in which the seed (bean) is extracted from the cherry flesh. There are multiple ways of doing this but the most common two ways are Washed and Natural.

Washed Processing

Washed processing is exactly as it sounds: you take the cherries and put them through a wet de-pulper to take off most of the flesh and then they are soaked in a huge vat of water. This gives the coffee a very sweet and balanced flavour and allows more of the characteristics of the variety to shine through. Washed coffees are best for milk in most cases.

Natural Processing

Natural is sometimes referred to as Unwashed and is most commonly used in African countries where the water is scarce. Essentially you dry the cherries out on beds in the sun until the flesh becomes dry enough and can be peeled off the seed. This process allows for the complex sugars in the cherry flesh to be absorbed into the seed itself and usually has a lot more intense and citrus flavours. Natural processed coffee is better as a black but sometimes it has enough flavour to cut through the milk as well.

Altitude

The higher the altitude the harder the beans become when they are growing inside the cherries. This is sometimes referred to as Strictly Hard Beans (SHB) or Strictly High Grown (SHG). These coffees are grown above 1200masl and sometimes can be grown right up around 2000masl.

Generally speaking, the higher grown coffee beans are better quality such as these amazing Guatemalan coffee beans which are grown around 1700masl.

Region

Inside each country itself, there are many different growing regions for coffee and each area can have slightly different Terrior which can subtly affect the flavour of the beans itself.

Knowing the coffee regions are good for roasters because they understand all the nuances each region has, but for the regular customer, it can be ignored for now.

Varietals

There are thousands of varieties and each has a unique set of growing patterns, tasting notes, and yields but unless you’re doing a scientific study into the different varieties you don’t really need to understand much more than Arabica and Robusta.

One day in the future, we’ll hopefully know enough to order by the varietal like we do for wines but that is still a few years away at least.

Acidity

Acidity isn’t a bad thing when you’re talking about coffee. It’s actually a desirable sensation like the tartness of a Pink Lady apple or the way sparkling water tickles your tongue.

There are many times that acidity is overlooked and when the coffee is darker roasted there is a lot less of the desirable acidities and much more bitter flavours present.

ROAST DATE

Roasts dates are often specified on websites so you may need to look through the FAQs to find out how often they roast or else, contact them.

Most specialty roasters will roast weekly or daily depending on their schedules. Here are a few things to think about when considering where to buy.

If you have an espresso machine, you DO NOT want to use fresh coffee. When I say fresh, I mean TOO fresh. It’s a bit of a weird word actually, fresh is best but what does it even mean? When we buy bread we want it freshly baked that day if possible, same goes for muffins and other baked goods.

But with espresso coffee, fresh should mean within the last couple of weeks. You don’t actually want to use coffee for espresso machines any earlier than at least 10-14 days (Much longer during winter). This is because there is a lot of Carbon Dioxide trapped inside the beans and these take time to release. If you try using coffee that hasn’t properly degassed, the coffee will be sour tasting.

Even filter coffee should be degassed for at least 4-7 days before you use it. Just like a steak, it needs to rest for a while in order for you to get the best flavours from it.

On the other end of the spectrum, coffee can almost last forever. However, the flavour continues to disappear and eventually you’ll just start getting rancid flavours. Commercially, coffee has 12 months expiry date, so if you get a coffee that has an expiry date that is only 6 months away you can easily work backwards and assume it was roasted 6 months beforehand. This means, it’s not the freshest coffee and probably should be avoided.

GROUND OR WHOLE BEAN

One of the final critical pieces of information when deciding on your coffee is whether or not you get them as whole beans or ground for your machine.

The simple answer is: Always opt for whole beans if you can.

Of course, if you don’t have a grinder, getting whole beans will mean you’ll have to take them to a local cafe and ask them to grind the beans for you instead which can be awkward and uncomfortable.

Obviously, if you absolutely need to you, get them ground but understand that you are compromising the freshness and flavour of the bean. From the moment you grind those beans up they start releasing all the flavours and unless they are kept completely airtight and in a dark cupboard, then you aren’t going to have any tasty coffee left within a couple of days.

So, even if you can only afford a cheap Bodum grinder it will be better than continuously using ground coffee.

SHIPPING

Shipping is a tricky one when buying coffee online. There are many different couriers and they all have different speeds of delivery. You shouldn’t be too worried about coffee that takes 2-5 days to get to you because as I mentioned in the roasting date section, too fresh is not best.

Don’t order for a Friday shipment! This is important. If your coffee gets shipped on a Friday, it’s likely to be held over the weekend in a stinking hot warehouse and you’ll compromise the integrity of the beans.

Always aim to get your beans sent on a Monday or at least delivered by Friday.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There you have it, that’s the end of your guide to buying coffee online in 2019-2020.

I’ve seen coffee evolve over the past 20 years that I’ve been in the industry. We are only still scratching the surface of what we understand about the best way to use and create coffee so don’t believe anyone if they say they know everything because there’s just no way.

I believe that sharing information and being as transparent as you can about coffee will help the consumer world get the most out of it.

There are other pieces of information but you really don’t have to be too concerned about unless you are a coffee aficionado and want as much info as possible – in which case you probably know all of this anyway, but here is a list of further info related to the coffee and quality.

Chemistry of Coffee

Processing coffee

Producers guide to coffee

Specialty Coffee Association

Ryadan Jeavons

by Ryadan Jeavons

Ryd is a passionate coffee educator who started his career in 2000 as a barista. Having seen the coffee industry develop over the years and how much there is to learn about coffee still, his personal mission has become a role as the conduit between the industry and the consumer. He is passionate about educating the public on all the wonderful things we are learning about this golden liquid drink.

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