Coffee Buying Guide

Who knew 6 letters could be so powerful? Coffee can help us get through the day, get through the night, and give us a great tasting beverage like no other. Everyone's favorite wake-me-up treat can be somewhat complex if you're really looking for a great cup of Joe. Buying coffee in your local deli or shop is easy enough, but what really goes into a brew that makes you say, "Wow that's a great cup of coffee?" Read below to find out!


When grinding your own, the key to good coffee is to buy whole beans and grind them when you are ready to make the coffee - not before. Even with whole beans, coffee doesn't keep long. You want to buy the coffee from a purveyor who has roasted it recently - preferably in the last couple days. Find a coffee company in your area who roasts locally, or try Internet sources that roast their own beans and then immediately ship to you. Online coffee providers to consider are La Colombe and Peet's. There are two kinds of coffee beans available: arabica and robusta. They come from different species of coffee plant and have slightly different flavors. Robusta beans are easier to grow but aren't as flavorful or complex; they are usually used as a filler in coffee blends, to make inexpensive coffee produces (such as instant coffee), or in espresso blends to promote formation of crema. Arabica coffee, on the other hand, is more difficult to grow (and therefore more expensive) but brews a more flavorful, complex cup. Robusta also has almost twice as much caffeine as arabica.


There is much more to coffee than popping open a can of Maxwell House blend. The first thing you might notice when you go to a coffee shop is that there are light, medium and dark roasts. What's the difference? Roasting is what makes green coffee beans into something you would want to brew. The heat of the roaster causes a series of chemical reactions; the end products are the aromatic compounds that give coffee its distinctive aroma and flavor. The longer you roast the beans, the darker the coffee gets.

Coffees by Region

Coffee originated in eastern Africa and is now grown throughout the tropics. Although only two species are grown, subspecies, local cultivars, and regional influences all affect how the coffee tastes and smells. '''Latin America''' Coffees from Latin America are some of the most popular; Brazil is also the world's leading coffee exporter.  While you can get coffee grown in just about every country south of the United States, some of the finest coffees come from Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Brazil and Mexico also produce some notable blends. Except for Brazil, which grows both, Latin American coffees are almost always arabica beans. Many excellent coffees also come from the Carribean; Jamaican Blue Mountain is probably the best known of them all. Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico all grow coffee. '''Africa/Middle East''' Coffee was said to have originally been prepared in Ethiopia, so it's no wonder that you will find some excellent coffees from this country. Kenya and Tanzania also produce beans. The type of bean varies by country; both arabica and robusta are grown here. Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania tend to grow arabica, but the rest of central Africa tends to grow a mixture or mostly robusta. Uganda is another major producer. '''South Asia/Pacific Islands''' Coffees from the South Pacific are well known -- especially those from Java! Sumatran coffee is another popular local variety as Indonesia is one of the biggest coffee producers in the world. Most of the coffee grown in this region is robusta. '''United States''' Only one state out of fifty has a climate appropriate for growing coffee -- Hawai'i. Kona coffee grows on one side of Big Island (Hawai'i) and is some of the rarest in the world. If you ever find yourself shopping on the big island, look for "100% Kona Coffee" on the label to make sure you're getting the real deal.

Fair Trade, Shade Grown, and Organic

Coffee growers have come under intense scrutiny in the last decade or so for their labor practices. You might have noticed that some of the coffee even in your local supermarket is now labeled "Fair Trade Certified". Basically, Fair Trade Certification guarantees that the laborers and farmers receive a fair price for their coffee beans, not an artificially low price due to the glut of cheap robusta coffee on the market. Fair Trade coffee growers have greater stability within their families and Fair Trade practices can benefit and strengthen entire communities. Another increasingly common label on coffee is "shade grown" or "bird friendly". Modern coffee farms often clear-cut areas of rainforest to plant coffee bushes. Direct sunshine causes the coffee to ripen more quickly, but the habitat devastation can have a considerable impact on the population of birds, insects and other wildlife. Shade grown coffee is grown the traditional way -- under a canopy of trees. This keeps more of the habitat intact, and while the coffee takes longer to ripen, it is often considered to be of superior quality. You might also see coffee labeled "organic". Organic coffee may also be free trade or shade-grown, but one does not always imply the other. Organic simply means that the coffee was grown in accordance with organic farming practices; essentially, no artificial chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used on the coffee. Organic farming practices are also beneficial to the environment.

Coffee Making Essentials

Now that you've got the lowdown on coffee beans of all types, perhaps you've picked some up and decided to make your own coffee or gotten a coffee maker to brew the grounds. Whether you've just bought a coffee maker or need some replacement items, check out the products below to help you keep on brewing.

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