Ask the Coffee Lab: What Makes a Good Coffee Bean

Welcome to Ask the Coffee Lab!  Each month our crack Coffee Lab Team will tackle your questions about coffee - from what makes decaf coffee decaf to why coffee tasters slurp - and help to bring you another step closer to being the coffee expert you know you are inside.  If you have questions to ask us, leave a comment here, on Twitter (Follow us: @Coffee_Lab), or Facebook.


Without further ado, Peter asks via our Facebook page:

"What creates a good coffee bean?"


Great question. I’m a new Dad. What creates a good kid?

My brother said that before my daughter was born, he thought his own 3 kids came out fully formed, personalities intact and that his job was just to make sure they got three square meals a day and that they didn’t get run over by a car.

Are some beans born good? Kind of. The job is usually to pick the beans at the height of ripeness and then carefully process them so that the bean stands on its own and isn’t impacted by any rough, careless, negligent handling at the mill where it’s processed.

Coffee beans have lots of parents. Some people say that a coffee gets handled by up 150 different people before it goes down the gullet. (Don’t worry – not always literally handled.)

It helps to have cultivators of Coffea Arabica that produce better tasting coffee (as opposed to producing just lots of coffee). Typica and Bourbon are common older varieties (you could almost call them heirlooms) that produce good tasting coffee beans.

Some coffee beans can look lovely and yet have no taste. Some beans can look awful and taste delicious. Some ripe coffee cherries can look great – but be really light and low quality – so looks ain’t all that matters. It’s what’s inside!

It helps to grow at higher altitudes (above 3,500 to 5,500 feet) so that the bean doesn’t get too hot or grow too fast and take on more water. As higher grown beans, good beans are denser – (they grow slower) and are better able to handle the intense heat in a roaster

It helps to be picked when the beans are super ripe – big, red, and meaty – mature and fully developed. Normally they should be milled right away so that the inherent quality of the bean can stand on its own and not be influenced by the fruit or the interaction of the fruit with water and warm weather and microbial activities that can impact (usually in a negative way) the bean.

Good beans will come from diligent and careful handling in the mill in order to not have the good ones compromised by the bad beans in the mill. Good segregation means the good ones get set aside.

Essentially any good bean starts out good and the trick is not to have it compromised on the way to your cup. There’s generally very little anyone can do to improve the quality of a coffee bean – but there are lots of ways to deleteriously affect the quality of the coffee. Imagine a long slow battle hammering away at beans – the barbarians of carelessness, inattention, thoughtlessness and inexperience.

Other things that help:

  • For the farmer to have vision, hope, knowledge and a steady buyer with clear expectations and a ready check book.

  • For the cooperative to be able to get pre-harvest financing to help pay for a farmers’ beans so that it can compete for the best coffee.

  • A roaster that is willing to pay attention to the potential a coffee has and not just cook and bake it or roast the heck out of it.

  • A convenience store manager that is willing to use a separate airpot for Hazelnut so that the Nantucket Blend that comes next doesn’t get contaminated.

  • You the customer – taking care to use a nice brewer, clean water, cleaning it regularly, serving and enjoying it fresh.

  • You the customer – caring about good coffee and being willing to pay for it. (Thank you for that, by the way).

Most mornings, my 5-month daughter sits on my lap when I start my day with my FTO Ethiopian Yirgacheffe with a little organic half and half and a little raw whipped honey. If she grows up to be sweet, clean and bright like my favorite cup of coffee, I’ll be happy.


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