We’re all spending a lot more time at home these days, which likely means we’re brewing more coffee at home and, in turn, buying more coffee at the grocery store – or online – than ever before. And let’s be real, the coffee selection process can be a bit daunting to sort through. We get it.
Coffee is a complex product grown outside of the United States. As consumers, we often don’t learn very much about coffee unless we’re proactive about it. And many coffee companies – whether deliberately or not – exploit their knowledge advantage over consumers by claiming to offer the world’s finest, freshest, highest-quality, rarest, most outstanding and exceptional coffees without backing up those claims with facts.
At Pegasus Coffee, we don’t just want to produce great coffee; we want you to understand why our coffee is great. And whether you buy our coffee or that of any number of high-quality roasters out there, we want you to be able to navigate the over-marketed consumer landscape of coffee brands and product options with confidence and finesse.
We are going to make you the expert in coffee selection, and to help, we’ve created this Coffee Buyers Guide. We promise, if you follow this guide you will never stand in the grocery store aisle, scratching your head wondering which bag of coffee is the best. You’ll just know.
Coffee Buyers Guide
Here are 5 key things to look for to ensure your coffee is high-quality:
- Whole Bean – we’ve written previously about why grinding your coffee just before brewing is so important for making a quality cup. Once coffee is ground, it begins to stale very rapidly. Aromatic and flavor compounds invariably escape once coffee is ground, no matter how good the storage or unique the packaging. A roasted coffee bean keeps the flavor compounds and aromatics locked within for weeks, but when broken apart, those compounds quickly escape, and the flavor of your morning cup disappears with them. So the first place to start when shopping for coffee is to ensure you’re buying whole beans (and, if you need a grinder, we offer a unique way to get yourself one quickly and affordably).
- Roast date (freshness) – This one goes hand-in-hand with the first recommendation. Plain and simple, the fresher the coffee, the better it will taste. Though coffee does need a little time to rest and de-gas after roasting, when buying online, the few days it takes for the coffee to arrive is usually the perfect amount of time for this. At the grocery store, however, it is very important to check the Roast Rate (not to be confused with a “Best Before” or “Use By” date, which is not nearly as useful as the roast date). Coffee can sometimes hang around on store shelves for weeks or even months, and some companies won’t put roast dates on their bags for this reason. So, be sure to check the date. If the coffee is more than about six weeks old, you should probably steer clear, even if the beans come in a nitrogen-flushed package (which does extend the beans’ shelf life a bit). But if the package doesn’t include a roast date at all? You’ll be better off finding one that does.
- Altitude – while growing great coffee depends on many factors, the altitude at which the coffee was grown can be a useful (albeit imperfect) indicator of quality. The basic rule of thumb is – the higher the altitude, the tastier the coffee. Higher-grown beans are generally harder, denser and contain a higher concentration of sugars, producing sweeter and more nuanced flavors. While shopping, look for altitudes above 1,000 meters as a minimum standard (exceptions may be made for some Island-grown coffees). At Pegasus, all of our coffees are grown above 1,000 meters, and most of them between 1,300-2,200m.
- Origin/farm transparency – As the world’s second-largest commodity, coffee’s global supply chain is vast and complex. Earth produces tens of billions of pounds of coffee each year, and while all of it is caffeinated, only a tiny fraction is highly flavorful and, therefore, highly desirable. Most coffee is rightly treated as indistinguishable from any other coffee. However, when a growing region, or specific farm or farmer, becomes famous for producing dense, nuanced and delicious coffees, industry brokers, importers, roasters and café chains often want to highlight where the coffee came from. In other words, if a coffee’s origin is important enough to mention as a selling point, that’s typically because it comes from a desirable region or farm. As a consumer, you can clue into this to help you shop. The degree of transparency and specificity on a coffee label about the coffee’s origin and processing method is generally correlated with the quality of the coffee inside the bag.
- Cupping scores- Used by coffee professionals for decades and only very recently making its way into consumer vernacular, cupping is the process of assessing a coffee’s quality by tasting it and scoring it according to an approved system. In this process, coffee graders record tasting notes and ascribe a score to each component. These scores are then added up to create a final score for the coffee overall. According to the Specialty Coffee Association’s scoring system (which we use at Pegasus), 80 points or above is considered “specialty,” or “Very Good” coffee; meanwhile, 85+ is considered “Excellent”, 90+ is “Outstanding”, and 95+ is extremely rare. Some coffee companies tout their cupping scores on their websites and in PR materials. Others have begun experimenting with adding cupping scores to their packaging, similar to the wine industry. At Pegasus, for the time being, we have made a commitment to:
- never sell any coffee that scores below an 82 of the SCA scale
- ensure that all of our New Arrivals line coffees score 86 or above
- introduce limited release coffees at higher price points over time that score in the low-to-mid 90s (be on the lookout for our first one before the end of the year)
Coffee is a personal drink, and in many cases what works for one consumer might not work for another. Yet there are some objective, verifiable indicators of quality you can look out for to ensure you’re drinking the best coffee. So, next time you shop for coffee, use this Coffee Buyers Guide, be inquisitive, read the fine print, and be confident in your selection. The next cup of truly delicious home brewed coffee is out there. We promise.
About Pegasus Coffee
Pegasus Coffee has hand-roasted small batches of high-quality arabica coffee on Bainbridge Island since 1979. A pioneer from the beginning, Pegasus introduced the European-style coffee house to the region at its first store on Bainbridge Island in 1980. Shortly thereafter, Pegasus made history when it opened the first coffee bar in downtown Seattle. The company’s innovative spirit and dedication to the roasting craft have led to the unique, delicious blends and single-origin coffees – and the loyal customer following – it is still known for today.