Why the Label Matters

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You may have noticed that high-quality roasters like Seattle Coffee Works provide a LOT of information on the label of a bag of coffee beans. Often in very small print!

Where the coffee comes from (sometimes down to the single coffee farm), the elevation where it’s grown, the botanical variety, how it’s dried etc. etc. Why? Are these info-heavy labels meant to prove that the coffee inside has been directly purchased from a farmer we know? Are we testing customers’ vision prescriptions? Or, might one suspect that roasters squeeze all that information on there to show off?

Ethiopia Wabe Sombo Label
An example of a single-origin, direct-trade coffee label showing the farm where the coffee was grown, as well as key growing, processing, and roasting data

Coffee geeks use the label to zero in quickly on the unique flavors they seek in each high-end coffee.

But any coffee drinker can leverage the info on the label to improve how you brew and what you taste. Our head roaster, Ben Smith, walks us through on how to use some of the info on the label to improve your brew, even before you open the bag of beans.

Here’s his correspondence with a customer seeking expertise on how to more efficiently find the right grind with a new coffee. (For tips on how to dial in the right grind, see our blog post on Getting Your Grind Right.)

From our customer question hotline, August 2021…

Hi folks,

… While I enjoy the process of dialing in my pourover for a new delivery of beans, I typically won't get it right until at least halfway through the bag. I'd love to have your expertise to work with--and maybe tweak from there to the particulars of my setup. ;)

- Xen E., Seattle

    Hello Xen,

    Thank you for your kindness. I, personally, feel your pain regarding dialing in different coffees and reacting to their unique qualities. Unfortunately, this problem doesn't quite go away completely, no matter your level of coffee training/experience--as any coffee needs some trial and error to get just right. Fortunately, though, all is not hopeless! There are tips I can offer to help you expedite the dialing-in process:

    The most helpful tip I can give you is that the origin matters. Probably the most useful characteristic of any coffee is knowing its density, which impacts its flow rate. Denser coffees will require a coarser grind, as their flow rates are slower. Less dense coffees will need a finer grind, as their flow rates are faster. The key is to balance flow rate with grind size, so that you hit that desired brew time.

    When you start brewing a brand new coffee, there are ways to anticipate how dense a coffee will be, so then you can preemptively adjust the grind size accordingly. A general rule of thumb is that East African coffees are quite dense, while South/Central Americans tend to be more porous (not a hard and fast rule, just a good place to start).

    Also, there is a positive correlation between elevation and density, so when you look at our bag and see a high elevation (around 2000m) you know that it most likely will be dense, and therefore you can set the grind coarser before you even need to brew it once. The low end of growing altitude would be around 1400m, which you then can infer to be a relatively porous coffee.

    For example, let's say you're brewing our Guatemala Esperanza for the first time on V60. You know it's a Central American coffee, and that it is grown at 1650-1750m. Therefore, you know it will have an average density. According to our brew guide, you should use about a "7" setting on an EK43 grinder. Once you brew on this setting, make a note on the brew time (too fast, go finer; too slow, go coarser) and how delicious it tastes (too sour, go finer; too bitter, go coarser) and then you'd have a good strategy for your next cup.

    Next, let's say you have our Ethiopia Addisu. You know it's an East African coffee, and that it is grown at a very high 1870-2000m. Therefore, you have very good reason to believe it is denser than the Guatemalan coffee you brewed previously, so you would start at a coarser grind setting (maybe as high as 7.5). If you tried brewing that coffee at the same setting as the Guatemalan coffee, you'd be in store for a very long brew time!

    Remember, your best tool is your palate! Whatever tastes good to you is correct, and some coffees with long brew times will taste delicious, and some with short brew times will taste delicious. The best thing you can do is try lots of coffee and figure out what you like, and you'll feel more confident that you're going to get a great cup.

    Warm regards,

    Ben, for Seattle Coffee Works

    If you'd like to give this a try with some of our Guatemalan and Ethiopian coffees, check our current selection of fresh-roasted single-origin coffees: https://www.seattlecoffeeworks...

    You can always contact Ben and our other coffee pros for tips or questions by emailing service@seattlecoffeeworks.com

    Ben Smith
    Ben is a passionate White Sox fan and history buff. His favorite coffee is our direct-trade Guatemala La Esperanza Pacamara, a rare and tasty single-variety coffee.

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