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How to Pick the Best-Tasting Coffee

  • How to find the best-tasting coffee?
    • Taste Notes
    • Roast Profiles (Light, Medium, Dark)
    • Coffee Processing Method
      • Natural
      • Washed
      • Honeyed
  • What do the experts say?
    • Our Study (using Cup of Excellence coffees)
    • The coffees in the study
    • Taste note groupings
    • Taste notes by varietal
  • Conclusion

How to find the best-tasting coffee?

There are a few elements one must keep in mind when looking for great-tasting coffee. Each one of the below impacts the expected flavor of the coffee itself.

Taste Notes:

The most obvious element to keep in mind is your taste preferences when searching for the best-tasting coffee—it is objective! It is essential to familiarize yourself with the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel as coffee roasters often use these descriptors on their packaging. Coffee roasters widely adopt the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel as it is descriptive, quantifiable (when using an intensity scale 1 – 15), and replicable.

Coffee roasters tend to use the flavor notes on their packaging from the most intense to the least intense. Our Dark Roast flavor profile shows that the first taste note we list is Chocolate due to its highly pronounced chocolate notes.

The goal for exploration would be to start on the inner portion of the wheel, identify the areas of most interest and look for coffees bearing those taste notes. Keep in mind; other elements will impact the overall body, aroma, and intensity of the coffee, which we will cover in more detail later on.

Coffee Taster’s Wheel, Image from SCA

Roast Profile:

The roast profile (depth of color) has a significant impact on the underlying taste of the coffee. The correlation to flavor and color is why customers’ most searched terms include roast color (light, medium, or dark). Color is a low-resolution method for determining the degree of roast of coffee relative to cup characteristics. If we look at our most basic comparison in coffee, the light roast versus the dark roast, one massive difference outside of color is the degree of caramelization present in the coffee.

Between 338- and 392-degrees F is when caramelization begins to develop in coffee. Considering light roast coffees finish around 392 – 405 degrees F, the extent of caramelization and sugar development is relatively low.

Without going too technical, here are what you can expect from each roast type:

Roast Type Sweetness Acidity Aroma Body Origin Characteristics
Light Roast High fruity and Sour sweetness Pronounced and that can lean toward sourness Pronounced sweet, fruity, and floral Delicate and light Preserved
Medium Roast Balanced fruit and Nutty/Cocoa sweetness Balanced Acidity but fruitiness can still shine through Balanced nutty/cocoa and fruity aroma Moderate body Moderately Preserved
Dark Roast Subtle fruit sweetness but moderate Nutty/Cocoa sweetness Mostly Removed Pronounced nutty/cocoa aromas and at times smoky/roasty Moderate to heavy body Mostly Removed as the roasting process imparts most of the flavor profile

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Coffee Processing Method:

The process of the coffee (Natural, Washed, Honeyed, etc.) loosely defines how the coffee was processed post-harvest. The post-harvest process has a great deal of impact on potential taste attributes and the quality of the finished product. While great-tasting coffee has come from every type of process, you will learn that specific methods may have flavor profiles more in line with your palette.

Close up of fresh raw coffee beans

Natural Process (Sun-dried or Dry Processed)

Method: The coffee cherries are dried on patios or raised beds in the sun to produce natural fermentation. Yeast or bacteria enter the fruit, which begins to metabolize sugars and acids, and the process continues until the coffee is dried to 11% moisture content.

Drying Time: Up to 30 days (weather permitting)

Profile: Fruit-forward, heavier body, winey, can also have strong nutty or chocolate characteristics.

Washed Process (Wet Process)

Method: The coffee cherry is removed as quickly and cleanly as possible, typically within 24 hours of harvest. The remaining seed is moved into tanks, where they either go through a ferment/wash method or a wet process to remove the rest of the mucilage.

Profile: Clean, sweet, bright, often tea-like, and floral, with a broad spectrum of fruit acidity.

Honeyed Process

Method: The honeyed process is a mix of both Natural and Washed methods. It involves an immediate removal of the cherry (but not the mucilage) and then a drying period.

Drying Time: 18 – 25 days on average

Profile: Retains some of the desirable characteristics of the Natural process like heavier body, sweet fruitiness, but carries a lower acidity and can have caramel or burnt sugar sweetness.

Honeyed Processed Coffee, Image from Cafe Imports

What do the experts say?

When looking for an expert opinion for the best tasting coffee in the world, we leveraged 2021 Cup of Excellence data to help us formulate an opinion.

Those who do not know the Cup of Excellence are the most prestigious competition and auction for high-quality coffees. Each year, thousands of coffees are submitted for consideration, with winning coffees sold in global online auctions at premium prices. We chose the Cup of Excellence data to evaluate preferred flavor and taste notes due to their high level and rigor of judging. The Cup of Excellence coffees are evaluated over 120 times before being pushed onto auction, and they record all the taste notes from the National and International jury.

Try Our Award-Winning Cup of Excellence Coffee from Ethiopia

2021 Cup of Excellence Winner: Rank #8
Producer: Asefa Dukamo
Cupping Score: 88.57
Varietal: 74158
Region: Sidama
Taste Notes: Apple, Black Cherry, Lemon

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Our Study:

We looked at the top 3 ranked coffees from each of the 2021 Cup of Excellence auctions. We aggregated the judge’s taste notes into buckets that relate to the SCA’s Coffee Tasters wheel. The goal of the aggregation is to find any correlation between high-scoring coffees and specific taste notes. We did add a Tropical Fruit bucket as those flavors are well expressed in the judging taste notes but not well represented on the SCA’s Coffee Tasters wheel.

Coffees In The Study:

Rank Country Year Farm Score Variety Process
1 Colombia 2021 Obraje 90.61 Gesha Washed
2 Colombia 2021 La Siria 90.07 Gesha Washed
3 Colombia 2021 El Zafiro 89.46 Castillo Natural
1 El Salvador 2021 Mileydi 91.68 Pacamara Washed
2 El Salvador 2021 El Conacaste 91.29 Gesha Natural
3 El Salvador 2021 Santa Elena 90.54 Gesha Washed
1 Ethiopia 2021 Tamiru Tadesse Tesema 90.60 74165 Anaerobic
2 Ethiopia 2021 Dawencho G/H/D Bunna Amrach 90.50 74110 Natural
3 Ethiopia 2021 Tade GG Highland Forest Coffee 90.37 Typica Natural
1 Guatemala 2021 El Injerto I 90.50 Gesha Washed
2 Guatemala 2021 El Socorro 90.10 Gesha Washed
3 Guatemala 2021 Rosma 90.00 Gesha Washed
1 Honduras 2021 Finca Santa Lucia 90.67 Gesha Washed
2 Honduras 2021 Platanares 90.40 Typica Natural
3 Honduras 2021 Los Pinos 90.37 Typica Honey
1 Mexico 2021 Finca Santa Cruz 91.58 Gesha Natural
2 Mexico 2021 San Luis 90.25 Gesha Natural
3 Mexico 2021 La Teja 90.19 Caturra Blend Washed
1 Nicaragua 2021 Jesus Mountain 90.96 Pacamara Washed
2 Nicaragua 2021 El Cambalache 90.75 Maracaturra Honey
3 Nicaragua 2021 Los Pirineos 90.21 Catuai Natural

Read Our Article: What Country Has The Best-Tasting Coffee

Aggregated Taste Notes:

We saw the most significant % of taste notes falling in the Berry and Floral categories. This is no surprise considering the Washed / Natural processed coffees were split evenly across the 21 coffees we analyzed. Surprisingly, the more traditional (or at least what those think as standard) taste notes such as Nutty/Cocoa and Brown Sugar categories were well underrepresented.

Tasting Buckets % Represented
Berry/Other Fruit 32%
Floral 25%
Citrus Fruit 16%
Tropical Fruit 11%
Nutty Cocoa 6%
Sweet 5%
Brown Sugar 5%

As for the Berry/Other Fruit category, here are the most common fruits we saw in the study:

  1. Peach
  2. Apricot
  3. Blackberry
  4. Blueberry
  5. Grape

We found to be quite underrepresented in the Berry/Other Fruit category were the red fruits like Strawberry and Raspberries.

The Three Highest Scoring Coffees:

The three highest-scoring coffees in the analysis all led with Floral or Jasmine flavor notes. These coffees were also scored above an unheard of 91pts

Country Year Farm Score Variety Berry/Other Fruit Tropical Fruit Citrus Fruit Floral
El Salvador 2021 Mileydi 91.68 Pacamara 1 0 3 1
El Salvador 2021 El Conacaste 91.29 Gesha 0 1 1 3
Mexico 2021 Finca Santa Cruz 91.58 Gesha 3 0 0 2

Taste Notes by Varietal:

While a small representation of the number of coffees in our study, it is interesting to see how certain varietals lean towards specific taste notes.

Varietal Number of Coffees in Study
Gesha 10
Typica 3
Pacamara 2
Maracaturra 1
74165 1
Castillo 1
74110 1
Catuai 1
Caturra Blend 1
Grand Total 21

Gesha Varietal:

Overall: On average, Gesha coffees had a high representation of Floral and Jasmine notes, present in 42% of the Gesha coffees in the study. The high floral note representation is due to 8 out of 10 Gesha coffees are Washed processed. As seen earlier, Washed processed coffees are clean, bright, and lean toward the citrus and floral notes.

Typica Varietal:

Overall: The Typica variety leaned heavily toward the Berry/Other fruit notes while also more traditional tasting notes like Cocoa and Nuttiness.

Pacamara Varietal:

Overall: The Pacamara varietal was quite balanced across the Berry and Citrus fruit taste notes while also seeing some representation on the Nutty/Cocoa side.

Conclusion:

Bottom line, it is not easy to find great-tasting coffee, but if you’ve made it this far, you should be well on your way. Don’t forget to familiarize yourself with the SCA Coffee Tasters Wheel and understand the fundamental differences in Varietal and Process. With this knowledge, you are equipped to choose the best-tasting coffee that fits your palate. Find a coffee roaster/s that highlights these elements on their packaging or website, and give different ones a try!

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