How to Check Coffee Quality

The quality of coffee can vary widely depending on a number of factors, such as the type of coffee bean, its roast level, freshness, how it is brewed and of course, its taste and aroma.

Coffee is a popular beverage that is widely consumed globally. Since 2017, the world has been consuming over 160 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee per year. 

To give you some perspective, that’s more than 960 billion American standard cups of coffee each year.

However, not all coffee is created equal, so it makes sense to want to ensure the quality of the coffee we drink so regularly.

The Basics of Coffee Quality

Several factors or characteristics come together to create high-quality coffee. While most of these characteristics are subjective, freshness is the main one that dictates coffee quality.

Regular store-bought coffee may have many good or bad characteristics, but if it is not fresh, it is not good coffee. It is up to you to determine the freshness, so you can enjoy good coffee.

To check coffee quality, you must inspect its packaging, whole bean, aroma, and taste or flavor profile. Good coffee typically comes in airtight packaging that has an airtight seal and a one-way valve.

When you open the bag, the aroma of the coffee beans should smell fresh, pleasant, and strong. 

Strong aroma is often an indicator of freshness, but this may also vary depending on the type and roast level of the coffee bean.

Fresh coffee beans produce the most flavor and aroma when brewed. The whole beans should not feel too dry, or too oily. If the beans crumble in your hands, or feel too hard, it is not good quality coffee.

A balanced coffee bean is ideal to make a good cup of Joe.

Let’s dive deeper so you know exactly how to check coffee quality.

The Packaging

When you are in a store looking for good quality coffee, you likely won’t be able to open each package to physically check the quality or freshness of the whole bean. 

This is why packaging of the coffee matters, because it ensures that the coffee inside is relatively fresh.

Right off the bat, you should avoid tin cans of coffee. As you take coffee out of such rigid containers, more air is left behind. 

This extra air takes away the freshness of the remaining coffee beans, making them more stale for your next cup.

Look for airtight coffee bags instead, that typically come with a one-way valve or seal at the top. 

Such packaging allows the roasted beans inside to degas, while also restricting the amount of oxygen that comes into contact with them.

This helps maximize freshness, flavor, and aroma for longer. 

If a coffee bag does not have a one-way valve or seal, the coffee inside will not remain fresh for long and become stale quite quickly after opening the pouch.

The Whole Beans

The first step to check coffee quality is to start with the whole beans. There are two main types, Robusta and Arabica. 

The former is typically used to produce instant coffee, whereas the latter is used to produce some of the best coffees of the world.

We highly recommend opting for fresh Arabica whole beans for the best coffee drinking experience.

Regardless of the type you choose, all coffee beans are at their peak aroma and flavor for a short period of time after they are roasted. 

This period is typically within 2-3 weeks, after which the whole bean, flavor, and aroma start to degrade.

As a result, the whole beans begin losing their freshness, and the coffee starts to taste more flat or stale over time.

To ensure the freshness of whole beans, check the roast date on the label and avoid buying coffee that has a roast date more than a few weeks old. 

Some coffee labels may not mention the roast date at all; avoid these as well.

If you have a local roaster in your area, buy coffee beans directly from them, because they can likely tell you exactly when the whole beans were roasted. 

This direct link will allow you to get high-quality whole beans every time.

If you are buying a coffee bag from a store, make sure that the coffee beans inside are whole and undamaged. 

A few damaged beans are typical, but if more than a quarter of the beans are damaged, they are not fresh and you should pick a different coffee bag.

Depending on the roast level, you can determine the quality of the whole bean by inspecting its color, aroma, and texture. 

Light roast coffee has a light brown color, a floral or fruity aroma, and slightly dry whole beans.

If they are too dry, damaged, powdery, or crumble easily, they are not fresh or good quality. Medium roast coffee has a medium brown color and a more pronounced aroma. 

The beans have a balanced texture with a hint of oiliness.

On the other hand, dark roast coffee has a dark brown color and a strong, smoky and earthy aroma. 

Since these are roasted the longest, they bring out the oils in the whole beans, making them slightly oily in texture.

The flavor profile and acidity or bitterness of these different roast levels vary greatly, and your choice depends on your personal preference.

You may prefer light roast coffee for its delicate flavor, or dark roast coffee for its boldness, acidity, and strong flavor profile.

Regardless, the color, aroma, and texture of the whole beans can tell a lot about the coffee’s quality and freshness.

The Aroma

The aroma of the coffee is one of its most important characteristics. Good aroma can significantly enhance the coffee drinking experience. 

Aroma is also a good indicator of coffee quality, freshness, and taste.

While you can easily smell the aroma of the whole beans to determine coffee quality, we recommend grinding a few whole beans and taking a deep whiff of the powder. 

This will allow a more comprehensive assessment of the coffee’s aroma.

Determining coffee quality by the aroma may require some prior experience with coffee, but even beginners can tell the difference between good and bad aroma.

Quite simply, if the coffee smells “off” or rancid, you know it’s no good. 

A sour or rancid smell is a strong indicator that the coffee is way past its prime and has gone bad due to prolonged exposure to oxygen.

On the other hand, a burnt aroma indicates that the whole beans have been roasted for too long. This is especially common among dark roasts that require longer roasting periods. 

Dark roast coffees should not smell burnt, or even overly bitter.

Similarly, light roast coffees should not smell like raw coffee beans. Such an aroma indicates that the whole beans have not been roasted long enough. 

Good coffee, regardless of its roast level, will always have a pleasant and fresh aroma.

As mentioned earlier, light roast coffees have a floral or fruity aroma, medium roast coffees have more pronounced aromas, whereas dark roast coffees have smoky and earthy aromas.

The more intense the aroma, the fresher the coffee beans, and the more high-quality their resulting coffee will taste.

The Flavor Profile

Speaking of taste, the flavor profile of the brewed coffee is the final aspect that can help you determine coffee quality. The flavor profile of any coffee is a combination of its taste and texture or mouthfeel.

Of course, how you brew the coffee matters a lot in dictating its flavor, and your personal preference makes this aspect highly subjective. 

Still, you can assess the taste of the coffee by taking a small sip and holding it in your mouth for a few seconds.

Concentrate on the flavor and any distinct notes you experience. Is it fruity, floral, smoky, or does it taste a bit like caramel? 

Light roast coffees tend to have delicate floral and fruity flavors, while dark roasts typically taste more intense, with stronger smoky notes.

Medium roasts tend to taste a bit caramel-y, but they may have a wide range of notes, including chocolate and slightly smoky notes.

You should also pay close attention to the bitterness or acidity of the coffee. Light roasts are less acidic or bitter, whereas medium and dark roasts are relatively more acidic. 

Regardless of the roast level, good quality coffee offers balanced acidity and bitterness.

If the taste is too bitter, the coffee is either not for you, stale, or of bad quality.

The texture or mouthfeel is also something to consider, and it is commonly referred to as the “body” of coffee’s flavor profile. 

A good body is a sign of good coffee and it can enhance the overall coffee drinking experience.

Does the texture feel light and thin, or heavy and creamy? What is the after taste? 

Once again, you are looking for a balanced texture that is not overly light, thin, heavy, or creamy. The aftertaste should also be pleasant.

If the aftertaste feels too creamy, bitter, sour, rancid, or if there is little to no after taste, the coffee is not good quality.

Wrapping Up

By now, we hope you have learned how to check coffee quality. While experienced coffee drinkers may find it easier to determine coffee quality, beginners can do it too.

There are multiple factors at play, but by inspecting the packaging, whole beans, aroma, and flavor profile, even beginners can get a fairly good idea of the quality of coffee they are consuming.

Just remember that drinking coffee is a subjective experience, and what may be considered high-quality to one person may not be to another. 

We recommend experimenting with different types, roast levels, and brewing methods to discover the perfect cup of Joe.

Over time, you will be able to pay more attention to detail, and fine tune your senses to identify coffee quality with ease.

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