Need to Pay Lip Service to a Coffee Snob? Here’s a Guide to the Different Types of Coffee.

Types of coffee by roast level

Different Types of Coffee…

I’m going to start with this: the phrase “different types of coffee” is complex. In other words, it means more than one thing. First, I’ll break down what people might mean by that. Then, I’ll clarify those parts, and get you speaking “coffee snob” in a jiffy!

TLDR: Here’s my breakdown of “coffee types” into the following five categories:

  1. Origin (where the coffee comes from) – different place = different flavors
  2. Process (how the coffee gets prepared after harvesting) – wet : nutty :: dry : fruity
  3. Roast Level (how “light” or “dark” it is) – where I’m still afraid of the dark…
  4. Quality (the grade and “goodness” of it) – AAA = size. Specialty = good.
  5. Packaging (is it a blend or a single origin?) – not all blends are bad.

Now, there are more ways to break this topic down. But this makes sense to me. So, let’s get at it…

Origin

Does is weird you out when you hear coffee snobs talk? They say strange things like this: “Man, that’s an awesome Yirg!” or, “Dude, have you tried their new HueHue (pronounced ‘way-way’)!”?
 
It’s fine. It’s weird. Coffee snobs get excited sometimes. They use nicknames of popular growing regions. For instance, “Yirg” is a nickname of Yirgacheffe, a coffee-growing region in Ethiopia. “Huehue”? That’s short for Huehuetenango, a famous region in Guatemala.

Different regions produce different types of coffee. The climate and soil in these regions give the coffee different qualities. Some people are very “in tune” with these subtleties. Some are not. Want to know some of the expected outcomes of coffee from the major regions? This article on types of coffee from different countries is a great start to learning what to expect!

Process

Next, there are two major differences in how coffee gets processed once it’s harvested. 1) It can be wet processed, or 2) it can be dry (sometimes called natural) processed.

You know that coffee starts off as a small, delicious, hand-picked fruit, right? The fruit is what gets processed.

Wet Processed (Washed)

Washed coffees are usually “bogged” like cranberries for a period of time. The time varies. The coffee producers remove the seeds from the fruit. They dry the seeds to a certain moisture level. Then, they sell the seeds in bulk. A distributor will “hull” the seeds and re-sell the seeds as green coffee. (We’ll talk about when and how it’s roasted later.)

Dry (or Natural) processed

Naturals (or dry-processed coffees) gets laid out in the sun to dry with the fruit still on. The fruit withers and raisins in the sun. Then, the coffee producers dry the fruit and gather and remove the seeds. Then, the coffee gets treated as above.

What’s the difference in taste? I’m glad you asked.

Wet processed coffees are what you’re used to: nutty, chocolatey, sometimes citrusy.

“Naturals” (dry-processed coffees) are unique: fruity, zesty, sweet and sour.

Some people hate dry processed coffees. Some people (like me) ADORE them.

Want to know more? Sweet Maria’s has a great article answering the question, “What is Dry-Process Coffee?”. The folks over at Counter Culture have a helpful, in-depth article: What’s the Difference Between Natural Sundried and Washed Processes?

Roast Level

“A dark or heavy roast is at odds with buying coffee for its distinct origin qualities. Dark roast coffees tend to taste more like each other – as the differences due to distinct origins are obscured by the carbony roast flavors.”

Ahh…fresh roasted coffee! I love it…unless the roast is off.

Some people (like me) are VERY picky about roast. They use strange words like “City-Roast” or “Full-City” or even “Italian Roast.” So, for some, this is the main aspect they use to distinguish between coffee types. How dark (or light) is the coffee?

So, let’s look at the different roast levels (I like to use Sweet Maria’s as a Reference):

coffee roast levels
Sweet Maria’s coffee roast stages reference image.

City Roast: (9 on the chart above) This is the goal of most “Light Roast” coffees. There’s an almost sour sweetness to this roast level. If there are any fruity or citrusy notes in the coffee, they will jump out at this level.

City+: (10 on the chart above) This is a nuance of City Roast. It’s still a “Light Roast” coffee. Sometimes more time in the roaster will develop brown sugar notes or bring out stone fruit notes.

Full City: (11 on the chart above) This is a “medium roast. “Some coffee companies begin their roast levels here and call them “light roast.” That’s not accurate. This is what a medium roast looks like. Nutty and Chocolate notes develop here.

Full City+: (12 on the chart above) This roast level has some “roastiness” to it. What’s roastiness? It’s the Starb*ck’s flavor. Note: The essential flavors of the coffee start to fade here.

Vienna: (13 on the chart above) This is what a “dark roast” should look like. Good coffee should rarely be roasted to this point – and never beyond. But, to each his or her own. Consider what Tom at Sweet Maria’s has to say:

“A dark or heavy roast is at odds with buying coffee for its distinct origin qualities. Dark roast coffees tend to taste more like each other – as the differences due to distinct origins are obscured by the carbony roast flavors.”

“French Roast”: (14 on the chart above) The French should take offense. It may have been the way that they handled coffee in the 19th century, but “used to be ain’t now.” This roast level is very dark. The flavors of the coffee itself are long gone. The sugars inside the coffee seed are now also burned. That is the flavor you’re tasting at this roast level. Well, some people like completely burned marshmallows on a campout.

“Italian Roast”: (15 on the chart above) This is burnt coffee. It’s not fair to the Italians. No one should refer to burned coffee with the name of such a beautiful country and its people.

BTW 16 on the chart above … are tiny pieces of charcoal.

Quality

AAA Rating

Coffee quality is a tricky thing. Sometimes you see things like AAA Kenyan Coffee. It makes you think, “Wow! Triple A…that’s got to be good coffee, right?” Nope. AAA is about grading, but not good or bad grading. It’s about the size of the coffee bean. AAA means that the beans are all uniform in size (relatively). It has nothing to do with how good the coffee is.

What’s Arabica?

Arabica is also a word that gets thrown around. Generally speaking, Arabica refers to one of the main types of coffee plant. (The other is Robusta.) The package may say “Arabica.” But that doesn’t mean anything. It’s a type of plant that is generally grown at a high elevation.

So, what’s the key word on a coffee package that will indicate quality?

Meet Specialty Coffee…

Well, I hate to say it…but there’s no guarantee. But Specialty coffee is the word that you should be able to look for and trust. The problem? Anyone can use it. Look at this definition from the SCA (The Specialty Coffee Association):

[Specialty Coffee] “is not the work of only one person in the lifecycle of a coffee bean; specialty can only occur when all of those involved in the coffee value chain work in harmony and maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from start to finish.”

So, the farmer grows specialty coffee. What if the distributor mistypes it or blends it with a lower quality coffee? Another scenario: the distributor labels it specialty coffee. But the roaster mishandles it (e.g. sits on the coffee in storage too long before roasting)? What happens if the roasted coffee sits on a shelf for a month before purchasing?

The SCA is pointing out that specialty coffee is a process that involves everyone, including the consumer!

Things to look for:

  1. “Specialty Coffee” on a label or on the packaging of the coffee.
  2. Most Important: The coffee roaster must communicate a commitment to specialty coffee.
  3. Packaging that tells you the roast date instead of a “best by date.”
  4. A coffee shop or market that does not allow stale coffee to sit on the shelves.

The most important?

YOU! If you develop a “specialty coffee mindset,” you won’t accept inferior, stale coffee. You will support the best efforts of all the passionate hardworking people along the coffee supply chain!

Packaging

This will be short and sweet. Some people distinguish coffees between whether they are blends and single origin. There are direct trade “farm gate” offerings too. These come from a single cooperative or even from a single farm.

It’s great when you can know the precise region and farm that a coffee comes from. But there are wonderful blends out there too. Remember the section above? There are more things at stake that the origin of the coffee. The farmer, distributor, roaster, barista, and/or consumer are ALL part of the process. A roaster can blend several specialty grade coffees for a fine blend.

A Side Note

One last thing. I mentioned it above, and I harp on it all the time. A coffee roaster should respect you as the consumer. One of the main ways that they can do this is to make it clear WHEN they roasted the coffee. This is part of packaging. The roaster selected, roasted, and packaged the coffee. They made a decision whether to blend the coffee. They’re also making a decision whether to disclose to you WHEN they roasted this coffee. A “best by” date is insufficient for me. It is not a full disclosure.

Takeaways?

Here’s my breakdown of “coffee types” into the following five categories:

  1. Origin (where the coffee comes from) – different place = different flavors
  2. Process (how the coffee gets prepared after harvesting) – wet : nutty :: dry : fruity
  3. Roast Level (how “light” or “dark” it is) – where I’m still afraid of the dark…
  4. Quality (the grade and “goodness” of it) – AAA = size. Specialty = good.
  5. Packaging (is it a blend or a single origin?) – not all blends are bad.

Things to look for:

  1. “Specialty Coffee” on a label or on the packaging of the coffee.
  2. Most Important: The coffee roaster must communicate a commitment to specialty coffee.
  3. Packaging that tells you the roast date instead of a “best by date.”
  4. A coffee shop or market that does not allow stale coffee to sit on the shelves.
  5. You! The passionate consumer.

Now, you have a glimpse into the mind of a coffee snob (i.e. me). I hope this has been helpful. And I hope you’re equipped to understand other coffee snobs and join in. Yes, become one yourself!

Happy Sipping,

-wp

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