Coffee: Know Your Label Lingo
The morning cup of joe is a sacred ritual for millions worldwide. Coffee perks us up in countless ways, from the smell of it brewing in the early hours, to its rich roasted flavor, to the healthy dose of caffeine that makes us more alert. (See “Coffee: It’s a Healthy Brew.”)
How to buy coffee? Well, whether you’re an espresso doppio fan or a skim latte lover, you first need to know which coffee will give you the best tasting cup (as well as the best cup for the money). Knowing your coffee label lingo can help. (For much more info on coffee—from its history to how it’s made, visit the International Coffee Organization website.)
BEAN TYPES AND BLENDS
Arabica: You’ll most likely see “Arabica” on most coffee labels. Almost 70 percent of the world’s coffee is produced from the Coffea arabica species, whose origins are in Ethiopia (and is now grown in Africa, Latin America, South America, the West Indies, and Southeast Asia. The better arabicas are grown at high altitudes (think Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee). For the most part Arabica is superior and more expensive than Robusta, the other species of coffee plant, so look at the label to see if your coffee is “100 percent Arabica” or is a blend that also contains Robusta.
Robusta, or Coffea canephora var. robusta, grows in lower altitudes and is heartier and more disease and parasite resistant. It’s therefore a less expensive coffee to grow. It also has a distinctive taste, clocks about 50 percent more caffeine than Arabica, and is usually added to blends instead of being sold on its own. Cheaper coffees often blend Arabica and Robusta beans.
Single-Origin vs. Blended Beans: Look at the label to see if your coffee is a blend of coffee beans or if it is from one origin only. For example, you may buy a pure Colombian-bean coffee, or one that the roaster has blended with beans from Ethiopia and Brazil to create contrast in flavors. Most pre-packaged coffee (whole bean or ground) contains blends of beans. Note also that the beans may be blended to cut costs. Many coffee aficianados look to single-origin beans, but that also comes at a steeper price.
The art of roasting is so individual and so technical, that we’re paring down the info here to basics. Suffice it to say green coffee beans are subjected to very high temperatures and then quickly cooled, which creates chemical reactions that change their flavor and color, and extracts moisture. Roasting categories include:
Light—Mild coffees (light brown beans) that may also be called Light City, Half City, or New England roasts.
Medium—A bit stronger than the light roast, and often known as the American roast (apparently because we prefer weaker coffee than the rest of the world), or a Breakfast roast.
Medium Dark—Stronger still, these coffee beans (unlike the Light and Medium beans) exhibit oil on their surface, and create a brew with a slightly bittersweet aftertaste.
Dark—Sold as French roast, Viennese roast, European, Italian or even Espresso, these oily dark beans have more bitterness but less acidity than the others. Coffees vary greatly within this category, so experiment to find your favorite.
Decaffeinated: So you think you’ll sleep after having that cup of decaf at 11 p.m.? Hold the cup! Decaf does not mean caffeine free. In the United States federal regulations require that in order to label coffee as “decaffeinated” that coffee must have had its caffeine level reduced by no less than 97.5 percent. Which means that while a regular eight-ounce cup of brewed coffee scores from 95 to 200 milligrams of caffeine, a that same size cup of brewed decaf should range from about 2 to 4 milligrams. But one study showed that the decaf actually contains from 8.6 milligrams to 13.9 milligrams. (For caffeine counts in coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks, visit the Mayo Clinic website.)
Organic: If you want coffee from beans that have never been subjected to chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, look for the USDA Certified Organic label on the bag. For more details, visit the USDA website.
Fair Trade: The “Fair Trade” designation on the label has increased dramatically in the past decade. Cooperatives of coffee growers that are certified as Fair Trade by organizations such as Fair Trade USA, conform to set standards for safe labor conditions (no child labor, for instance) and fair wages for workers. The cooperatives typically sell directly to buyers (eliminating middlemen), and are committed to supporting and developing the community in which they grow.
Rainforest Alliance Certified: If you want to buy coffee that’s produced sustainably and by a company that takes care of its workers health and well-being, you might want to look for the Rainforest Alliance Certification stamp on the label (a little green frog). Farms certified by the Rainforest Alliance must meet the standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network that include conservation of soil and waterways, as well as wildlife and migratory bird habitats. Integrated crop management and waste management techniques are used. And community and occupational health is a priority for farm workers, and their families.