How to make coffeeshop drinks: Coffee beans

Apr 27

Welcome to part 2 of my series of posts on making your own coffee/tea drinks at home. In case you missed it, the first post covered the equipment part of the equation. Today, I’m talking about coffee beans.

First things first: Choosing your beans. Now, people have varying levels of “snobbery” regarding coffee beans — ranging from “only the finest fairy-kissed beans roasted five seconds ago by a left-handed monk and ground with a mortar and pestle” to “anything nicer than ground dirt is a ripoff froufrou drink for little girls”. You, obviously, will fall between these two extremes. The only question is where the right balance of quality vs price and convenience lies.

Coffee beans come in two varieties — robusta and arabica. Whether you’re leaning toward the snob end of the scale or not, I recommend you don’t bother with robusta beans. They’re cheap because the plant is hardier and easier to grow, but the taste is nowhere as good as arabica. The good news is, by now even cheap supermarket coffee brands have switched to arabica so you’re probably set there.

After that, it’s just a matter of finding a brand and roast that you like. This is where trial and error comes in. My recommendation is to try coffee wherever you can — diners, coffee shops, friends’ houses, etc. If it tastes good, ask what kind it is and where you can get it. If it turns out to be out of your price range or not available in anything smaller than a 25-lb restaurant bag, keep tasting. Or, you can get the smallest package possible of whatever beans catch your fancy and give them a try. Try lighter roasts and darker ones, blends and single-origin, whatever you can find until something strikes your fancy.

My starting point for personal convenience is usually Starbucks. When I was a barista I got to sample all the different beans they sold at the time, so I quickly picked up on my favorite roast (Verona). To combat their reputation as “Charbucks” for the darkness of their roasts, they now have lighter “blonde” roasts. Your local Starbucks probably brews mostly Pike Place Blend, but they will sometimes have other roasts in the brewer and you can ask for a sample. Or if you want to taste something in damn near its ideal form, find a Starbucks with a Clover brewing machine and ask for a cup of whatever you’re interested in. And remember, you can always ask the barista for recommendations!

Look around you, and you’ll probably find lots of sources for coffee. Your local grocery store will probably have everything from Folgers to Starbucks right there on the shelf. In my little area of LA we’ve got a couple of local roasters with some great beans. Some stores like Trader Joe’s will have a pot of coffee brewing free samples all day. And of course the internet is a great place to comparison shop.

What about flavored coffee beans? To be honest, I’d avoid these unless you run across some that you really love. In a lot of cases, flavors are added to mask inferior beans. And even when that’s not the case, it’s much better to get plain beans and then add flavors yourself if you want them. Then you can control both the flavor and the bean quality a lot better.

As a quick aside here, there’s another category of coffee you might have seen around: instant coffee. Formerly the realm of crappy robusta nightmares, manufacturing techniques for instant coffee have improved a lot over the past decade or so. If you want the convenience of not needing brewing equipment, you can give this a try. In my experience, even Starbucks’s new line of instant coffees still have that “instant” taste to them.

That’s your quick guide to acquiring coffee for making your own drinks at home. Next time: What to do with your beans once you’ve got them!

tl;dr summary:

  • Don’t bother with robusta beans
  • Try coffee till you find what you like
  • Avoid flavored beans
  • Instant coffee still tastes instant