Revised: February 27, 2008
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About Coffee: Fundamentals

Buying Coffee

Specialty coffee stores carry as many as 30 varieties of coffee. Each one has a name, plus a few aliases. The following material makes sense of all these coffee names.

European Names

Most names given darker-roasted coffees are European: French, Italian, Viennese, Continental. These names do not refer to the origin of the beans. Rather, these coffees are distinguished by the length of time the bean is roasted. Italian roast, for instance, is usually darker and has been roasted longer than Viennese.

Non-European Names

Non-European names, such as Sumatran, Kenya, or Mexican refer to the origin of the bean. A coffee labeled Sumatran, for instance, should consist entirely of beans from a single crop in a single country, Sumatra.

Market Names

There are literally thousands of market names in the coffee trade. Some derive from the name of a district, province, or state; others from a mountain range or similar landmark; others from a nearby important city; and still others from the name of a port or shipping point.

Grade Names

Grade designations (AA), or market names referring to coffee-growing regions (Antigua). Grading is a device for controlling the quality of an agricultural commodity so that buyer and seller can do business without personally examining every lot sold.

Estate Names

"Estate coffee" is a coffee that has been grown, and in most cases processed, on a single farm or estate, and is sold unmixed with coffees from other locations. The most celebrated traditional estate coffee is the famous Wallensford Blue Mountain of Jamaica.

Flavoring Names

Flavored whole bean coffees are good but relatively inexpensive coffees, roasted a medium brown, and mixed with liquid flavoring agents that soak into the beans. If the coffee's name includes the words creme, vanilla, chocolate, or the name of any nut, fruit, or spice, you can be certain it's a flavored coffee.

Names of Blends

Blends are mixtures of two or more straight coffees. The most famous mixture of one-third Yemen Mocha and two-thirds Java Arabica, the Mocha Java of tradition. Such a blend is designed to combine two coffees that complement one another: Yemen Mocha is a sharp, distinctive, medium-bodied coffee, whereas Java is smoother, deeper toned, and richer. Together the two coffees make a more complete beverage than either one would make on its own.

House Blends

A specialty roaster may have one House blend or a dozen. Some of these blends may have been a tradition in a coffee-roasting family for a couple of generations, but most are standard blends well known in the coffee business.

Organic Coffees

Narrowly defined, organic coffees are those coffees certified by various international monitoring agencies as having been grown without the use of harmful chemicals. Organic coffees should be identified by origin and roast, just like any other straight or varietal coffee.

Brand Names

Certain canned or packaged coffees walk the line between specialty and commercial coffees. Carrying brand names often famous in the world of fancy coffee, these products share the high quality of the best blended specialty coffees, but are handled and packaged like commercial coffees; in other words, preground and packed in tins or bags.

Caffeine-Free Coffees

Decaffeinated, or caffeine-free, coffees have had the caffeine soaked out of them. They are delivered to the roaster green, like any other coffee. Most roasters offer a variety of straight coffees, roasts, and blends in decaffeinated form. The origin and roast of the bean should still be designated: Decaffeinated French-Roast Colombian, for instance.

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