Why bother searching for the best coffee beans?

After all, most people have put their daily coffee ritual on auto-pilot. They either roll out of bed and press the glowing green button on their home coffee maker, or they swing by the most convenient coffee shop on their way to work. Either way, they knock back their cup, feel the caffeine jolt them awake, and get on with their day.

Most people feel perfectly content with their daily coffee routine. So why disrupt it?

The reason is pretty simple: Coffee can offer you more than a quick, unconscious caffeine delivery service. When you properly source, prepare, and appreciate the best coffee beans, the resulting cup can provide you with one of the most interesting and varied culinary experiences around.

Different beans grown in different regions provide massive variations in flavor. Different roasting styles and preparation methods produce dramatically different profiles. Each good cup of coffee gives you three times the flavor complexity of wine.

In short: Coffee rewards the adventurous.

With a few small changes in how you approach your morning coffee ritual, you can transform your coffee from an unconscious, utilitarian habit into an opportunity to start your day with a more meaningful, exciting experience.

But it all begins with opening yourself up to trying new coffees.

Now, the easiest way to try a lot of new coffees is to go to a lot of different, high-quality coffee shops. (Here’s our guide on the 30 best coffee shops in the northwest.)

But the best way to make sure you’re constantly trying new coffees is to pick your own beans to brew at home.

We produced this guide to help you get started as you deepen your exploration and appreciation of coffee—and to give existing coffee experts a handy buyers’ guide for new beans they might want to try.

In the first half of this guide, we’ll spend a little time outlining how a coffee newbie can approach changing their habits. We’ll include a few rules of thumb for coffee selection and preparation.

Then, in the second half, we’ll dig into reviews of 20 individual bags of coffee that come from many of the best coffee brands around. In these reviews, we’ll provide a clear picture of which coffees in today’s market are worth exploring, and which might be better off avoided.

If your coffee game is already strong, you’re likely ready to skip right to our reviews of the best coffee beans of 2018. But if you’re still new to expanding your coffee experience beyond a cup from the local bodega, read on.

The 3 Big Flavor Factors that Create the Best Coffee Beans

You might feel a little overwhelmed at the thought of exploring the many flavors that coffee has to offer. Multiple factors contribute to a coffee’s flavor. True enthusiasts out there can drown you in way more detail than you really need to get started in the world of high-quality coffee.

While you might become one of those coffee enthusiasts yourself one day, for now, you can skip most of the details and focus on the three big factors that contribute to a coffee’s flavor.

Flavor Factor 1: Origin

Most mass-market coffees are produced from multiple beans from multiple origins all blended together. On the one hand, this helps “even out” the coffee and create a more consistent flavor from cup to cup. On the other hand, this obscures the unique flavor characteristics of each unique crop of beans.

The opposite of a mass-market blend is a “single origin” coffee. True to its name, a coffee of this type will only feature beans from a single point of origin. As a general rule, the best coffee beans in the world tend to end up as single origin coffees.


Having a single origin is important for one big reason: Each coffee bean’s unique intrinsic flavor is a byproduct of the specific environmental factors present in the region where it is grown. Factors like climate, altitude, and the varieties of the coffee bean native to that region all contribute to the overall flavor that that bean can express. That’s why two coffees roasted by the same company, and originating in the same region—say, two different African coffees, or two coffees in different regions within the same country—can result in two dramatically different flavor profiles.

While you will most likely end up having a favorite region, the only way to explore all the flavors coffee has to offer is to try beans from as many different origins as possible.

Flavor Factor 2: Roast

Each bean’s unique flavors are brought out—or lost—during the roasting process. A coffee’s roast level is most commonly described as landing somewhere on the spectrum between “light” and “dark.” The more heavily a coffee is roasted, the “darker” its roast. The less heavily a coffee is roasted, the “lighter” its roast.

Most people have only tasted dark roasts. Mass-market coffee is all roasted on the darker side, in order to produce a consistent flavor (and, to be blunt, in order to make low-priced beans more palatable).

There is nothing inherently wrong with a dark roasted coffee, and some new roasters are attempting to produce skillful dark roasts. But because dark roasts mask the unique flavors of coffee beans, they aren’t the right choice as you begin to explore coffee’s varied flavors. As a general rule, select light roasted coffees from multiple origins, and multiple roasters, to explore coffee’s flavor potentials.

Flavor Factor 3: Preparation

We’ll keep this one short for now. There are many different methods of preparing coffee, and each puts its own unique stamp on the final flavor that enters your cup.

For the sake of simplicity, we’re offering a single, solid, general-purpose method of home preparation in this guide. It is the preparation method we utilized during our tasting of each of the coffees we reviewed, and it provides you with a good method of extracting the unique flavors out of pretty much any coffee you might prepare at home.

(If you’re interested in seeing some of your options for home brewing equipment, check out our guide to the best coffee makers.)

There are other factors that can contribute to the flavor of a cup of coffee—such as the freshness of the beans—but these are the big three to keep in mind for now.

Down the line, you can explore different preparation methods to see which one works best for you. But for today, focus on the following method.

Our Preferred Preparation Method (and Review Methodology)

We used the following preparation method to produce the coffees for our reviews. While this preparation method requires a few more steps than many coffee novices are accustomed to, each step itself is simple, and the total prep time is still only a few minutes.

Here’s the equipment you’ll need:

  • A small digital scale. We recommend the Jennings CJ 4000.
  • A home coffee grinder. We recommend any Baratza grinder, including their least expensive model.
  • Kalita Wave pour-over coffee set, with filters.
  • A gooseneck water kettle. We recommend the Hario v60 kettle.
  • One of the below-reviewed coffees.

Here are the steps we took to prepare each coffee. You can easily replicate these steps at home.

1. Prep your water.

Fill the Hario v60 kettle with water, and set it to heat up.

2. Grind your beans.

Using your grinder, grind a single portion of beans: about 20 grams of coffee, total. As a general rule, grind the coffee on the fine side. To get the best possible coffee, you would have to vary the grind from coffee to coffee to ensure a four-minute brew time. But for now, just use the same fine setting on your grinder for any coffee you brew.

Advanced tip: For most beans, a four-minute brew will result in a great cup of coffee. The best way to control brew time is to adjust grind size. For a coffee you plan to drink regularly, it’s worth testing grind sizes to find the right range that results in a four-minute brew time. (Click here to read more about manipulating brew time.)

3. Set up your pour-over.

Place your Kalita Wave kit on your scale. Place a filter on the Wave, and pour the dry coffee grounds into the filter. Tap the Wave until the grounds are level.

4. Bloom the coffee.

Once the water is heated, you want to “bloom” the dry coffee grounds. This sounds complex, but it’s simple.

Take your kettle and begin to pour hot water over the dry grounds. Pour in a circular motion, and do your best to get all of the dry grounds wet. Keep pouring water until your scale reads 60 grams. After you’ve hit 60 grams of total weight, let the coffee rest for about 30 seconds.

Advanced tip: To get greater extraction, agitate (i.e. stir) the bloom slightly with a preheated spoon before continuing to step 5. (Click here to read more about agitation during a pour-over.)

 

5. Finish the pour-over.

In two to three more turns, pour the remaining water from your kettle into the Wave. Continue to pour in a circular motion, beginning at the center of the grounds, spiraling outward to the edges of the Wave, and then spiraling back into the center. Pour slowly, and pause periodically to allow the water to drip through the filter into the container below.

Continue until you have used all 370 grams of water in your kettle.

This is the preparation process we used to test each of the below coffees.

Pour over coffee

For the reviews themselves, we utilized a simple, holistic approach. As we previously noted, many different factors contribute to the quality of a cup of coffee. It can be challenging to tease out which factors led to which quality outcomes.

For example, it can be hard to determine whether a great coffee is great primarily due to the quality of the originating beans, or if the roast made the best of a middle-of-the-road crop of raw coffee.

For that reason, we reviewed each coffee as a holistic experience. We make note of specific contributing flavor factors when they were obvious. But, ultimately, we focused on simply providing a comprehensive flavor profile of each cup and a one-score rating of the coffee’s overall quality.

Without further ado, here are our reviews of some of the best coffee beans you can buy.

  1. Counter Culture | Durham, North Carolina

    Counter Culture was founded more than 20 years ago on a mission to relentlessly pursue coffee excellence while promoting environmental, social, and economic sustainability. The core of Counter Culture’s philosophy lies in a set of deeply held values. These values include positivity, inspiration, curiosity, thoroughness, and a refusal of the status quo as they aim to push the potential of coffee every chance they get.

    This is a very well-balanced coffee, with a nice syrupy body. It presents a complex combination of fruits that include lots of dried stone fruits and fig, all without overpowering this coffee’s highly present and beautifully integrated acidity.

    Overall, this coffee presents a medium-high level of sweetness with a good, clean finish. This is a really nice, enjoyable coffee.

    Shop Counter Culture
  2. Slightly | Eugene, Oregon

    Slightly Coffee Roasters work hard to source the best coffees from Africa, South America, and Central America, as they attempt to teach people just how amazing coffee can taste.

    Their roast style maximizes sweetness and flavor, that brings plenty of complexity in the cup while maintaining an accessible profile. Their never-ending curiosity and exploration, as well as their emphasis on quality control contributes, to their ability to deliver coffees that are both consistently unique and high quality.

    This coffee was roasted even, and light. The cup smells of apricots, cherry, and vanilla. It carries a medium-full body. The flavors are intense, with a high degree of sweetness, and strong notes of apricot, cherry, and vanilla. It ends with a long, sweet finish. Overall, an excellent coffee.

    Shop Slightly Coffee Roasters
  3. Heart | Portland, Oregon

    Since it was founded in 2009,  Portland, Oregon-based Heart Roasters has focused on bringing uncompromising quality to specialty coffee.

    Their process is simple. First, start with the best (primarily Central American, South American, and African) green coffee. Second, maintain balance in their roast between complexity and clarity. Finally, test all of their coffees in their lab to ensure each cup that reaches their customers passes their standards of excellence.

    This coffee from Heart smells pleasant, like watermelon, with some additional floral scents. It tastes good as well, with nice body and sweetness, while also carrying nice acidity and fruit notes. Overall, it is fairly balanced and expresses a well-developed roast without too much “roast” flavor. It is a bit dry on the finish, but overall it’s a really well-done roast.

    Because it’s not overly complex, and because it’s balanced in all directions, it would be an easy everyday coffee for most people.

    Shop Heart
  4. Onyx Coffee Lab | Fayetteville, Arkansas

    Onyx Coffee Lab was born out of a desire to bring high-quality specialty coffee to its founders’ home of Arkansas. They focus their roasts on enhancing each coffee’s unique flavors, rather than masking them for consistency. They test hundreds of coffees before selecting their producers, roasting and cupping dozens of samples every week in search of the select few coffees they will sell.

    They avoid categorizing their coffees according to roast levels and instead rate their roasts according to a spectrum between traditional flavors (chocolate, nuts, wine, and tobacco) and modern flavors (floral, fruity, and citrusy).

    This coffee is neither super light nor particularly dark, and its grounds smell sweet and fruity. The coffee itself is very well developed, with good acidity and plenty of lovely flavors—it’s creamy, with cherry and chocolate, and finishes spicy.

    There’s a lot to like in this coffee for everyone.

    Shop Onyx Coffee Lab
  5. Barista Parlor | Nashville, Tennessee

    Barista Parlor was founded in 2011, with the noble mission of bettering coffee for all of mankind. Their cafe provides a home for artists, bakeries, and businesses local to their hometown of Nashville. Their coffee aims to deliver clarity and sweetness within each cup.

    This coffee exhibits good development and smells sweet. It provides a complex progression of flavors that include lemon and grapefruit, and nice herbal notes of lemongrass and basil. Its sweetness is a bit less than expected, and its body is lighter than expected as well. Its finish carries raisin, milk chocolate, and citric acidity, though it finishes a bit dry.

    Shop Barista Parlor
  6. Color Coffee Roasters | Eagle, Colorado

    One of the newest high-quality roasters around, Color Coffee Roasters was founded in 2016, with a specific focus on providing world-class coffees to their home in the Vail Valley.

    They balance simplicity with a meticulous attention to bringing quality, craftsmanship, and innovative approaches to their coffees. They have evolved quickly from a small home-based roaster into one of the most dedicated and interesting roasters in the country.

    This is an interesting coffee. Drinking it, you almost feel like you are drinking lemonade. It carries a light body, but features lots of complexity, including both a well-developed caramel along with a nice round sweetness of baked pear and sweet cream. A wonderful, complex, and interesting coffee.

    Shop Color Coffee Roasters
  7. 49th Parallel | Vancouver, British Columbia

    Founded in 2004, 49th Parallel has become the best-known member of the Vancouver coffee scene. They combine a dedicated approach to sourcing with a constantly changing roster of available coffees. They are known for consistently producing roasts that are both interesting and accessible. These roasts appeal to both the average coffee drinker and the true coffee aficionado.

    This coffee is super lightly roasted. But, once ground, its insides make it clear that this coffee is very well done.

    The cup itself is well-developed and sweet. It brings stewed blackberry on the nose, and then tomato and berry flavors. It is a bit dry at the end, but not to an offensive degree. It’s overall an enjoyable cup that gives you solid flavor and body, with good sweetness and acidity both present.

    Shop 49th Parallel
  8. George Howell | Acton, Massachusetts

    George Howell has been a pioneer in coffee for over 40 years, opening his first signature cafe chain—The Coffee Connection—in 1974. After growing this local chain to 24 stores, George Howell sold the company and launched his own brand: George Howell Coffee.

    From the start, George Howell Coffee has dedicated itself to bringing the world’s best coffees to market. Despite growing to one of the largest names and companies in specialty coffee, George Howell Coffee continues to roast in small batches. The company follows innovative storage practices to maintain freshness year-round.

    This coffee’s grounds smell a bit bready, but sweet too. The coffee itself brings raisins on the nose, along with a few other deep, dried fruits, and even a little rose. In terms of flavors, this coffee does have a little bit of breadiness in it, but this is—mercifully—very faint. Its floral notes are balanced with its dried fruit flavors and acidity. Its body is light but very crisp and refreshing, and it finishes dry.

    This is a really nice coffee.

    Shop George Howell Coffee
  9. Ruby | Nelsonville, Wisconsin

    Based in Central Wisconsin, Ruby Coffee Roasters focuses on a few key principles: quality, sustainability, transparency, passion, and collaboration. The company places a sharp focus on responsible sourcing and maintaining a sustainable relationship with their supply chain.

    In terms of their coffee itself, Ruby believes in producing “Colorful Coffees” that express the unique characteristics produced by the green beans’ microclimate, micro-region, and growing conditions, rather than focusing on producing a consistent flavor profile from bag to bag.  

    This coffee’s dried grounds smelled a bit “roasty,” but also carried pleasant floral scents. The cup itself continued to carry these floral flavors, including violet and jasmine. In addition, the coffee contained a well-developed caramel flavor, as well as notes of berries.

    The cup overall provided a light body, with a sweet finish. All of the flavors were good, but ultimately lacked body and intensity. (Though, thankfully, while the roast was on the darker side, the cup was not over-roasted.)

    Shop Ruby Coffee Roasters
  10. Intelligentsia | Chicago, Illinois

    One of the true pioneers of specialty coffee, Intelligentsia was founded in 1995. Noting the challenges of finding excellent coffee at that time, Intelligentsia began to roast their coffee in-store and sought to consistently produce perfect coffees.

    Now, over two decades later, Intelligentsia has expanded to six cities throughout the U.S. but retains their commitment to sourcing and thoughtfully roasting some of the most “elusive, remarkable coffees” available throughout the world.

    This coffee offers a light roast that is nice and well-developed. The grind presents somewhat of a “bakey” smell, with a little rubber in it, but also, thankfully, some fruit scents. The coffee itself gives off a bit of that rubber, but mostly deep perfume and stewed berries on the nose. The coffee’s flavors are deep and its body is nice all the way through. Its finish is dry.

    Overall, a quite good coffee.

    Shop Intelligentsia
  11. Blue Copper | Salt Lake City, Utah

    Based in Salt Lake City, UT, and launched in 2013, Blue Copper has the simple aim of maximizing quality and taste in the coffees they bring to market. They search for the best coffees available, and focus on roasting them as lightly as possible to both fully develop them and to maintain as many of the unique characteristics of each green coffee they purchase.

    Their product line regularly rotates, but always revolves around providing boutique options (sourced directly from the farm as often as possible) as they continue their mission to offer truly interesting coffees.

    This coffee is very lightly roasted, and it is very, very interesting. It is complex on the nose, bringing layered floral notes and fresh fruit scents. Flavor-wise, it is very sweet—including notes of marmalade and plum—but still brings with it a high degree of acidity. It is light-bodied, bordering on vegetal without falling into those flavors, and it finishes sweet.

    A very good, very interesting coffee.

    Shop Blue Copper
  12. Olympia | Olympia, Washington

    Since their inception in 2005, Olympia Coffee has built their company around a mission to increase quality of life—in particular for worldwide coffee farmers. Beginning as a wholesale coffee roaster, Olympia opened their first cafe two years later in 2007, and have continued the Pacific Northwest’s tradition of evolving and innovating coffee culture since then. Their direct relationship with their growers allows them to seek out and shape unique flavors within the coffees they produce.

    This coffee presents a complex scent that includes berry, cocoa, lemon, and pine on the nose. Its flavor is light-bodied and filled with lemons and blackberries. The sweetness dries out a bit on the finish, and the finish also carries a little “pencil lead.” The coffee’s aftertaste is dry, with more berry and lemon, though as the coffee cools a vegetal note becomes apparent.

    Overall, this coffee is super tasty, though a few minor flaws hold it back from being truly excellent.

    Shop Olympia Coffee
  13. Sweet Bloom | Lakewood, Colorado

    Sweet Bloom chose their name with care. It refers to both the bloom preceding the coffee bean itself, and the bloom that occurs during a coffee’s preparation. The company attempts to live the complexity and elegance of both blooms.

    Rather than visit growers on-site, Sweet Bloom brings their coffee producers to their unique “Connect with the Producer” events, and introduce their growers with their accounts.

    Founded by two-time US Brewers Cup Champion Andy Sprenger, Sweet Bloom is slowly growing into a national presence, without losing its dedication to its craft.

    The beans appear a bit on the “roastier” side, but they are overall a good, even color. The grounds smell fruity, though a bit bready.

    The coffee presents some notes of stone fruits on the nose. The cup brings a lot of sweetness, with a savory middle. The coffee’s acidity is good, but fades. The body is good, but it too dissipates quickly. On the finish, the coffee turns slightly dry. The breadiness appears again as the coffee cools.

    Shop Sweet Bloom
  14. Joe | New York, New York

    Joe was one of Manhattan’s first specialty coffee cafes. From 2003 to 2013, Joe worked with outside roasters. But after a decade in operation, Joe began roasting their own coffee.

    Today, Joe continues to roast all their own coffees. The company maintains its focus on a few key goals: purchasing fair and traceable coffee beans, purchasing the highest quality lots, maintaining the flexibility to purchase unique lots as they become available, and developing sustainable, long-term relationships with their growers.

    The beans of this coffee were roasted on the light side, and their dry grounds smell a bit bready. The coffee itself was light-bodied and a bit too acidic, with lots of lemon and vegetal flavors, and a bit of raisin dominating the cup. Overall, this coffee did not taste fully developed during the roast, but it was not bad, and it might be a good option for fans of very light roasts.

    Shop Joe
  15. Cat and Cloud | Santa Cruz, California

    Located in Santa Cruz, Cat and Cloud is a community-focused roaster and cafe on a mission to make their customers and cafe visitors happy. In addition to their cafe and roastery, the company hosts a popular coffee-based podcast and newsletter.

    This is a light roast, and its grounds smell fruity. Though there was a bit of “roast” in the grounds, the cup itself has lots to like. This coffee has a light, but pleasant, body. It carries berry and banana notes. The coffee’s sweetness and acidity are both muted, and the finish dries on the palate.

    Overall, this is not a perfect cup of coffee, but it isn’t bad either.

    Shop Cat and Cloud
  16. Klatch | Rancho Cucamonga, California

    Klatch Coffee Roasting is a family-owned business based in Los Angeles that takes its name from the word “klatch,” a term for “a casual gathering of people, especially for refreshments and informal conversation.” The company embraces this approachable attitude. Roastmaster Mike Perry promotes nurturing relationships with growers as he seeks the finest results of each harvest. Founded 25 years ago with a single retail store, Klatch coffees are now featured daily on three different continents.

    The beans of this coffee appear well-developed. There’s a pleasant, nutty sweetness to the aroma that’s reminiscent of good Brazilian coffees. Once brewed, the coffee features notes of dark chocolate and peanuts, with mild underlying flavors of tropical fruits. The body, however, is thin, and the finish is very dry.

    While this is a clean-tasting coffee with some positive attributes, the overabundant nuttiness and poor finish prevent it from being great.

  17. Coava | Portland, Oregon

    Coava Coffee Roasters aims to produce three values in their coffee: quality, complexity, and balance. They work in long-term relationships they’ve developed with their preferred coffee producers. Within their roasts, they focus on consistency that varies as little as possible from batch to batch, and on producing fully developed roasts (regardless of whether that means “light” or “dark” for each particular batch).

    At first glance, the beans appear lightly roasted, but smell quite bready. The cup confirms this coffee was very lightly roasted. Yet, the coffee still tasted “bakey.” Unfortunately, while the cup held some fruits—including cherry and berries—the coffee’s body was overall watery with a dry finish, and the cup as a whole lacked sweetness.

    Shop Coava Coffee Roasters
  18. Verve | Santa Cruz, California

    The first Verve cafe was launched in Santa Cruz in 2007. Since then, these roasters have opened cafes throughout the world. They continue to produce their coffees on vintage roasters and maintain their roots in Southern California.

    They work to produce coffee that is approachable, with an emphasis on treating coffee as a social, enjoyable experience that unites individuals around the world into an international community.

    This coffee has a medium-light roast, with some bake on the grind. Though the coffee provides some spice, the dominant flavors are rubbery and baked. The underlying coffee appears to be high quality, but the roast really holds it back and fails to express this quality.

    Shop Verve
  19. Ritual | San Francisco, California

    A pioneer of specialty coffee, Ritual Roasters first opened their doors in 2005 and began to revolutionize San Francisco’s coffee culture. They believed then, and continue to believe now, that a really good cup of coffee can change lives. They taste every coffee they produce multiple times before selling or serving it, working to maintain the emphasis on rare quality that earned them their initial reputation over a decade ago.

    This coffee’s beans smell sweet and bready when whole, but a bit roasty and nutty when ground. The cup smells of ripe fruit, but the flavor doesn’t carry through. Its fruit flavors are muted, its acidity is flat, its finish is dry, and its body is simply unpleasant.

    Not an enjoyable cup of coffee.

    Shop Ritual Roasters
  20. Camber | Bellingham, Washington

    Camber is a microroaster born in a small cocktail bar in Bellingham, Washington, that only sold its first coffee in 2015. The company has grown steadily—in both reach and reputation—since then, and is known for delivering high quality coffee from the first day of their operations. Camber is often cited as proof that microroasters can now purchase, roast, and sell coffees of equal quality as the larger specialty coffee roasters.

    At first, this coffee appears well-developed. But when preparing the cup, rubbery tire scents emerge from the bloom. Thankfully, this rubbery quality is muted within the brew itself. The cup does provide some good acidity and interesting flavors—orange, cacao—but it finishes spicey, dry, and, once again, rubbery.

    Shop Camber Coffee

About The Author

Morgan Bennett is a freelance writer living in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He is known locally as a craft beer evangelist and collector of obscure movie trivia.

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