How to buy great coffee at a supermarket, according to an expert

It’s so easy to get confused in front of the coffee shelf at your local market - there are SO MANY types and brands to choose from. Do you pick the one you recognize from ads? The one with a discount? Or the one that promises 100% Arabica beans?

Your confusion ends here, no matter if you’re a coffee newbie or an experienced gourmet. Keep reading to master the art of detecting good coffee - be it at your fave supermarket or a cozy local roastery. 

In this article, Raivis Vaitekuns, co-founder of Coffee Pixels and a Speciality Coffee Association Certified barista trainer, shares his knowledge to help you pick great coffee next time you’re shopping.

First things first - coffee beans or ground coffee?

“Without a doubt - coffee beans. If you have a way to grind your coffee at home, opt for coffee beans. If you don’t own a coffee grinder, I’d suggest investing in one. If that’s not an option, then go for ground coffee.”

To ensure the freshest and most flavorful cup of coffee, the coffee must be ground just before brewing. If you’ve bought pre-ground coffee, there’s a chance you might miss the subtle nuances that make each coffee special.

Arabica vs Robusta - which is better?

“I’d choose Arabica as it has a more complex and balanced flavor.”

High-quality Arabica coffee can have a variety of flavor notes, starting with simpler ones like chocolate and nuts, to more complex notes of fruits, berries, and even certain flowers, like rose or jasmine. Arabica coffee should have a pleasant acidity and little bitterness.

“Robusta coffee beans will have a more bitter flavor with hints of tobacco and earthy notes.”

Does the taste of coffee change by the region it was grown in?

“Oh, yes…Ethiopian coffee will have mostly floral and spicy notes. Coffee beans from Brasil will have hints of nuts and seeds. Kenya - blackberries, other red berries, while Columbia could stand out with notes of halvah and citrus.”

The taste of coffee doesn’t only depend on the country it’s grown. Variety, altitude, climate, soil, and many other factors affect how the coffee tastes.

“Sad to tell you, but the taste variations will only apply to specialty coffee, and not so much commercial coffee. In many cases, the commercial coffee producers won’t even state the origin for their coffee beans.

Commodity coffee roasters usually will have a blend of multiple different coffees, which means the coffee is likely to have lost its unique flavor of the origin.”

What role does coffee freshness play in its quality?

“A BIG one! It’s crucial that the first thing you check is its date of production. Coffee has the best flavor in the first 3 months of shelf life. During this time, coffee gradually loses its flavor, intensity, and quality. When 3 months have passed, coffee develops an unwanted flavor and can start tasting stale.”

If the manufacturer hasn’t stated the date of production, you could look for the best before date, as in most cases, it’s usually 1,5 to 2 years.

“But if you ask me, well... I wouldn't go with a brand that doesn't state the production (or roast) date on their label. Even if you’re sure you’ll finish the coffee in the next few weeks, - with coffee that's about to expire in a month or so - it's goodness is long gone."

How does the roast of coffee affect the flavor?

The process of coffee roasting will alter its taste, decreasing the acidity levels, and raising the bitter taste. Usually, you’ll see three main roast types: Light, Medium, and Dark.

“The darker the roast, the less acidity will be found in the coffee beverage. A part of the sweetness will also be lost due to the heavy caramelization. The coffee will taste bitter, roasty, sometimes even burnt and in best cases, could be characterized by flavors of dark chocolate.

The lighter the roast, the more of the natural bean flavor will be expressed in the coffee beverage. As for the taste, it will be more balanced, sweet and acidic, so you’ll possibly find it to have a rather fruity flavor.”

What about organic coffee, is it better than conventional coffee?

“I don’t recommend focusing on whether it’s organic or not. Organic coffee simply means it might be cleaner from pesticides, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to taste better than conventional coffee or that conventional coffee is necessarily contaminated. Organic farmers still use chemicals to maximize their crop yield, they’re just different kinds of chemicals.”

So…there’s no coffee that’s both environmentally friendly and with a superior taste than conventional, non-organic coffee?

“If you’re keen on finding the most natural product, I recommend biodynamic coffee. Biodynamic farmers aim to produce a crop without using any chemicals and only rely on bugs, birds, surrounding trees and plants to protect and fertilize the coffee plants. Both the taste and the yield of the coffee turns out good!”

Are there any 100% trusted brands you’d recommend?

“There are many great brands to choose from and for that reason, I invite you to explore your local roastery. It’s as easy as googling ‘specialty coffee roastery in (your city name)’.

Of course, I have my personal favorites, but most of them are found at my local roastery and because of that, I can’t guarantee they’ll be available in other parts of the world.

My best recommendation is this - don’t focus on commodity brands, and be open to the process of trial and error.”

So the main takeaways are…

  • Choose coffee beans over ground coffee;
  • Opt for Arabica rather than Robusta beans;
  • Check the date of production, make sure it’s as fresh as possible;
  • Pick darker roasts for a more bitter and smoother taste;
  • Pick lighter roasts for a more fruity flavor and hints of acidity;
  • If you’re buying coffee at a specialty coffee shop, have a chat with the barista to learn it’s potential flavor.

“Pick, buy and test! You won’t ever learn what coffee you like if you don’t experiment. Eventually, you’ll find a coffee you love. If the worst case scenario comes true and it’s undrinkable, save it by adding milk or use it as garden fertilizer.”


This article was written by Una Savčenko, a freelance copywriter, storyteller, and improviser.
She’s a real wizardess when it comes to creating fun and engaging copies.


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