How To Choose The Best Coffee Beans
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
In last five years, the list of Indian specailty coffee roasters has increased rapidly. There are several specialty cafes & roasters in all major Indian metros. We are now less dependent on 2nd Wave cafe chains like Cafe Coffee Day, Barista, Starbucks or global coffee brands such as Illy, Lavazza, Nespresso etc., to enjoy our daily cuppa. We can savour great tasting coffees at home, brewed from freshly roasted coffee beans, thanks to all the hard work of enterprising Indian specialty coffee roasters.
However, a plethora of buying choices, coupled with social media induced specialty coffee peer pressure, brings its own set of challenges. Many of us, specially the newcomers to coffee making habits, find the sheer number of choices and the endless barrage of social media marketing, confusing and intimidating.
That's where this post will come in handy. We will have you up & running on the Indian specialty coffee flavour highway in no time if you answer these three simple questions:
Q1: What Coffee Maker Am I Using?
This is a simple, yet overlooked fact which will greatly influence which coffee beans you can choose for best tasting coffee at home. Not every brewing method will work well with every coffee bean variety and roast profile. The quality of a brewed cup of coffee depends on three major factors in this order:
1. The quality of coffee beans
2. The quality of brew water (a TDS of 75 - 250 mg/L as per SCA )
3. The quality of grinds
In the words of coffee guru James Hoffmann:
a remarkable array of things can go wrong in the simple action of water passing through a bed of coffee.
So choose your 'weapons' wisely and review your coffee brewing method & preparation steps aka the workflow. Try and learn which beans are the best match for your chosen method. Here are some popular brewers:
This simple & classic immersion brew method is very forgiving and almost any roast level or bean type will work well here. To begin with, look for any coffee bean with a medium to dark level of roast for a full bodied brew. Here's our list of recommended coffees for French press.
Cold Brew Coffee
Light to medium roast level, single origin coffee beans are best for it, although if you like this particular type of coffee beverage, blends or medium-dark roasts can be an interesting experiment too. Many people experiment with milk, sugar or flavourings such as vanilla, caramel to their cold brews too. Here are some simple suggestions for best coffees for cold brew.
Pour-overs are best consumed without milk & sugar, but it's not a hard & fast rule. Feel free to drink it the way you like your coffee. We recommend looking out for nice, exotic single origin beans with taste & flavour notes that appeal to your senses. When brewed the right way, this method can really bring out the delicate flavour & aromatic nuances of every coffee, as a clean tasting, medium bodied cup of coffee. This characteristic of a pour-over, is the single biggest reason for this brewing method's popularity amongst specialty coffee aficionados. Our list of recommended pour-over coffees is a great place to start your pour-over coffee journey.
The classic Italian stove top espresso can be enjoyed with or without milk and generally works well with low acidity, medium-dark roasted coffees and even Arabica-Robusta blends. Check out our recommendations for best coffees for Moka Pot here.
If you want to up your Moka Pot brewing game, do check out this best brewing tips for Moka Pot post of ours.
South Indian Filter
This humble little brewer has been around for a very long time. It produces a well rounded cup of coffee with a very pleasant & sweet taste, with none of the bitterness typically associated with fine ground coffee brewing methods such as the moka pot. The brew method is often ignored by specialty coffee patrons due to lack of awareness & available information about it.
South Indian filter coffee is a very underrated brewing method and we feel that every Indian owes it to themselves to try this out first over any other style of making coffee at home. Check out our recommended coffees for the South Indian Filter.
For a handy guide to making South Indian filter coffee like a pro, take a look at our How to make tasty Filter Kaapi at home post by India Barista champion Geetu Mohnani.
You need to be extra careful in the beans you choose for an espresso machine. Some will taste great, others will taste terrible! In general, you can't go wrong with medium to medium dark roasts with nutty or chocolaty flavour profiles. Avoid light roasts or very acidic coffees unless you are very sure of what kind of beverage you are after. What you can get out of your coffee beans will also greatly depend on quality of your grinder and the specific type of espresso machine you own. Here are the best espresso coffees.
On a related note, if you need coffee brewing gear suggestions to buy in India, take a look at our Brewing Gear Guide for brewing gear suited for beginner, intermediate & advanced users.
Q2: What Flavour Profiles Do I like?
Our sensory perception of a cup of coffee, i.e. the taste, flavour & aroma, are greatly influenced by certain factors. Some of the key factors are: the variety of coffee, the location & climatic conditions where this coffee was grown, how it was processed & roasted, and finally how you, the end consumer, prepares the coffee beverage with it. The Coffee Drinkers's Flavour Wheel is a simple yet effective way to understand the usual flavour varieties which can be found at most specialty coffee roasters.
The second question you should ask yourself is an obvious one: what kind of taste & flavours would I enjoy in a cup of coffee? Some coffee lovers seek wine-like mild acidic flavour profiles with a dry mouthfeel, some prefer tea like light bodied coffees with floral aromas, while many enjoy a full-bodied, earthy and strong coffee that 'tastes like coffee’, to which they can add milk, or even sugar.
Certain taste & flavour preferences call for certain types of coffee beans. Here are some pointers to get you started:
If you crave ‘wine like’, fruity or floral exotic flavours, typically experienced best with pour-over coffees, choose a nice light roast single origin coffee (and don’t add milk!). In our opinion, for this kind of flavour profiles you will be happier with coffees from regions such as Ethiopia or Kenya, or even some South American ones. Very light or light-medium roasted Indian specialty coffee beans are a rarity, mostly due to the terrain and climatic conditions where they are cultivated.
Some Indian roasters have partially made up for this natural deficiency of coffees grown in India by using creative processing (eg mild fermentation etc) and precision roasting techniques. Look out for Red Honey processed or Purple Project coffee beans from Kelagur estate, offered by KC Roasters. The Producer Series of Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters is a noteworthy addition too.
If you want something full-bodied that tastes very ‘coffee like’, go for a dark roast coffee with nutty, chocolatey or dry fruits taste descriptors. These are easier to find in India. Here’s a list of some dark roast coffees which work well with milk (or just black).
Q3: Do I Have Any Other Needs?
This third & final question is for you if you have very specific coffee drinking habits or desires. You probably already know exactly what you want, but here are a few pointers to help prompt some ideas:
No coffee grinder?
No problem. Most specialty roasters will roast & grind a fresh pack of coffee for you, so refer to previous question and choose a coffee based on one of the above factors. Try not to order more than a couple of week's worth of specialty coffee at a time though - ground coffee stales way faster than whole beans.
On the other hand, grinding your coffee fresh, minutes before brewing a cup, will significantly improve the taste of your prepared beverage. We strongly recommend buying a hand grinder & buying only whole coffee beans if you are very particular about flavours and fresh tasting coffee.
On a related note, here’s a list of some reasonable quality manual grinders to buy in India.
Sensitive to caffeine?
Decaffeinated or Decaf coffee is your solution. Sadly there are very few specialty decaf coffee options in India as of now. We constantly keep an eye out for the ones available and will update this post once there is a meaningful and consistent supply of local decaf coffee options. That's one good reason to bookmark our site and to check back every so often.
Need extra caffeine?
There are a number of super high caffeinated coffee beans worth considering, Robusta Kaapi Royale is the best tasting go-to option in India but any other Robusta will do just as well. Slay & Dope Coffee Roasters seem to have a bit of lead on this category over others.
Need coffees that are easy on your stomach?
Most Indian coffees are generally low acidity so this should not be a big issue for most. But, to be on the safe side, you can avoid fruity or winey coffees or specially fermented or processed coffees out of your available choices.
Looking for something quick & easy?
If you’re always on the move, and just need a quick coffee, here are a few Japanese drip bag style coffee products we recommend - Sleepy Owl Hot Coffee Brew Bags or Blue Tokai Easy Pour Monsoon Malabar Sachets. Ready made decoctions such as True South from Cafe Coffee Day are also a viable option, they needs refrigeration after opening though.
Use a different coffee making method?
For a complete list of coffee suggestions for commonly used brewing methods, visit our Coffee Recommendations page.
Other burning issues
Lastly, a few more queries which we routinely get from Indian coffee lovers on social media channels. Feel free to skip this section if these issues are not relevant to you.
How can you tell good quality coffee beans?
Traditionally, Indian coffee bean are traded as grade AAA, AA, Plantation, or Peaberry etc. But these are just size indicator of coffee beans, not of their quality.
If the coffee you are buying has a clearly specified roasting date, varietal name, estate where it was grown, along with climate and altitude information, chances are that its a carefully processed, good quality specialty coffee.
For reference, any coffee which has a 'cupping score' above 85 is deemed a specialty coffee. But cupping is an industry term, used in bulk trade of coffees and its usage in retail sale is rare in India.
Which coffee beans are the best?
The ones which taste best to you are the best coffee beans. Coffee beans are a natural product. The taste of a coffee will depend on where it was grown, how it was processed and roasted, and how you choose to brew it. That said, some coffees around the world develop a reputation for consistently good taste. In India this global fame belongs to Monsooned Malabar, Mysore Nugget amongst Arabica and Robusta Kaapi Royale amongst Robusta coffees. We recommend that you start with these.
How do I choose the right coffee?
This is a matter of matching your taste preferences, coffee and choice of brewing method. Refer to this section of our post for more on this topic.
What are the best coffee beans in India?
The list is long, we recommend that you check out our list of Top Roasters and the coffees they offer, as a short list. Chances are, you will hit pay dirt with one of them
What coffee is right for me?
This is a matter of personal taste, and how well matched your chosen coffee bean is to your coffee making method. We recommend you read this and this sections of our post for further details.
That's all folks!
How did we do? Was this post able to answer your queries and help you with your coffee selection woes? Did we miss out anything or do you still have any questions? Let us know in the comment section below. We try our best to answer every question we receive.