How to Read the Bag


We asked Michael Sanchez, president and CEO of Mast Coffee, to walk us through the lingo on a typical bag of coffee.

Blend: A “blend” of two or more different coffees. “As opposed to a single-origin coffee, blends are typically created to make a specific flavor profile and to highlight the coffee’s strengths while diminishing its weaknesses,” says Sanchez.

Notes: Terms used to describe aroma, acidity, body, sweetness and aftertaste, such as berry, bitter, buttery, caramelly, clean, complex, earthy, fruity, heavy, mild, nutty, pungent, roasty and wild. You get the picture.

Arabica: Most of the coffee grown commercially comes from Coffea arabica, a species that originated in the highlands of Ethiopia. Has a wide range of flavors and many varietals.

Process: The method—washed or dry—used to prepare coffee after harvest, which can determine aroma and taste.

Roast: Light, medium and dark roast are general terms that indicate the length of time and manner in which coffee beans are roasted. Lighter roasts produce drier beans that retain more of their original coffee flavor, while darker roasts produce oilier beans and more char flavor. Bottom line? Try different roasts and pick one that suits your taste buds.

Fair trade: Fair Trade certification means that farmers and workers in developing countries were paid fairly for their products and labor. A third-party certifier, like the nonprofit Fair Trade USA, facilitates relationships between farmers and importers and ensures that certain environmental standards are maintained. Farmers are also guaranteed a minimum price per pound for their crop. That Fair Trade label doesn’t indicate those beans were grown organically (although they can be), but they are non-GMO.

Single origin: Coffee derived from a single location. However, this term can be used broadly to describe coffee from a single farm (called single estate), a group of farms that are close geographically, or even a single country or crop.

Varietal: A fancy term borrowed from the wine industry to indicate the genetic subspecies of the coffee plant by location. It’s also used to describe Arabica varieties, like bourbon and typica. What does that mean to the average coffee consumer? Don’t stress over terms. Find the varietal you like.

Region: Simply put, this is the place where your coffee came from. Sanchez notes that this term is “synonymous with the term ‘origin’ and indicative of natural flavors in the coffee. [It is] helpful when buying coffee if you know you prefer a certain region or origin.”

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