The Beans

“Our espresso coffee is made up from a five bean blend.” – Inconsistent.

“This coffee is made from the best Colombian beans.” – Untruth.

“This coffee is Fairtrade giving the farmers a fairer deal.” – Half truth.

“Our coffee is made from 100% Arabica beans.” – Really bad.

Marketing is a marvellous means of spotlighting the good often to obfuscate the bad. It also usually means that the thing they’re shouting about is as good as it gets. Let’s have a look at some 100% Arabica beans.

100% Arabica Coffee

All of the above is sold as Arabica coffee. It’s a Ugandan Triage and it tastes remarkably like Nestle 100% Arabica coffee. It is available along with many other 100% Arabica coffees for any coffee roaster to buy at a very low price. It contains: fungus, husk, insect damaged beans, sours, blacks, floaters, wood and the occasional whole coffee bean. The question we could now ask is ‘What’s in the blends that aren’t 100% Arabica?’ Welcome to the world of coffee marketing.

The Triage is the bottom of the grade in Uganda. The commodity grade coffee is the bulk of the coffee traded across the planet, but not all is as bad as the coffee above. There is another band of grades that introduce a much higher level of coffee: Speciality Coffee (spelled ‘specialty’ in American English). Unfortunately, because most of the people involved in the coffee industry are in it for the money, this is still a very low standard. Starbucks, Costa, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are all speciality coffee outlets. Lavazza and Illy are speciality coffee roasters. There are two important aspect to look at here: quality and grade.


There are almost as many ways of grading as there are countries growing coffee. Hopefully there will soon be a universal standard. In Costa Rica a decent bunch of beans will be grade SHB, meaning Strictly Hard Bean. An equivalent in Kenya would be a AA, in Indonesia; Grade 1. The grading method I prefer is the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) grading method. This takes 300g and counts the number of defects in the sample. This method allows 5 full defects within this small sample. Some minor defects are allowed several times before qualifying as a full defect. This means that the following beans are still within the speciality band:

Speciality beans including 1 black, several sours, parchment, ears, insect damage, withered beans.

Full 300g sample

This is a 300g sample of Brazil NY 2/3 17/18 SS GC. I separated the defects from the good beans and this is what I got. This is a great step up from the triage coffee, but a cup made solely from these defect beans would taste terrible. Of course there were more beans without defect that made up sample. Nevertheless there is a high chance that every cup of coffee you drink from this grade of coffee will taste different depending on what defects fall out of the grinder. Unless they are burnt by the roaster.

Most people think that coffee tastes burnt. This is simply because most roasters buy beans with many defects and then burn them to mask the defects. Ash tastes the same from a defect or a good bean. However, if the roaster is to buy beans with no defects and roast lighter, the beans need to be more than just well graded. They need breeding.


Not all beans are created equal. Without good breeding, coffee beans lack class. There are many varieties of coffee and each has its peculiar flavour characteristics. Moreover, the soil and weather conditions, the aspect of the hillside, the altitude and the manner in which the bean was processed and stored all affect the flavour of the bean. A zero defect coffee might be completely insipid if the bean is of poor class.

This is the reason that generic country coffees don’t taste amazing. The best Colombian beans are never ‘Colombian’ beans. They may taste alright, but not amazing. You can only get amazing coffee from people with pride. People who put their name on the bag. An estate or a small co-operative that have taken care of the planting, cultivation, harvesting, processing, storing and transport of the coffee. A large co-operative or a generic country coffee has the same quality issues that collectivised farms faced in the USSR: “why should I work hard making a decent product when that lazy bastard over there is getting the same price?”

If we do manage to get our hands on coffee that is both well-graded and has the potential to be delicious not only can we roast less and get a good tasting coffee without the carbon, but we have to roast it to a lower degree in order to prevent burning off the volatile aromatics that have been carefully cultivated by the farmers and preserved through harvesting, processing and shipping and are what makes our coffee so good. So, if the taste is so much better, why is all coffee not this grade and quality?


Coffee prices in US¢/lb

The increase in price is the reason why so many roasters have recently decided that Robusta is a decent tasting coffee. The top line is the price of the Brazil Santos NY 2/3 17/18 SS GC with all its defects. If you want coffee without defects you need to pay substantially more.

Price for a decent coffee

The green line in the above two graphs are the same. Only the scale has changed. One point to note is that at higher prices, the price of good green coffee is still four times that of basic speciality coffee. However, the difference in price has increased from $4.30/lb to $9.04/lb. Moreover, our cups of coffee are still around the same price or less than Starbucks et al.

For those of you who think Fairtrade is the way forward, the minimum is $1.40/lb. If you made decent coffee that you were proud of, would you bother?


There’s nothing wrong with blends. They can bring out flavours not possible using one bean roasted in one way. It is possible to make a blend of one bean. Megan used a Gethumbwini Peaberry roasted for sweetness blended with a Gethumbwini Peaberry roasted for acidity in the Scottish heats of the UKBC.

Scottish Barista championships 2011 from Benjamin Cowie on Vimeo.

However, any espresso blend beyond three beans is going to be quite inconsistent. Lavazza’s five-bean blend means that out of the around 40 beans that make up a single shot of espresso, assuming the smallest percentage is 20%, you need exactly eight beans of each coffee every time you grind in order to make your shot consistent. And Illy, that old master of marketing, he never mentions the origin or number of beans in his blend. It’s a secret and given the taste, he’s welcome to it.

5 thoughts on “The Beans

  1. I almost gagged at the picture labeled “100% Arabica Coffee”. What’s the source on the green bean pics? I’m used to starbucks espresso tasting bitter and burnt with little else happening but my last visit there had a VERY clear mold first and dirt after flavor.

    • The green beans were given to me by the guys at Sari Makmur in Medan. They have a fantastic grading facility and have zero-defect coffee all the way down to the sample seen in the photo. They sell such beans to instant coffee manufacturers.

  2. I had been advised that to formulate the perfect cappuccino
    you must use incredibly cold milk – however I cannot tell the improvement in the ones I have
    made at home. Although I’m a little bit of a newbie the cappuccinos I make at home are far better than Costa Coffee (In My Estimation Anyhow !)

    • Using very cold milk might give you more time to texture the milk. However, I’d question the need to chill the milk below normal fridge temperatures. Some baristas keep their jugs in the freezer. Personally, I think that if you’ve got time to reach for a frozen jug each time you want to make a capp, you’re working fairly quiet pump.
      Simplicity, good milk and good coffee gives the greatest advantage.

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