Choosing the best Arabica beans is usually a matter of understanding the differences in roast, knowing the indications of quality, and finding beans that are as fresh as possible. The specifics of how the beans were sourced and picked may also be a concern. Most of the time, this information can be found relatively easily through a bit of cursory research. In dedicated coffee shops, roasters may be on hand to answer your questions as well. It is usually a good idea to experiment with beans as you are able and shop around in order to find the best choices for you.
Arabica beans form the foundations for a great many different coffee blends. The strength of their flavor and the intensity of their brew is largely a matter of roast. Understanding roast differences is one of the first things you will need to master in order to choose the best Arabica beans.
Raw coffee beans generally have a very bitter flavor, and will brew a beverage nothing like what most people associate with coffee. In order to get the deep brown liquid loved by so many, the beans must be roasted, usually over a flame or in specialized roasting ovens. Heat causes the beans to release oils, and improves their flavor. Light roast, medium roast, and dark roast are the three most common styles, but different producers have different styles, and often different names for each. Learning about the different roasts and how these affect taste will help inform your choice.
Blending is another important consideration. The Arabica coffee bean is often blended with different flavors and spices during roasting to create variety in the final drink. In some cases, Robusta beans — less expensive, milder beans — are added in with the Arabica varietals. This alters the overall taste and texture of the resulting brew, and is something to look out for. The term “Arabica blend” may mean only that the beans include outside spices, but it could also indicate that the beans are not purely Arabica.
Once you know how you want your coffee beans roasted and have some grasp of the different flavoring and blending options, freshness becomes the biggest concern. The best Arabica beans are those that have been most recently roasted, as these will have the boldest and freshest flavor. If you live near a coffee roaster’s shop, it is often possible to buy beans within a day or two of roasting. Otherwise, be sure to look out for dates on commercial packaging.
Pre-packaged beans almost always include a roast date. This is sometimes the same as the “packed” date, but not always. Look for beans that have been roasted within a month of the purchase date for optimum flavor and freshness.
It is usually also best to purchase whole beans, then grind them fresh the day you want to use them. Grinding coffee at home is relatively simple, and almost always yields a better brew than would pre-ground versions, even of the same basic coffee. Beans lose a lot of moisture and flavor when they are ground.
There is some controversy in the coffee industry about the ethics of coffee picking and sourcing, particularly in the developing world. If you are concerned about the labor practices of the farmers who grew your Arabica beans, look for roasts labeled “fair trade.” The fair trade designation is granted to roasters and distributors who commit to sourcing beans only from farm cooperatives that have adopted certain human rights and fair labor practices. Fair trade coffee is often more expensive and is never a designation of quality — only of background.