Sit yourself down, pick up a notebook and a pencil and pretend it’s 1997, cause you’re back in school! If you can put down your pogs and your Tamagotchis for just a second, I’m gonna teach you a trick or two.
Wherever you are in the world right now, I bet you’ve got great coffee right next door. Since the early 2000s and the onset of Third Wave coffee, a generation of quality roasters making great coffee beans have sprung up here, there and everywhere. Whether you’re in the sleepiest village in the Midwest, the hippest suburb on the West Coast or the deepest reaches of the Bible Belt. The coffee roasting scene is exploding. And I’m gonna show you how to find it.
It’s worth mentioning that this is not limited to the US. I can tell you this works in all English speaking countries and most of Western Europe (I’ve done my research). I can’t be as sure about developing countries that have a language that I can’t speak – i.e. all of them – but if you can get coffee in that country then then you can probably find some top roasters.
Yes, you may pay a bit more. Well, you will pay a bit more. We’re talking ethically sourced single origin farming as opposed to factory scale processing techniques. But it’s so worth it. Making the switch from stale grocery store beans to high quality freshly roasted beans is the best thing you can do to improve your coffee. And come on, you’re reading a nerdy coffee blog. You want to pay more so you can act all snobby about it.
I’m hoping this will turn out to be a pretty useful article for a lot of you. The quality of the coffee bean is a HUGE factor in the quality of the coffee, regardless of how skilled you are at making coffee. Imagine the best Formula 1 driver in the world trying to compete by driving his mum’s Prius. It’s not gonna happen.
In fact, it’s the number one reason why you and your kitchen can make better coffee than most coffee shops.
A few things you should know
Do you know enough about coffee?
To buy fantastic beans, it helps for you to know a thing or two about coffee beans. You can skip all this if you want – it’s a lot of reading – and still buy and make great coffee. But you won’t understand a few things I think any coffee drinker should know.
You might like to know the difference between single origin coffee and a blend. You would benefit from understanding the types of roast (dark, light, medium…) and how they affect your drink. It’s really useful to know how the different growing regions (Africa, Asia, Latin America) can affect the flavor of your coffee.
No links or recommendations here
I’m not going to give a single recommendation or link to any coffee roaster online or otherwise. You have to find them yourself. I’m doing this for the following reasons.
1. I believe in supporting local businesses.
2. The fresher you can get your coffee the better. The optimal time for drinking is between 2-15 days so shipping your beans across the country is not ideal.
3. You get a chance to speak with knowledgable people.
I have written articles on good coffee beans online but it’s the second choice solution. I’ll include a couple of links at the end but really, you want to find the greatest coffee roasters near you. Not some bearded hipster-types in San Francisco.*
*Just kidding bearded hipster-types!
Have a chat
If you’re the kind of person who likes to chat and learn about stuff then this is perfect. The people who own and run a coffee roaster’s are usually very passionate about the subject. These guys love to talk and are full of great information. They might even show you a quick brew. There’s a lot of value in popping down in person to a roaster’s – I highly recommend it.
How to do it
Search Google for “coffee roasters [town/city/area]”
(Hopefully I don’t need to mention that you replace the square brackets with where you live…)
This will give you a page of results. There will be a mix of:
1. Locations of coffee roasters nearby on Google Maps
This is the number one place you should start. Google Maps is so good now that it will just show you on the map where the local roasters are. It’s also very good at discerning which are roasters and which are just cafes. This is your place to start. Find a few then check out their websites, which leads to the next step.
2. Website for coffee roasters
You’ll find these either from finding roasters from Google Maps or just on the first page of Google. The ones higher up on Google will be the more established coffee roasters. Good if you want a safe bet that lots of people have tried. Less good if you’re looking to experiment.
A coffee roasters with a website is exactly what you’re looking for. There’ll be a bunch of information on the website you can use to see which one you like the look of.
3. Local listings websites with articles like “6 best coffee roasters in [city] right now”
This is a good option. Particularly if you live in a busy area and want a recommendation to cut through the noise. These are often weighted to the more popular roasters in your area which can be a good thing or a bad thing.
4. Google adverts for coffee roasters
This is another excellent option. Don’t ignore it just because it’s an advert. It’s probable that it’s a newer roaster’s looking to make its mark – especially if you don’t see the website again on the first page of Google. You can expect excellent customer service and excellent coffee beans from a startup that is looking to impress.
5. Articles or websites about cafes
You can ignore these unless they specifically state something about roasting or selling their own beans on the Google page. It’s common (although becoming less common these days) for Google to assume roasters = cafes.
Don’t forget that there will be good results on the second and third pages. Especially if you live in a big city.
Buy online or not?
Most coffee roasters will have their own premises where they do the roasting. This might be part of an established coffee shop or cafe or they might even have their own cafe serving their own coffee. It’s rare to find roasters not attached to some kind of cafe but they do exist. I recommend going to the place if you can.
If you can’t, it’s not the end of the world. If you buy online then you’re still buying local. I’d make sure you get some assurance that you are getting fresh coffee. In person you can look at the roasting date on the bag but online it can be harder. It’s unlikely and independent coffee roaster would send you stale coffee but I’d want to be assured of it if I was buying online from a place for the first time. A quick scout of the website or an email tends to work.
How do I know I’ve found a good one?
Generally speaking, if you can find a coffee roaster with its own website – you’re good. This shows its independently made, is its own business rather than just being an offshoot of a cafe (not that that is always a bad thing), and means they take the business seriously.
A few more things to look for are:
The cafe or the website looks modern/cute.
This might sound like a superficial reason but I’ve found it to ring true. If the appearance of the website or the cafe itself looks well presented and well thought out, the coffee is probably good. Think about it. If you care enough to make a gorgeous, well informed website, chances are you take the same amount of care in making great coffee too.
You can see the roasting machines.
One of the best roasters near me is just a massive room full of roasting equipment with a tiny cafe joined on to the side of it. Easiest if you go in person but websites often have a gallery of photos of the place.
Talks about roast, regions and other information.
Pick up the bag and see what it says – there might be info on the website, too. If it’s described as ‘House Blend’ then not so good. It’s described as ‘City Roast Tanzania Peaberry’ then that’s perfect. The roaster is giving you detailed information about the roast and region which shows they are putting some effort in when choosing and roasting the beans.
Offers detailed tasting notes.
If the bag of coffee tells you about its ‘full bodied taste replete with delicate notes of hazelnut and toffee’ that’s a great sign. You don’t get tasty flavors with bad coffee.
They give you roasting dates.
Another excellent sign. A roasting date on a bag of coffee beans means the roaster cares about freshness and isn’t leaving bags on the shelves until they get sold. It also means you can make sure you brew and drink your coffee when it is at its freshest. You really need to be buying your coffee fresh – i.e. within a few days of the roast.
Or alternatively, go there and taste the damn thing!
Case study: Finding good coffee in Winslow, Arizona
I was listening to the Eagles earlier and I’ve got that song in my head, ‘Take it Easy’. You know the line:
I was standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona
Such a fine sight to see
Well, I’m going to show you how to do this by finding some great coffee near Winslow Arizona. I’ve never been to the place but Google tells me the population is 9,000 and it’s in the middle of nowhere in AZ so if you can find good coffee there, you can find it anywhere.
Search Google for ‘coffee roasters Winslow Arizona’
Here’s what I get.
I click a few links and there’s basically only one real option at first glance – this place Mojo Coffee Company. It doesn’t have its own website which is a slight negative but there’s a yelp and a facebook so I check those out.
A little digging and I see they roast their own coffee. I take a look at the map and see it’s 5 minutes away (sidenote: wow Winslow is a small place!) I hop in my car and get on down to the place. A quick chat to the knowledgable manager and I’ve picked myself up some locally produced and fresh roasted beans.
(Honestly I’ve done this loads of times in loads of places it really is that easy. Google has already done all the work for you.)
Now in this instance there’s only one option. I’d try a few bags and hope the place knows its stuff. But given the scarcity of options it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look at some of the reputable online roasters or perhaps some of the safer wholesale coffee beans.
– I’m lucky, where I live there’s loads of excellent indie roasters. The only downside is I never get round to learning how to roast my own beans!
– Keep and eye out for African single origins coffees. My personal opinion is they are the best to show someone how interesting a coffee can taste.
– I said I’d link to my recommendations at the end and here they are. This article gives a few solid options that you can buy from Amazon – easy and convenient but not the best coffee. This article recommends some of the best large scale but still high quality beans options online, you may have heard of some of the names like Stumptown roasters.
– Now you’re got some badass coffee beans, make sure you’re brewing them fresh and getting a good extraction – you should invest in a quality hand or automatic grinder if you can or failing that get it preground.