Straight to the Point
While there are a lot of third-party coffee retailers online—like Trade, Mistobox, Seattle Coffee Gear, Bean Box, and Beanz—there are also many options for ordering coffee directly from roasters themselves. While we highly recommend you check out single-origin offerings, most of the featured coffees in this article are year-round blends, so our links will be as up to date as possible.
Ordering a bag of coffee online can be overwhelming. In the last few years, I’ve noticed an uptick of new coffee roasters touting ethical sourcing practices, complex and unique flavor profiles, and expert roasting styles.
While this may sound too good to be true, the reality is that many of the barriers for starting a high-end, specialty coffee roasting operation have become less daunting: shared roasting spaces cut down on up front equipment costs, quality focused green coffee importers make farm-specific sourcing more attainable, and e-Commerce platforms help roasting start ups find national audiences quicker.
While roasters used to rely on what large-scale, green coffee importers had available in their warehouses, in the early 2000s, roasters like Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, and Stumptown pioneered ways of sourcing coffee directly from farmers. Coffee roasters were able to highlight more dynamic, complex, and unique flavors from individual farms. This direct-to-farm sourcing was only achievable by larger roasters, however, until recently.
“Importers have always been a critical part of the coffee supply chain, but the trend used to be to cut out the middleman,’” says RJ Joseph, Communications Expert for Red Fox Coffee Merchants. “In the case of Red Fox, we don’t just import coffee: we source, do rigorous quality control, get the coffee from origin to destination, coordinate warehousing, and more.”
As other green coffee importers have adopted a sourcing model similar to Red Fox, smaller coffee roasting companies now have a direct line to the farms they buy coffee from. “These roasting companies have access to better quality green, transparency in the supply chain, and coffee information than anyone could have imagined 15-20 years ago,” says Aleco Chigounis, Owner and Co-Founder of Red Fox Coffee Merchants.
That transparency has led to more information being included on coffee bags' labels. And while it may be fun to know the elevation that a coffee was grown at or the variety of coffee tree, does it really matter?
The answer, of course, is yes and no. To help you decipher the myriad of terms printed onto coffee bags and find a coffee that fits your flavor preferences, I’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to navigating the vast, complex world of buying coffee.
First, Let’s Start with the Third Party Coffee Reseller Marketplace
Just as the amount of coffee roasting companies has exploded, so too has the number of online marketplaces designed to sell coffee from these roasters. Working as a sort of one-stop shop for people to browse offerings from multiple roasters at once, the third-party reseller marketplace is designed to help people hone in on exactly the flavor profile they are looking for in a coffee and, if possible, lock that person into a recurring subscription.
These marketplaces help roasters find a new audience just as much as they allow customers to explore new coffees. At the same time, they make their money by taking a percentage of each bag sold, similar to a wholesale relationship a roaster might have with a local cafe that stocks their coffee on their retail shelf. While many of these marketplaces overlap with the roasters they carry, each has their own unique interface, so let’s break them down.
Trade: Trade launched their reseller marketplace with a major claim: their algorithm could direct you to exactly the coffee you were looking for and adapt to your preferences. While it might be the sleekest recommendation engine, Trade also has financial backing from JAB, a huge holding company with many coffee interests that’s recently had to reckon with a sketchy past. Trade coffees are drop-shipped, which means that coffee is roasted and shipped to order directly from the roaster.
MistoBox: Launched in 2012, MistoBox is one of the original third-party online coffee marketplaces to offer subscriptions. One advantage MistoBox has is a discount for ordering in bulk—if you’d rather buy six bags at a time and get coffee shipped to you once a month, you can save a fair amount of money over a year. Orders from MistoBox are also directly drop-shipped from the roaster.
Seattle Coffee Gear: Primarily a seller of coffee equipment, Seattle Coffee Gear breaks down their coffee recommendations based on how you’re planning to brew. While they don’t have a recommendation algorithm, they do have live chat support available on their website and offer the ability to buy one bag of coffee at a time. Their coffees are sent out from their warehouses, so it may be a slightly older roast date than a drop-shipped option.
Bean Box: While Bean Box does offer a variety of subscriptions in 12 ounce sizes, their sampler gift boxes are what really sets them apart. With an array of coffees packaged in two-ounce bags, Bean Box gives people the chance to sample a variety of coffees in one shipment, which is a great way to learn what you like. Bean Box buys in bulk from roasters and re-packages into their own bags, so orders may process fast, but roast dates might be older than a drop-shipped coffee.
Beanz: Launched by Breville in 2021, Beanz offers a variety of roasters as either part of a subscription or as a one-time purchase. Breville makes one of our top recommended espresso machines, and while their recommendation options might not be as robust as other marketplaces, Beanz does feature a variety of highly regarded roasters that are drop-shipped to your front door.
Next, Let’s Decode Coffee Labels
To choose a bag of coffee based on the information found on the label, first you need to examine some of the basics about coffee. Coffee is the seed of a cherry-like fruit that grows best near the equator, and most of the unique flavors come from how and where it was grown, as well as the variety of coffee tree. You'll often find this info on bags, and you might also see a roast level, a roast date, designation as single-origin or blend, and country of origin. Each of these snippets of information can relate to the flavor profile of coffee, but some are more impactful than others.
Before roasting, coffee is a starchy little green seed; its true flavor potential is only unlocked during roasting. As green coffee begins to heat up in the roaster, the starches break down into sugars which begin to caramelize, creating hundreds of new complex flavors and aromas. This is known as the Maillard reaction.
“Ultimately, what the Maillard reaction contributes to roasted coffee is complexity of flavor,” says Chris Kornman, Director of Education at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room. “The Maillard reaction is responsible for nothing short of the development of coffee’s essential sensory character.”
Because it can so drastically affect the flavor of a coffee, roast level is a great top line decision maker for discovering which coffees you might like. Though roast levels cover a wide spectrum, most coffees can fall into one of three categories:
Light Roast: “Lighter roasts tend to showcase brighter, acidity driven flavors inherent to the terroir, plant type, and processing style of the beans before roasting,” Kornman says. Light roast coffees tend to finish roasting right after the “first crack,” when the remaining moisture in the coffee turns to steam and it pops open, like popcorn. There’s very little caramelization that happens before the first crack, which is why light roast coffees show the flavor profile that they do. Because light roasted coffees are less developed, they can be trickier to brew and better suited for people who like to tinker with pourover brewing, where multiple brew variables are easy to adjust to dial in the coffee.
A Bright And Modern Light Roast Option: Intelligentsia Illumination Blend
Medium Roast: “Medium roasts are driven by caramelized sweetness, powered by sugar browning flavors,” Kornman adds. After the first crack, coffee takes on a rapid caramelization phase, adding depth and sweetness to the characteristics that come from the farm. As a good middle-of-the-road option, medium roasts work well in automatic drip brewers, since their deeper roast development allows for easier extraction. Medium roast coffees are also great for espresso enthusiasts looking for lighter body options.
A Big And Comforting Medium Roast Coffee: Counter Culture Coffee Hologram
Dark Roast: “Dark roasts enter a chemical phase known as pyrolysis where compounds begin to burn off—the roaster has chosen to favor charred, smokey, deeply toasted notes in this style of roasting,” Kornman says. These coffees usually go beyond “second crack,” where the build up of carbon dioxide triggers another pop in the coffee, and the smoky flavors begin to develop. Folks who appreciate that flavor profile might enjoy the extra body from a French press, but dark roasts also have a long history as the de facto roast for espresso machines.
An Classic Flagship Dark Roast: Stumptown Hair Bender
When coffee is roasted, it develops small pockets of carbon dioxide gas inside its cellular walls. Immediately after roasting, this carbon dioxide begins to off-gas, creating a positive pressure pushing outward from each roasted coffee bean. This is why coffee bags have a one-way valve on them: freshly roasted coffee can have so much CO2 off-gassing that it can balloon a bag until it pops. The one-way valve also serves another purpose: as the CO2 pushes all the air out of the coffee bag through the valve, it creates a neutral, air-tight environment inside. This can preserve the coffee’s freshness for up to three months or so, with a catch.
The caveat is that the positive pressure from off-gassing CO2 only lasts about 14 days, and after that window, the roasted coffee can easily start to absorb oxygen: the number one staling agent for roasted coffee. That means that a three month-old bag of coffee will still taste pretty good when you open it, but might already start to taste flat and stale on the second day. A bag of coffee that’s only a few days old, however, can be opened and resealed multiple times and have the ongoing off-gassing inside the bag retain freshness for days.
Most roasters advertise their roasting schedule online and if they roast to order—it’s always worth checking before buying.
Seasonal, or In Season
Coffee cherries are a seasonal fruit that only ripens once a year. If a roaster has the same coffee from Honduras on their menu year-round, it’s likely that it won’t taste as vibrant in the middle of winter as it did when it first arrived at the end of spring. As green coffee ages, volatile aromatic compounds fade and it starts to take on a papery, cardboard like quality. Some roasters advertise harvest season, if you’re curious enough, but a simple acknowledgement that coffee is seasonal is a good indicator that they’re paying attention to green coffee freshness. Kuma Coffee Classic is a seasonally rotating blend I recommend.
One of the biggest factors that can affect a coffee’s flavor profile is the processing method. In simple terms, “processing” refers to how the skin and meat of the coffee cherry is removed from the seed, and there are three main methods: washed, pulped natural/honey process, and natural/sun-dried.
Washed process: This is the most commonly found form of coffee processing (and if a process isn’t explicitly stated, this is probably it). Washed coffees tend to have a clean, bright, balanced flavor profile that allows the subtleties from the farm and roasting to shine through. The process is exactly what it sounds like: the coffee cherries move through a wet mill, first having the skin and pulp of the fruit removed mechanically, and then the seeds are soaked in a pit of water in order to fully break them down. They’re then cleaned of any remaining pulp in washing channels before being sent to dry. The Onyx Coffee Lab Monarch is a bright, washed processed blend to try.
Pulped Natural/Honey process: Pulped natural coffees have their skin and fruit pulp removed mechanically, and then are allowed to dry in the sun with some traces of sticky mucilage left on the seeds. This fruit pulp undergoes enzymatic reactions, but can also have trace amounts of fermentation that occur, causing some pulpy, fermented flavors. Honey process coffees are a more modern approach and allow the sticky mucilage to ferment to develop flavor. With a honey process coffee, the skin and some of the fruit pulp is removed, but an intentional amount of pulp is left on the seed to encourage light fermentation. You can expect more fruity, wilder flavors from honey process coffees, which can sometimes be positive and sometimes be overwhelming.
Natural/Sun-dried Process: This is the most traditional processing method, where coffee cherries are allowed to fully dry in the sun—skin, pulp, and all. Expect wilder, more fermented fruity flavors, which some people prefer, but natural process coffees also run the risk of excessive acetic acid, meaning they can take on a vinegary flavor profile, or even begin to smell and taste like compost if the processing wasn’t managed well. For an intro to natural coffees, try Camber Coffee Mosaic.
Anaerobic or Carbonic Maceration: Aside from the main three processing methods, you might also see buzzwords like anaerobic or carbonic maceration pop up from time to time, mimicking terms and methods used in wine production. It’s safe to assume that anything that could affect the enzymatic processes or fermentation during processing is going to enhance the acidity of the coffee, creating brighter, fruitier, and more tart flavors.
Country of Origin
While there’s no guarantee that a coffee from a certain county will taste a specific way, a coffee’s country of origin can be a good way to identify flavor preferences. In general, a coffee from one country will have certain characteristics. For example, while coffee from two different farms in El Salvador might have unique flavor profiles, they’ll likely taste much more similar to each other than comparing a coffee from El Salvador with, say, one from Colombia or Ethiopia. While coffee trees can’t comprehend international borders, regions tend to have similar climates, soil types, elevations and coffee tree varieties, making country of origin a solid predictor for broad flavor profiles.
You can also look more broadly, at regions, for flavor tendencies. For example, coffees in Central America tend to be medium bodied with strong sweetness, while coffees along the Andes in South America tend to have bright acidity paired with a full body and stone fruit qualities. And coffees from East Africa tend to have more floral, citrusy, and ripe berry flavor profiles. It’s not a perfect metric, but if you love a coffee you had from Ethiopia but hated one you tried from Costa Rica, you’re more like to enjoy a coffee from Kenya than one from El Salvador.
Regional specificity within a country can also have a major impact on flavor profile. For Aleco, the micro-climate of a region can be the biggest determinant of flavor profile: “I believe it has the most potential to affect cup quality after the producer’s commitment themself. Disparity in daytime/nighttime temps are critical to better fruit development and this is determined by more than just elevation.”
Organic, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Shade Grown, Bird Friendly…
Ultimately, certifications and other labels won’t have a major effect on flavor. It’s also good to note that usually only the bigger estate farms and cooperatives are able to afford third-party certification, like USDA Organic. Smaller farmer groups and smaller estate farms generally follow a lot of these guidelines by default, but might not have the certification to prove it.
When talking about Fair Trade specifically, just because a coffee isn’t labeled as Fair Trade doesn’t mean it was farmed under poor labor conditions. In the end, a lack of a label or certification shouldn’t be a disqualifier; most roasters are happy to chat about their sourcing guidelines, so feel free to reach out if you ever have any questions. An example of a well-sourced blend is Portrait Coffee Founders, which is a bright, vibrant take on a blende featuring full washed process coffees.
Blend vs. Single-Origin
When looking at available varieties of coffee, there are two main categories: blend or single-origin. This one’s pretty straightforward. A blend is a coffee that’s made up from a variety of different coffees. It could be two coffees from two different countries, or it could be two different coffees from the same country and one from a second country, and on and on in infinite combinations. A single-origin coffee is one sourced from one specific source, meaning one estate style farm or one larger co-operative.
The main difference in flavor profile between the two is that blends are often built around matching a specific flavor profile the roaster has in mind, while a single-origin coffee is going to showcase its unique flavor profile that might change year to year. While the flavor profile of single-origin options might be less predictable, it’s also part of their charm.
There are thousands of varieties of coffee, though only a few dozen of them are regularly farmed. The impact of a farm’s growing conditions tends to overpower most unique characteristics of a coffee variety, though in some cases this is untrue. The most famous version of this is the Gesha variety that’s well-regarded for its delicate floral qualities and intense sweetness and has sold at times for hundreds of dollars a pound at auctions. Coffees like these tend to get their own unique, limited release as a reserve option though, so you won’t likely have to peruse every label to locate these prized varieties.
The elevation that a coffee was grown at might seem like the most trivial fact, but it has a big impact on flavor. The higher up the mountain one goes, the bigger the diurnal temperature shift becomes. That means high elevation coffees that are exposed to warm temperatures and bright sunlight during the day, get shrouded in cold mountain air at night. These temperature swings (combined with a thinner atmosphere) cause coffee trees to go into struggle mode, concentrating their nutrient production into fewer and denser coffee cherries than if the trees were planted at lower elevations. The fewer the cherries and the slower they ripen, the denser, sweeter, brighter, and more dynamic the coffee will be.
At the same time, lower elevations are directly tied to more simple, chocolate- and caramel-forward flavor profiles. In Brazil, coffee is farmed in massive estates along rolling hills that only hit around 1000 to 1200 meters above sea level. It’s extremely rare to find bright and fruit-forward coffees in Brazil, just as it would be rare to find nutty and cocoa flavor profiles from coffees grown at 2000 meters above sea level in Ethiopia.
More Coffees to Try
This section is full of personal recommendations from myself and everyone I interviewed for this piece, including options from smaller roasting companies that may fly under the radar. Most of these roasters have a consistently shifting menu, so it’s also highly recommended that you look at what’s seasonal. After all, now you’re prepared to find a bright and citrusy coffee by looking for a washed Ethiopia coffee grown at high-elevation, or a toffee-like coffee from Huehuetenango in Guatemala that was grown at a moderate elevation and was patio dried.
A Customizable Subscription: Mother Tongue Coffee Choose Your Own Subscription
Mother Tongue's founder Jen Apodaca has an incredible resume: she’s led roasting operations at Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle as well as green coffee importer Royal, and is a certified Q-Grader. Mother Tongue offers a customizable subscription plan that allows you to select a rotating seasonal option or from a handful of blends. Mother Tongue’s roasting style is slightly lighter than some, highlighting the brighter flavors of each coffee.
No-Fuss Front Door Delivery: Yes Plz Blend Subscription
Yes Plz founders Tony “Tonx” Konecny and Sumi Ali are both longtime industry vets who had a simple idea: launch a coffee subscription service with just two choices. You can select either blend or single origin, and Yes Plz will ship you out their current offering, which rotates seasonally. Even if you’re ready to decode a dense coffee label, sometimes it’s nice to trust the experts.
A Great Sampler Option: Ruby Coffee Roasters Roaster's Choice
Settled in a town of less than 200 people, Ruby Coffee Roasters was founded by Jared Lindzmeier, who wanted to take his decades of roasting and sourcing experience back to where he grew up. Roaster’s Choice is the main subscription option from Ruby, and features two, eight-ounce single-origin coffees that rotate monthly, letting you try more of their seasonal options. Each Roaster’s Choice shipment features one brighter coffee and one richer coffee to balance each other out. (Full disclosure: I used to work for Ruby.)
A Bright Option for a Startup Roaster: Vignette Coffee Sweet + Juicy Subscription
Michael Harwood and Mandy Spirito launched Vignette in 2022 as a way to share their perspective on coffees with the world. Harwood’s background is in education, Spirito’s in roasting, but they met on a coffee sourcing trip in Guatemala and realized they shared the same outlook on green coffee flavor profiles. Vignette’s roasting profile highlights sweetness, so Sweet + Juicy Subscription is a great way to experience bright coffees that aren’t too tart or acidic.
Is there a difference between espresso beans and regular coffee?
Certain coffees get advertised as an espresso blend, but that doesn’t mean you can’t brew a drip version. Similarly, any coffee can be pulled as a shot of espresso. Historically, it was difficult to extract sweeter flavors in an espresso shot, so roasters tended to select coffees and roast profiles that performed better for the brew method. These days, modern espresso technology and technique has made it easier to pull exactly what you want out of a variety of coffee styles, but roasters maintain espresso blends in their lineup to highlight the classic, chocolate forward flavor profile of a classic espresso blend.
Is Arabica or Robusta better?
There are a number of different species of coffee trees, but the two most common are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica coffees tend to be more delicate and are highly prized for their flavor quality. They prefer higher elevations, milder climates, and produce fewer cherries than Robusta trees, which have high-yields, grown well in lower elevations, but don’t have as dynamic of a flavor profile. Almost all of the specialty coffee in the world is from Arabica trees, though there are some roasters who specifically feature Robusta coffees.
How many cups can a bag of coffee make?
There are a few standard sizes of coffee bags, so it’s important to note the volume when you order a bag of coffee. While most standard bags are 12 ounces or 16 ounces, some pricier coffees might be packaged in 8- or 10-ounce bags. In general, an ounce of coffee makes about 16 ounces of brewed coffee, which is about two standard mugs worth. By that math, a pound of coffee can make around 30-32 cups of coffee, or about a week’s worth for a heavy drinker, while a more casual coffee drinker might find that 12 ounces gets them through a week just fine.