Best Coffee Beans in 2020

When it comes to ranking coffee beans, what does that word “best” even mean? There have to be parameters on what defines it— so let’s wander down what makes one roast of coffee “better” than another, this type of bean more desirable than that one, and so on. Then, and only then, can we really break down what it means to be included in the best coffee beans of 2020.

Quick Summary: Our Recommendations

Naturally Grown Mountain Coffee. Certified Organic, single origin from small farms in Nicaragua (from a single farm vs blended), Certified Kosher, fair trade, shade grown to maturity, elevation grown a mile above sea level, pesticide free, NON-GMO, naturally low acid, and they hand pick only the biggest and best beans of the lot.

A kicking horse is a distinct image in your mind, and, much like that picture, this Medium Roast has a memorable flavor.

With their crew of trendy, badass hipsters, the Death Wish Coffee Company started in 2012. They roast an enjoyable cup of coffee or your money back, and they’re the best thing regarding coffee that’s ever come from the Super Bowl. Really.

Where Do Coffee Beans Come From? A Brief Background

It’s 11th century Ethiopia and people have stumbled across red, cherry-like fruit that smells vaguely like jasmine growing in the wild. Of course, they boil it and drink it because, well, what else do you do with foreign fauna growing on the outskirts of town? It’s declared magic and it was only a matter of time before other countries wanted it, too.

Coffee cultivation spread across the Arabian Peninsula, and Yemen drank coffee the same way as the Ethiopians, boiled, for the next 300 years.

It wasn’t until 1555 in Istanbul that we start to see the coffee roasted, much the way we do today. After roasting, they finely ground the fruits and cooked them with water over the ashes of a charcoal fire.

hagia-sophia-architecture-in-istanbul-turkey

Hagia Sophia Architecture in Istanbul Turkey

It was also in Istanbul that the first coffeehouse, named Kiva Han, came to be, and it was quickly followed by many others just like it.

You might’ve thought that I’d forgotten to mention Italy, but I haven’t.

Coffee didn’t make its way to Venice until 1615, and the first coffeehouse didn’t pop up until 1645.

At this point, coffeehouses, artists, literature, and travelers were all inextricably connected, and that would continue through the ages as this fruit traveled to Marseilles, Paris, Vienna, and London. Holland, Germany, and America followed.

While this has been an abridged history of coffee (I left out the part where Germany considered coffee a beverage of nobility for over 30 years before allowing the average layman to drink it), it’s probably more than you need to know to pick out a coffee bean, realistically.

But, for those of you that find the wonder in history, that one was for you.

Geography, however, does play a significant role in every single bag of coffee up for sale.

If you’ve been mostly drinking from your local Starbucks or Dunkin’ and want to broaden your horizons, it might be best to start with Central American and Colombian beans from another company — they’ll be the most familiar to you.

This is one of the easiest ways to guess whether you’ll like a type of bean or not: where was it harvested from?

Brazilian beans can boast chocolatey flavors, while Hawaiian ones are more flowery. Ethiopian coffees can be syrupier, but they also often have overtones of strawberry or blueberry. Basically, the soil has a lot to do with what the coffee tastes like, so take notice of where the beans are collected from!

Lastly, the easiest distinguishing feature of coffee is regarding the color, and it has nothing to do with caffeine level — the lighter the bean the higher the acidity. Light roasts often retain notes of their origins, too, which we’ll get more into in just a moment. Dark roast coffees, on the other hand, have bolder flavors and richer tastes. 

How to Choose the Best Coffee Beans

coffee-beans

There’s so much about coffee that’s so very personal. Do you drink it black or do you mix in some creamer? What are you drinking coffee for?

Is it because it’s your literal life blood and you’ll suffer withdrawal if you don’t imbibe a certain amount?

Or do you roll a bit more casual than that, ya know, and just drink it now and again when you think to?

You can pick a point somewhere in between those two extremes, though. Obviously. 

Wherever you drop your marker, you’ll have to think about the caffeine level you’re looking for (max), the acidity (low), the body (full), and more.

It can seem a like a lot to think about, but there are some simple correlations you can use for starters. 

Arabica Beans vs Robusta Beans

Type of beans do matter. Much in the same way we categorize certain blooming plants as weeds and others as flowers, certain types of coffee beans are regarded more highly than others.

Arabica beans are the primo stuff—originating from the Ethiopian highlands we were chatting about earlier, coffea arabica makes up 60% of the world’s coffee production. Conveniently, arabica coffee is also harder to grow.

Grown in subtropical climates, arabica thrives in shade, with humidity and absolutely no frost. Elevation is another key element, preferring hillsides and elevation of 1900 feet (or more) above sea level. It’s best when it’s picked by hand, much like blueberries, since they all ripen at different times, and it needs more attention to pest control.

Arabica coffee beans are now grown in a variety of places outside of Ethiopia, including in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Burundi, Brazil (the largest producer in the world), Rwanda, and India.

640px-Carte_Coffea_robusta_arabic

Robusta, on the other hand, is hearty. It can survive in a broader range of climates, it can handle direct sunlight, and it doesn’t need elevation to live its best life. It produces more per hectare than Arabica, is more resilient against pests, and, prepare yourself for this one, it has double the caffeine of Arabica.

So why, you may be asking, does everyone, from baristas to average consumers to casual drinkers, prefer arabica? Because of that simple fact it simply tastes better.

For what arabica lacks in the extra jolt of caffeine, it has double the sugar. It evokes more traditionally considered pleasant flavors, like chocolate, nuts, and fruits. Robusta is earthy, sort of woody, but also can have a burnt, rubbery taste. Unfortunate.

Some cultures really embrace this in-your-face bean, though—in Vietnam, you can find exclusive use of Robusta coffee, though they do cut it with sweetened condensed milk.

Acidity and Bitterness

Both acidity and bitterness are key components in a good cup of coffee. Typically, when we say something has “acidity,” we’re not usually talking about much that’s positive. Coffee is the one notable exception.

Coffee reviewers will frequently comment on a coffee’s “acidity,” and what they’re actually referring to is its bright flavor, which typically indicates a fresh crop. When it comes to acidity levels, lighter brews will have more acidity while darker ones will have a fuller body.

The talk on acidity may be a new one for you, but there are actually multiple types of acid that may be in your coffee, including citric acid, malic acid, chlorogenic acids, tartaric acid, and quinic—the last of which is the most likely to turn a stomach sour.

Bitterness, on the other hand, is hardly ever a good thing to hear from a coffee reviewer. Bitterness can be caused by a lot of things, including a poor quality coffee, improper grinding, or an incorrect water-to-grinds ration.

One thing to keep in mind is that coffee needs a balance of both acidity and bitterness, as well as sweet, salty, and sour. Too much of one flavor never results in anything good, though. It’s all about hitting the metaphorical sweet spot (that isn’t too sweet!). 

Single Origin vs Blends

When buying your coffee, you’ll likely notice a lot of fuss about a “Single Origin” this or that. Blends are often notated in smaller font— not that there’s anything to hide, but the majority of coffee is sold in blended packages.

While there’s also a price discrepancy, it’s for a few different reasons but quality isn’t one of them.

A bag of “single origin” coffee means that the beans all came from one region, possibly even just from one estate. You’ll get a very distinct taste with clear notes that speaks of the region. You’ll also notice that the price tag is a bit higher—largely because they’re only produced seasonally.

On the flip side, blends are far more commonly produced and are available year-round, though it’s definitely arguable that blends have a high level of artistry to them. It takes time and a lot of taste testing to find coffees from two to four different locations that complement each other, bringing complex notes to a single cup.

Depending on what you’re looking for or who you’re talking to, some say single-origin is where the best coffee can be found, whereas others with vouch for the mastery that goes into creating a dynamic blend.

My vote is to try all sorts of coffee and find your happy place in whichever type tickles your taste buds! 

Roast Date

I will always highly encourage you to buy a new bag of whole bean coffee, grind it yourself, and put a generous amount in each pot you brew. I wouldn’t be doing you a service, though, unless I told you how to consume your coffee at its freshest.

Much like the rest of the food industry, there’s no real regulation of how long coffee lasts. The best indicator is going to be your sense of smell and a good ol’ fashioned taste test. As with most foods, you’ll want to find a bag roasted as recently as possible. Typically, anything roasted within 3 to 7 days is considered recent, for our purposes.

In a perfect world, you’d consume the back within about two weeks post-purchase, but, in all honesty, as long as coffee is properly stored, you can enjoy a very similar great taste even weeks later.

You’ll find that some roasters will even put a “peak freshness” recommendation on them, feeling that some oxidization actually leads to the perfect flavor for that specific bean.

All-in-all, this is honestly more of a conversation for, and I say this with the utmost endearment, coffee snobs. Most drinkers aren’t going to notice the difference until the coffee is truly turning what most would more traditionally call stale.

Basically, buy the most recent roast date possible in roughly 8 to 12 oz bags and finish them within the month. It’s super easy to do if you brew a pot a day. 

Fair Trade Coffee

Fair Trade Certified

There are a lot of things we forget when we buy, especially when it’s a product we love. Choosing to buy Fair Trade Coffee means that you can drink your coffee without worry because the FTC prohibits child labor and forced labor, and thrives on transparancy, respect, and sustainability, both for the industry and the environment.

That’s a lot of promise in three simple words, and, like most great things, it has been changed and, as some have criticized, warped into a way to “market the idea of ethical consumerism.”

In light of this, many coffee growers and distributors have moved to a Direct Trade model, which upholds the same tenets of Fair Trade but bypassing any costly certifications. Growers work directly with distributors to pay fair wages and uphold sustainability.

On the other hand, there’s no third party that monitors direct trade relationships, nor one way to have a direct trade relationship.

So… do your best out there. Good luck! 

USDA Organic

USDA Organic Logo

Organic means the same thing in regards to coffee that it does to everything else. It means that no chemicals were used in the growing, harvesting, and production of the crop. To earn a seal of approval, a product must be at least 95% organic.

The less use of chemicals, the less soil and water become contaminated, so it’s always nice to see these seals. 

How to Pick the Best Coffee Beans

This is it — the last thing. I promise.

It does matter how you buy the coffee, in particular, whether it’s pre-ground or whole bean. (Instant coffee has its own unique criteria, which you can read about here.)

Listen: I’m the last person to judge anyone for buying a bag of ground coffee. I have a whole bag of Dunkin' Donuts pre-ground coffee from Costco hanging out in my cabinet, but it’s leftover from my pre-enlightened phase.

Buying whole bean and grinding it in small batches, as needed, is a totally elevated experience compared to the pre-ground stuff.

Leaving it in a whole-bean form retains that freshness and flavor for a truly satisfying cup of joe.

If you take nothing else from this, buy whole bean. Buy fresh. You can’t go wrong. 

coffee_beans_espresso_roasted_roaster_roast_caffeine_cafe

best coffee beans in 2020 [Our Top Picks]

Valhalla Java Whole Bean Coffee by Death Wish Coffee Company

With their crew of trendy, badass hipsters, the Death Wish Coffee Company started in 2012. They roast an enjoyable cup of coffee or your money back, and they’re the best thing regarding coffee that’s ever come from the Super Bowl. Really.

While the company isn’t everything, it’s always cool when there’s a nifty story behind a product, right?

The Valhalla Java Whole Bean Coffee was created for “legendary guitar god Zakk Wylde” and it’s a good choice if you’re transitioning from a life drinking the ‘bucks.

It’s harvested from Indonesia, Central, and South America. It’s rich aroma is complemented by a nutty, chocolaty flavor that may have you reaching for a cup of Joe rather than a sugary snack. We’ll keep hoping, right? 

  • It’s an artisan roast [read: quality]
  • Fair Trade and USDA Certified Organic
  • Since it’s harvested from Central and South American, it’s a good next-step in your coffee horizons
  • If you don’t like it, you can return it — no questions asked!
Lavazza Super Crema Whole Bean Coffee Blend, Medium Espresso Roast

When you’ve been successful since 1895, it’s inarguable that you’re doing something right.

Lavazzo is that company, and Luigi Lavazzo was the man who made it happen way back when.

Lavazzo has become a powerhouse in Italy, and the Super Crema Whole Bean Coffee Blend is one of the many reasons why.

It’s a super smooth medium roast and it’s sourced from a number locations, including Brazil, Indonesia, Columbia, and Vietnam. This all comes together and results in a honey and dried fruit taste that’s suitable for a wide range of brewing methods — it’s especially touted for use in espresso, so get your demitasse cups ready! 

  • Extremely strong reputation backed by many satisfied customers.
  • Great taste embracing a fruity flavor with hints of honey.
Real Good Coffee Co 2LB, Whole Bean Coffee, Donut Shop Medium Roast Coffee Beans, 2 Pound Bag

Do you ever come across a product that has and does so many things that you just… stare for a long time. You have to process it. That’s the feeling you get when reading about Real Good Coffee Co.’s Donut Shop Medium Roast Coffee Beans.

Located in Seattle, WA, Real Good Coffee Co. has 30 years of experience and offers coffee every which way so you can enjoy it however you want — whether you want a bag, a k-cup, or pod, they’ve got it.

Their Donut Shop Medium Roast is comprised of high-quality Arabica beans from South and Central America that are packaged in recycled materials. Known for its bold, smooth, and sweet taste, you won’t regret giving this roast a shot!

  • Kosher
  • Fair Trade
  • Grown, Sourced, and Roasted Responsibly
  • Single-source
  • Freshly roasted
  • No additives
  • No preservatives
  • No artificial ingredients
  • Real Good Coffee Co. has 30 years under its belt, and it’s used every nanosecond advancing their coffee methods, from beginning to end.
Death Wish Organic USDA Certified Whole Bean Coffee

“My brothers! What is life if not to die a glorious death!” ...by caffeine. That’s what I assume Death Wish Coffee Company really meant in their 2016 Super Bowl ad. 

This Organic USDA Certified Whole Bean Coffee is their pride and joy, their strongest cup of coffee, the one you should definitely put into your cart, into your cup, and then into your gut. ASAP.

It’s cherry, it’s chocolate, it’s actually a dark roast coffee that’s never bitter. It’s backed by a 100% satisfaction-guaranteed warranty and there’s a top-notch customer service experience to go with it, so why not give this whole bean a place in your morning routine?

In case you were keeping track, this is the second time we’ve listed the Death Wish Coffee Company.

Koffee Kult Dark Roast Coffee Beans

If you’re like me and are impressed by a flavor-rich dark roast, then you need to give Koffee Kult’s dark roast a try.

Koffee Kult is a very reputable, environmentally-friendly company and they work directly with farmers where the beans are harvested, particularly in Columbia, Guatemala, and Sumatra.

For the true “Kult” fans, they have swag for you to proudly show off your dedication, and you can feel good about swigging down cup after cup of this limited-release joe. You’ll detect notes of cinnamon and your stomach will appreciate the low acidity!

Let’s take a closer look at what distinguishes their company and coffee.

  • A family owned/operated company with a passion for coffee designed to last.
  • Koffee Kult’s dark roast is known for its smooth finish.
  • If you fall in love and want to thank them in person, they offers tours of their facilities!
Kicking Horse Coffee, Smart Ass, Medium Roast

A kicking horse is a distinct image in your mind, and, much like that picture, this Medium Roast has a memorable flavor.

If you need more than the chuckle that comes free from the name of these beans to convince you that this bag should have a place on your shelf, this is the #1 selling whole bean coffee in Canada! Kicking Horse Coffee roasts at 3,000 feet up the side of the Canadian Rockies and that altitude makes for a mean morning wake up! 

  • Sourced from Africa, Central, and South America, this is a great transition brew from commercial coffees
  • Notes of milk chocolate, sugar cane, and tart red currant make the honeyed berry body stand out from all the other coffees you’ve savored
  • It doesn’t take much to get you moving once you start drinking Smart Ass!
Kicking Horse Coffee, Kick Ass, Dark Roast

Have you ever drank a cup of coffee that was described as “audacious?” It’s time you did. Kicking Horse Coffee takes another spot on our best beans of 2020 list with Kick Ass, a dark roast that’s saucy, brazen, and jaunty — yes, I’m having some fun with words over here.

This coffee has notes of licorice, chocolate malt, molasses, and the earthy flavor will linger in your mouth long after you’ve set your mug down. 

  • It’s best when brewed using a French press, drip-brewed, or using a pour-over method
  • Harvested in Indonesia and South Africa
  • It lives up to its “Kick Ass” name
Cafe Don Pablo Signature Blend Coffee, Whole Bean, Medium-Dark Roast

Complexity comes from being multifaceted, and Cafe Don Pablo’s Signature Blend reaches that intricacy by combining a blend of beans from Columbia, Guatemala, and Brazil. This trifecta is a medium roast with a cocoa-tone finish that’s made even more desirable by its low acidity — if you’re a daily coffee drinker, this is one of those key factors that you’ll come to appreciate.

If you’re just as interested in the company that you’re purchasing coffee from as well as the richness of the whole beans, Don Pablo is the kind of roaster you can be proud of — they run a Certified Sharing Program that’s responsible for 1,000,000 coffee trees planted in South America.

They never mix in Robusta (a lesser type of bean than Arabica) like many other brands do, and they have an on-staff Q grader to ensure the quality of all of their small-batch roasts. 

  • Fine quality beans and freshness are their top priorities
  • They work with how the sugars caramelize as they roast
  • Slow roasted in small batches to ensure the highest quality possible
Lavazza Gran Crema Whole Bean Coffee Blend, Medium Espresso Roast

If espresso shots are how you survive your day, the Lavazza Gran Crema Medium Espresso Roast is the bean you’ve been searching far and wide for.

Chocolatey, spicey, and lingering, whether you drink this out of a demitasse cup or not, this two inches of the good stuff will inspire your taste buds and follow up with a nice jolt of caffeine. 

  • Lavazza is among the most trusted coffee brands
  • This bean is made intended to be use for espresso
  • 100% Arabica
Kicking Horse Coffee, Three Sisters, Medium Roast, Whole Bean

You know that old saying, the best of both worlds? Forget that. This is the best of three worlds. Kicking Horse Coffee pays a honorable tribute to a trio of peaks in the Canadian Rockies, and they’re represented beautifully using a blend of light, medium, and dark roast coffees in a single bag. 

  • Tones of tobacco, stone fruit, and cocoa
  • Harvested in Indonesia, Central, and South America
  • It’s described as “seductive,” which is great for some more word play

Final Thoughts

“Best” is always subjective to your own particular taste buds, but we can talk quality.

The ten listed above, these best coffee beans of 2020, are quality whole beans that are altimeters (literally) above what you get pre-ground at the grocery store. Also, no two brews will ever be the same.

Be warned, though: once you taste the quality of these ten, you’ll never be able to unlearn about it. Ever. That we can promise, dear coffee lovers. 

FAQs

I mean, you can tell we’re here to answer all of your questions regarding buying coffee because we’ve come back here to update with some of the most popular questions you’ve thrown our way. (Click the question to view the answer.)

What’s the Best Way to Store Coffee Beans?

Storing coffee is honestly pretty straight forward. I know it may look nice to put them in a clear jar on the counter, but sun, oxygen, and heat are coffee killers. You want to keep your coffee in the dark, in a preferably metallic container with a tight lid. Keeping the room at an even temperature is also ideal.

Never, never, never, please, never freeze your beans. Beans are meant to be oily and when they’re frozen, the oils are entirely ruined.

Just don’t do it.

Check out some great options for coffee containers and take care of those quality beans!

How Long Do Coffee Beans Last?

We kind of tackled this earlier, but really it’s up to your sense of smell and taste. Fresh beans are typically considered to be recently roasted within the past 3 to 7 days or so. Beans can last for a long time, when it comes down to it, but just because they’ll “last” doesn’t mean they’ll taste good doing it.

On average, in its whole bean state, coffee’s best within three weeks of its roasting date.

Where Do You Buy The Best Coffee Beans?

Probably from your local coffee independent shop or roaster, to be totally honest. If you’re more of an order-online kind of person, ordering from roasters on Amazon or through their website is the next best option. Check their policy and make sure that the coffee is only roasted after your order is placed. You want fresh coffee — not coffee you need to consume with 24 hours to be within peak deliciousness period.

While we generally feel that picking up a bag of whole bean coffee from your local grocery store isn’t the best option, artisan stores like Whole Foods can be great for finding freshly roasted coffee. Just make sure to always take a glance at the roasting date to make sure it’s still recent.
Rule of thumb, if there’s no roasting date, it was packaged for a long shelf life at the local Stuff&Things. 


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