My Ideal Coffee Label

A few years ago, Mark Bittman wrote about the ideal food label: when you look at the side of a cereal box or the back of a pack of bacon, what information do we want to know instead of what the law requires providers to publish. In coffee, we face some of the same questions regarding the importance of information, however, we do not face the same restrictions that most food producers face. It would seem that sort of freedom would open up coffee roasters to include a wide ranging set of facts about their coffees, and think critically about what information they choose to share with home brewers.

That’s not quite how it worked out. Most roasters share the same set of facts, some obvious, and some that don’t seem intuitive when you think about it. Origin, varietal, elevation, and processing method are almost always included on a bag of coffee, but as a consumer, how do those facts inform the decision I’m about to make?

I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s what I’d imagine my ideal coffee label to look like:

ORIGIN: This can’t be avoided, nor should it be. The first thing someone who wants to know more about coffee learns about is the differences in coffee origins, and that’s the most telling piece of information to a consumer about what this coffee is going to taste like.

BEST BREW METHOD: As a consumer, I want to know if the coffee I’m buying will be good for the way I brew at home. Will this work as espresso? Will this be a good French Press? This is consistently one of the conversations baristas will have with consumers, so why not just put that information on the box? And it can easily be featured through a picture or icon. Put a small French Press or a little espresso cup to indicate how this coffee can be expressed and applied best.

ORIGIN OF ITS NAME: Over and over, customers will order the ‘finca’ coffee. Why? Because we don’t explain what ‘finca’ means. We often refer to coffees by the name of the farm they come from, so let’s take a minute to explain what that means. Let’s say you buy a bag of Stumptown’s Finca El Injerto. I’d imagine this portion would say, “Arturo Aguirre Sr. and Jr. own a farm, called El Injerto, in Guatemala that sets the standard for what coffee farmers should aspire to through a meticulous understanding of their farm and their product to reinvestment in their community by building schools, clinics, even a tortilla factory to feed all their employees.”

WHAT MAKES IT STAND OUT: This information often gets lost through a lengthy description of the coffee’s origin or the history of a farm or cooperative. But I want to know, immediately, if the coffee has a story that makes it unique from others. And even this could be pixelated or represented through symbols with small descriptors. Does it come from a female-owned farm or cooperative? Is it a microlot? Does it come from a farm we’ve had a long-relationship with? Is it an everyday coffee or more appropriate for a special occasion?

And I think that’d be it. Too much information is overwhelming, and I think sometimes whittling down to just tasting notes is not enough. And perhaps this wouldn’t actually work in a retail setting. This is just the information that I’d like to convey to customers and what I think is actually important for consumers to consider when they buy their coffee.

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