A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee

The great thing about coffee is all the different ways it can be enjoyed. Whether you like the cheap stuff from cans and convenience stores or the pricier single origin beans from micro roasters, theres something for everyone.

The coffee business has changed greatly in the past 20 or so years, mostly for the better and little for the worse. The good being that more independent cafes and micro roasters have opened up in cities across America.

beginner's guide to coffee

Also, with more and more people interested in coffee, the internet is packed with information for all levels of learners and explorers. Unfortunately, the dearth of information also makes it very difficult for beginners to figure out where to start.  Hopefully this beginners guide will help a bit.


When starting to explore coffee, the three things that helps to know is the different types of cafes, coffee beans and roasts.  In general, you can split cafes into two types:

General Cafes

These tend to be the most numerous, usually small independent businesses with one to multiple locations. Like any other restaurant/eatery, they buy their roasted coffee beans from 3rd party providers.

general cafe

Yes, they sell coffee, usually of higher quality, however the coffee isn’t the main focus.  In the best examples of these types of cafes, you’ll find coffee brewed with good quality beans using very well maintained equipment and proper techniques, however, they usually also have a wide assortment of often very good foods and treats, think light fare such as sandwiches, salads, soups, cookies and brownies etc.

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Micro Roasters

Like general cafes, they tend to be small independent businesses (hence “micro” in the name), some with multiple locations. However, they differ from general cafes in that their focus is on the coffee itself.

Micro roasters source green (raw) coffee beans, roast them, and sell brewed coffee drinks, and bags of roasted beans to customers and other businesses. Although they offer food items, the menus tend (but not always) to be much smaller than general cafes, think bagels, muffins, cookies, etc.

Coffee Beans

Coffee beans are very similar to wine grapes, tobacco and chocolate in that they are affected by terroir; the region and conditions coffee beans are grown in, affect the flavor greatly. The roasted coffee beans come in two types!

coffee beans


Blends are coffee beans sourced from all over the world, mixed together and then roasted. Coffee brewed from blends is where the general “coffee flavor” comes from. In the past, beans were mixed together without consideration of their individual qualities. However, roasters are now consciously selecting specific beans to mix together to create unique blends with far more character than blends of the past.

Single Origin

This is where coffee gets very interesting in regards to flavor. However, you have to keep in mind a couple o f things. First, the coffee industry tends to abuse the Single Origin Coffee label as a signifier of quality, when actual standards, verification and certification don’t exist.

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Yup, there is no government agency nor industry association that checks whether or not a bag of single origin beans are actually Single Origin. The second thing to know is that single origin usually means 1 of 3 things (we’ll use the three coffee growing regions of Ethiopia for examples):

  1. The beans are sourced from a singular farm in a coffee growing region of a country and roasted. Example, Raw beans sourced from 1 farm in the Sidamo region.
  2. The beans are sourced from multiple farms in a coffee growing region of one country, mixed together then roasted. Example, raw beans sourced from 5 farms in the Sidamo region.
  3. The beans are sourced from multiple farms from multiple growing regions of a country, mixed together then roasted. Example, raw beans sourced from 1 farm each of the Sidamo, Harar, and Ghimbi regions.

In other words, Single Origin Coffee can mean that the beans originated from just 1 farm at its purest interpretation to an entire country at its most general.

Despite the issues with the Single Origin label, if you can find a reputable café/micro roaster, this is where the action is. These coffees, depending on the roast will provide you with more flavor than you thought coffee could have.

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The last thing to know about coffee is the roast color. After coffee beans are removed from the fruit, they’re roasted before brewing. The raw beans can be roasted anywhere from light (medium is the lightest roast you’ll generally see) to extra dark in color.

coffee cups

The lighter roasts tend to be more complex in flavor, you’ll get everything from good to bad all in one sip (good and bad flavors being subjective of course), whereas darker roasts are more straightforward but bold in the flavors that remain after roasting.

Hopefully the three summaries of the main elements of coffee will help you start on your quest to explore coffee. If you’re in the DMV and you don’t know about them already, below is a very short list of cafes and micro roasters to try. This is not a definitive list, just a couple of places I think are good.

coffee to go

Washington, DC



To see more from Sung Shin, make sure to check out his latest review featuring Rako coffee roasters.  We update Nomtastic Foods Monday-Thursday + Saturday so make sure you check back soon for fresh new content.  Until next time, Nomsters!


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