A week or so ago I posted a question on this board asking for suggestions for mail-order coffee suppliers ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/483814 ). As I followed the links for the many suggestions offered, I began to get confused, and now I need some help.
I've always thought that two factors that are primarily responsible for the characteristics of the coffee beans I buy (I'm not talking about the grind or brewing method, and I'm putting the bird-friendly, fair-trade and organic issues aside for now) -- there's the bean itself (country of origin, type of bean, i.e., Brazilian Santos Bourbon, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, etc.), AND the roast, that indicates how light or dark the bean is (i.e., Viennese roast, French roast, Espresso Roast, etc.). The coffee supplier I've been buying from (Porto Rico Importing) makes this distinction, so I can buy, for example, Sumatra Mandheling coffee in a Viennese roast, or Sumatra Mandheling in a French roast. So is it any wonder I feel like half of the necessary information is missing when a coffee is described as:
"Combining Central American and Indonesian beans, this blend is a reflection of a great passion for coffee. Full-bodied and syrupy with just the right amount of snap, [XYZ] Blend is a true coffeeman's coffee." ...OR like this:
"We pride ourselves on selecting and using a top quality blend of hard bean coffees which are dense enough to endure the rigors of our darkest roast. This roast produces a very dark colored oily bean which is full of body and vigor, possessing a desirable charred flavor."
The first example tells me nothing about how light or dark the roast is; the second example tells me nothing about the country of origin or variety of bean.
Now, while I find descriptions helpful ("...Delicious dark chocolate notes are softened by a seductive buttery sweetness and accented with mild floral flavors. The finish is sweet, elegant, and crystal clean.), I still want to know what I'm buying. Am I asking too much to want to know the bean, the roast, AND to have a description of the flavor characteristics? It's something akin to going into a wine store and buying "Italian wine" -- there's SO much more I've got to know before I can choose a bottle. Coffee has terroir, as does wine, but what the roaster does with the beans will affect what ends up in my cup.
I guess my question is -- short of sampling many pounds of coffee, how do I choose a coffee from a mail order supplier when I don't have all the information I believe I need?