There have been a few people lately that come up to me asking how I know a coffee is good before opening the bag and trying it. The true answer to this is, I don't. I'm not some sort of wizard that can sense the quality of a bean through its bag, but there are some signs on the packaging that can tell me whether a coffee will be good or not. After trying 1000+ bags of coffee and seeing the variations I'm going to pass on some tips to you:
Don't be fooled by cool packaging
This is a big factor that deceives a lot of people. The coffee industry is sooooo overly competitive with hundreds of thousands of different Roasters around the world. What that means is from a marketing perspective they need to diversify themselves. Easiest way to do that is having cool labels or designs on their coffee. That alone doesn't guarantee quality of coffee. That's not to say that there are some amazing coffees with super cool designs on their bags, but I've also had some extraordinarily delicious coffees our of plain brown paper packaging. So don't be fooled!
"Best before" vs "roasted on"
If I see a best before sticker or label on the coffee and I don't see a "roasted on" sticker then I start to question the coffee. Mainly because this tells me it's mass produced and quality isn't the focus of the company but what they're focusing on is pumping out as many bags as possible. If there's a roasted on sticker it's telling me the head Roasters of the shops are telling you specifically when they roasted it so that you can know when's the optimal time to drink the coffee. You're probably gonna tell me "but Alfred, that might be small time roasters that have those roaster stickers" but let me tell you, if Stumptown or JJ Bean or 49th parallel can do it, then any roaster can do it.
It's pretty important to have the origin of the bean on the bag. If the bag says "medium roast", or some variation of that I start to question it. Either the coffee has one specific origin like Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kenya, etc., In which case PUT THAT ON THE BAG! If the roast is a blend (blends are a combination of different beans from different regions to derive a specific flavor profile) then put a little effort in naming the blend. You can even call the blend "the Perfect Blend", or "The Only Blend We Make"...but give me something to work with coffee companies! Be creative!!! So to those of you reading this, if I see that I'll pick a bag with a creative blend name, or more importantly one that has the bean origin on the bag.
Where the coffee is sold
This isn't a huge issue to the everyday coffee drinker, but for coffee snobs like myself (and I'm sure the Vancouver Coffee Snob will agree) that where you find the bag of beans sold can deter me from buying the bag. If I find the bags at local coffee shops that are reputable then it's more likely that I'll buy it than if the bag is only sold at a bargain grocery store. Even somewhere like Urban fare or whole foods would be ok with me because you know they aren't going to sell just anything.
Just try it
At the end of the day coffee is super subjective. Despite all the things I've mentioned above, you'll never know if you like the coffee unless you try it. All these points I've said I evaluate the coffee being sent to me on but I'll always try the coffee because sometimes (it's rare but it happens) I'll be surprised. Like a great philosopher once said, "Never judge a coffee bean by its packaging" (Me, I'm the great philosopher). You have nothing to really lose, just go with your gut and if you think the coffee is worth trying then go for it!