Make Great Coffee
The Process - Step #1
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CoffeeCON 2013 is in the books, and I was proud to be an Offici..
CoffeeCON 2013 is in the books, and I was proud to be an Offici..
I was fortunate to be living in Portland, OR last year when it hosted the S..
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Go Shopping Online
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Take me to the Shopping Guide
There are two factors to consider when it comes to buying coffee. Both of them are very important to the freshness, quality, and flavor of the coffee you make at home. Those two factors are: where you buy your coffee, and whether you buy it in whole beans or pre-ground.
Coffee freshness equals coffee flavor and experience, so you want the freshest coffee possible. Coffee is perishable so it goes stale with time, beginning with when it was roasted, and expiring at the fastest rate after it has been ground.
Quick Lesson on Coffee Freshness
When deciding where you will buy your coffee, and whether to buy it in whole bean form or pre-ground, here is a quick primer that should help you understand why the decisions you make are so important to the coffee in your cup.
A coffee bean is the "seed" of the coffee cherry. Each coffee cherry contains a seed in two halves, or two coffee beans. All of the flavor that we know as coffee, including the caffeine, is inside the green, unroasted coffee bean. The roasting process is what will bring all of that flavor to the surface of the bean and give it the appearance that we all know as coffee.
The green unroasted coffee bean expires at a very slow rate. In fact, green coffee beans will keep for 1-2 years. The coffee bean begins to go stale after it has been roasted. Important: After a coffee bean has been roasted, it starts to go stale and will lose its freshness in 2-3 weeks.
It's a good thing that coffee goes stale! The freshest things that we consume every day go stale eventually, which means the most potential for flavor that they have is when they are at their freshest. This means that the closer to the point of roasting that you enjoy your coffee, the more flavor it will have.
And now, the last fact you need to know. Important: Ground coffee expires at an even faster rate than whole bean coffee. The key to fresh coffee is to grind only as much as you need right before you are about to brew it. If you grind coffee but don't brew it, it is already going stale at an even faster rate than whole bean coffee goes stale!
What Does All of This Mean?
All of this gives us three very important takeaways when it comes to coffee freshness. First, buy your coffee from somebody who can tell you how recently it was roasted. The staff at the grocery store doesn't know. The staff at Starbucks that sells whole bean coffee doesn't know. The staff at your local coffee roaster DOES know.
Second, only buy as much coffee as you intend to consume in the next 2-3 weeks. If you buy more than that, then you will still have coffee remaining past its point of being fresh. It will get progressively more stale and flat in taste, before you get through it all.
Third and finally, buy your coffee in whole bean form. Invest a small amount of money into a coffee grinder for your kitchen, and grind only as much coffee as you're about to brew for yourself. It may be a lot more convenient to buy a giant tin of pre-ground coffee, but it's exposed to air, it goes stale quickly and will result in coffee that has a noticeably flat taste.
Grocery Store Coffee
- You can buy your coffee while you're buying your other groceries.
- Convenience. There are a lot more grocery stores in any given area than coffee shops or coffee roasters.
- No information on how recently the coffee was roasted.
- Convenience packaging. Comes wrapped air-tight or in a can. Generally a weak selection of whole beans, focusing more on ground coffee in a can or vacuum-packaging.
- Generally a weak selection.
- Weak advice or information from grocery store employees who are hired more to stock the shelves than help you select a quality coffee.
Your local grocery store probably offers both ground coffee and whole beans.
Ground coffee will come either vacuum-packed or in a big steel can with a rubber lid. If your ground coffee is vacuum-packed, at least it's being kept fresh in the hands of the grocery store's supply chain. The amount of time that passed between it's being grounded by the supplier and vacuum-packed, you'll never know. Also, the vacuuming process can potentially accelerate the coffee going stale from exposure to air.
Ground coffee sold in big cans is also airtight. What's more, it provides you with a relatively airtight container in which to keep the coffee after you've broken the seal. You don't get this benefit with the vacuum-packaging that you cut open and discard. You can still make a decent cup of coffee if you buy it in a can because the rubber lid does keep the air and coffee separate for the most part. It's not literally airtight, so some air will find weak points in the seal and contribute to the ground coffee going stale. The combination of how long it will take you to go through this much coffee, the fact that it's already been ground, and the ability of air to seep into and out of the can means that, while decent, this is definitely not the freshest way to buy coffee.
The grocery store will sell whole beans either vacuum-packed or often out of large, clear vertically-tall containers in a display of different blends and flavors in the same aisle as the rest of the coffee. With the vacuum-packed beans, you have an attractive option for buying coffee. They haven't been ground and their packaging is airtight. However, the grocery store's supplier may or may not be taking the best steps in keeping the coffee fresh until it's vacuum-sealed, and again, you'll never know until you've bought it and are drinking it. You also don't know when the beans were roasted.
The display of different blends and flavors in the clear containers is a source of controversy, and it's not recommended except for those who love the special-flavored coffees. The reason is that the flavor oils -such as Hazelnut or Irish Cream- remain on the bean no matter how stale it gets so that you could use them to brew a stale but still-flavored cup of coffee. For the coffee lover, it isn't a good coffee but will retain the artificial flavor added to the bean during the roasting process.
The upside of the whole bean display is the grocery store is taking a step towards providing coffee lovers with a variety of whole beans, leaving grinding them to you so you can make a fresher cup. But in some respects, even more freshness and flavor is lost. First, the display is not likely airtight so while the beans are not yet ground, they are constantly exposed to air. Second, the residue of flavored coffees -or any coffees, for that matter- needs to be thoroughly cleaned or it will "contaminate" the next batch of beans put in that container. If the grocery store changes up their selection, those containers are not likely getting the cleaning required to keep this contamination from happening. What's more, there is little to stop the aroma of one flavored-roasted bean from permeating the beans in another bin. Third, the ideal container for storing coffee is opaque to reduce chemical reaction of the coffee beans to light. While the grocery store display is an attractive display of coffee beans, fresh coffee prefers an opaque container.
What does this all mean? If you must buy your coffee from the grocery store, here is the order I would suggest for the best degree of freshness:
- Vacuum-sealed whole beans.
- The smaller portions of vacuum-sealed ground coffee.
- A can of ground coffee.
- Whole beans on display (in small portions).
Your Local Coffee Roaster or Specialty Coffee Shop
- Knowledgeable staff that can help you with your selection.
- The chance to sample a brewed cup of coffee before committing to an order of whole beans.
- Pre-packaged airtight whole beans in smaller amounts.
- A good selection worthy of the coffee lover. When you find a roaster you like, you'll likely enjoy most if not all coffees that they sell.
- Not as conveniently located as the grocery store.
- A little more expensive than coffee that is less fresh.
This is how I buy most of my coffee. This is your chance to speak with somebody knowledgeable who can tell you when the coffee was roasted, and so, how fresh it is. You may be fortunate enough to talk to the roaster.
It's at your local roaster that you learn just how much different flavor there is to the world of coffee. If your roaster gets a sense of what you like in coffee, they'll have a few ideas about which coffees of theirs you will enjoy.
Don't know where to start? Start with their House Blend, or whatever other catchy name they use - generally a fun name preceding "Blend". My favorite coffee of all right now is Puddletown Blend by Cellar Door Coffee of Portland, Oregon. They are a walk from where I live, and have taken the Kenyan coffee I love to new heights in a broader East African blend. See? You can't say things like that when you buy your coffee from the grocery store!
More variety at your fingertips.
A warehouse full of the best coffees in the world is a little big to fit inside your local coffee shop, but it can all fit inside a website. Because a website is virtual, the only limit to how much variety it can offer the online shopper is the inventory space it has. Imagine if a local coffee importer/roaster had a warehouse that you could walk into anytime. That variety and accessibility is offered by online coffee sources. Even the Starbucks Store offers more variety of coffee than most individual retail Starbucks locations.
Online shopping has never been safer or more secure.
While some people have been skeptical about online shopping, third party measures make sure that your online shopping experience is safe and secure. Personal or financial information that you're required to give to order online is encrypted and kept private so that using your credit card to order online is as dangerous as using it to pay a restaurant bill.
Dependable sources sell coffee online.
Not only is online shopping safer and more secure, big names in coffee are selling coffee online. Companies like Starbucks and Boca Java reinforce people's confidence in online shopping.
An online store has less overhead and passes the savings on to you.
An online store filling orders out of their warehouse has less overhead than a retail store. The cost of maintaining a website is less than the cost of running a brick-and-mortar store, and that means less overhead. Online stores pass these savings on to you, so that you will find that a pound of coffee from an online store is less expensive than the same coffee to the same standard from a retail store.
Online stores better roast to order.
A good online store like Peet's Coffee roasts daily before your beans are shipped to you to ensure maximum freshness. An online store can do this more efficiently as they collect orders all day while roasting to satisfy all orders that came in the previous day. Retail stores can only sell beans that have already been roasted, and how recently can be anybody's guess.
MakeGoodCoffee.com can help.
We set out to create an unbiased objective Report Card against which to measure today's most reputable online sources for coffee. We wanted to address the points above, particularly where online shopping is unique. For instance, if a store presents its standards for a safe and secure online shopping experience, it is superior -all other things being equal. Because shopping online means not being able to see and feel what you are buying until it's delivered, we also wanted to gauge a store's ability to add that third dimension of tangibility to your shopping experience through small sample portions or clever use of the Web. Other factors, like a wide variety of good coffee, plenty of information for the consumer, and top-notch customer service, were also important to determine the best of the best.Next Step