The ubiquity and seeming convenience of coffee pods aside, there’s one simple reason why coffee beans still take up so much space on store shelves. That reason? Quality. Fresh ground coffee will always have an edge over prepackaged options.
The sheer number of options can still be daunting, so here are seven things you should know before buying coffee beans.
Grind your own beans, you should be buying whole beans.
Where It Was Grown
Of the more than 50 countries that produce coffee, six grow the most well-known coffee varieties. The differences in climate and processing methods across these countries affect the ﬂavor proﬁle of the coffee, so if you know what you’re looking for in ﬂavor, you can have a pretty good idea of what growing region(s) you want as well. Here’s a quick overview.
- Hawaii: Hawaii has some of the most predictable and consistent weather on the planet, with a combination of steady rain and year-round sunshine. Coffee grown in Hawaii has a rich ﬂavor and aromatic ﬂoral notes.
- Colombia: Much of the coffee grown in Colombia is sourced from small, local farms, and so there’s a lot of variety to be had. Typically though, you’ll notice milder ﬂavors, balanced acidity, and caramel or nutty ﬂavor.
- Brazil: The sheer variety of terrain and climate throughout Brazil means that there’s no single ﬂavor proﬁle that comes out of the country. Typically, if a brand makes special note that it’s from Brazil, it’s trying to denote rich, lingering ﬂavors.
- Ethiopia: Coffee from Ethiopia is also diverse, owing to a rich history and diversity of coffee in the area. Typically though, coffee from Ethiopia will have fruity or ﬂoral notes.
- Kenya: Unsurprisingly, coffee from Kenya is grown in intense, direct sunlight. It’s then processed using fermentation, which gives it a simultaneously sweet and savory ﬂavor, often with fruity notes.
- Indonesia: Coffee from Indonesia is grown in high humidity and is often processed in ways that retain more moisture. As a result, their coffee is known for having a deep body and little acidity.
This list is by no means deﬁnitive, and there are many exceptions and other options. The critical thing to note is that whatever brand you’re selecting is setting expectations by proudly disclosing its growing location.
Is It Fair Trade & Organic?
There’s not necessarily a correlation between taste and fair trade and organic certiﬁcations, so we’re not going to spend a lot of time on it. Instead, fair trade and organic certiﬁcations mean that the coffee is sustainably grown and acquired in ways that do not exploit farmers in the developing world. It’s good karma coffee.
If you value your coffee as an experience, having that experience start ethically is a bonus.
Where It Was Roasted?
There’s a lot that goes into what makes a coffee roaster worth the attention. There are countless local and national awards that roasters can win, and far too many roasters to give anything that would even approach a useful list. Instead, you should be checking for the roaster, and over time you can make notes and develop preferences for roasters. It does make a difference, but those differences will come down to your personal choice, for the most part.
For now, the fact that information is being disclosed is enough. Any coffee brand worth drinking will be proud of where they roast their beans. If that information isn’t disclosed, chances are they’re counting on the fact that it’s coffee to be enough of a selling point.
When It Was Roasted?
Where it was roasted can be a subjective standard, but when it was roasted definitely isn’t. Having beans that are freshly roasted is just as important (if not more important) than beans that are freshly ground.
The more recent the roast date, the better the coffee will be. It would be best to look for a batch roasted within the past two weeks since those will have the most ﬂavor. The longer since roasting it’s been, the less ﬂavor they’ll have. Coffee beans roasted more than a month ago are going to have a very bland taste. Any subtlety or complexity will be all but gone by that point, and certainly will be by the time you get around to using all of it.
Like growing or roasting location, a brand not including this information is a good enough reason to reject them out of hand. There are no good reasons they would be keeping that from you.
Whole Beans or Pre-Ground?
At a glance, you might not think there’s a ton of difference whether the beans come ground or you grind them yourself. Does the convenience mean sacriﬁcing that much quality?
Yes, absolutely. The sooner you use the beans after grinding, the more ﬂavor you’ll be able to extract, especially when it comes to the more subtle notes. Even if the pre-ground beans come from a local roaster, it could still be a difference of weeks between when they’re ground and when you use them.
The same goes for the in-store commercial grinders that many bulk food stores will have. Grinding your beans there will retain a bit more freshness, but still put at least hours and at most days between grinding and use. From our experience as coffee roasters and brewing at our NY coffee shop, we recommend coffee brewed within 15 minutes of grinding.
If it’s even remotely an option for you to.
Is It Worth Buying In Bulk?
Buying from a bulk food store may have certain appeals. It’s often cheaper, and self-serve coffee might feel less processed and more natural, but there are some signiﬁcant downsides.
The most notable is that if your coffee isn’t in an airtight container, the ﬂavor is leaching out. The lack of individual containers might make it harder to pinpoint the exact roasting date of the batch you’re getting as well.
Also, buying in quantities that are too large (more than you’d use in 1-2 weeks) is going to mean that the tail end of the bag is going to have less ﬂavor, even if you’re grinding the beans yourself.
How to Store Coffee Beans
If you purchased your coffee beans in a resealable airtight container, you could keep using that same container. If your coffee beans were in a bag that needed to be cut open, you should consider purchasing an airtight jar or similar container. It’ll keep your beans fresh longer and add a charming aesthetic to your coffee station. Coffee beans are at their best within 3-4 weeks max off the roast, and within 24 hours of grinding, past this time, the coffee ﬂavor will be ﬂat and one dimensional.
If you purchased more beans than you can use in the ideal two-week window, it’s best not to freeze or refrigerate them. Low temperatures can play havoc with the oils and moisture levels in coffee beans, and may even be worse than stale beans.
Apart from a few key factors that revolve around freshness and transparency, most of what you should consider when buying coffee comes down to personal preference. So, make sure the options you’re sampling all meet those basic criteria, and then pick one you like most.