The Coffee Nerdist: Where My Whole Bean Coffees At?
by A Real Person on June 17, 2010
So, you’ve graduated from pitching a tent and living at your local Starbucks to support your habit. You’ve read up at coffee geek and home barista about the tools you need to aim hot coffee into your throat and made at least one purchase that your loved one confused for a Swedish-made, er, enhancement device. But, you forgot one… small… detail. The coffee.
The Good news: whole bean coffee is available EVERYWHERE- cafes, supermarkets, …Frys Electronics Warehouse?
The Bad news: the coffee most everywhere is less than awesome.
As you stroll down the grocery aisle or through the café, here are a few tips you can use to get into at least the same zip code as good coffee.
Can you see the coffee beans? No? Good.
A few of the key enemies of fresh tasty coffee include light, heat, air, and moisture. If you can see actual coffee beans (in a clear Ziploc-type bag for example), that means light can get to the beans too. Far worse than even a clear baggy of coffee are those cursed plastic bins, present in practically every grocery store on the planet. In addition to light, the clear bins let regular air interact with the coffee and stale it long before it could ever hope to make the journey home to your coffee brewer and your tum. While the bins would appear to complement the fresh produce analogy that coffee people like to use, bins epically fail the wine analogy– when’s the last time you dunked your fingers in an unsold bottle of wine and then traipsed on your merry way to let some other sucker buy the resulting bottle of vinegar? This is to say nothing of the coffee oils that accumulate on the bins, go rancid, and infect all subsequent coffee added to each bin.
Please, please, please give me a date, will you???
Coffee people love to talk about dates and it’s not all “let’s get your fixie together with my fixie and bump ironically whited-out front forks.” The dates we’re talking here are roast dates and if you’re stuck in why-the-effs-did-I-agree-to-come-heres-ville USA, cross your fingers and hope for expiration dates.
From roasting… to enjoyment.
When roasting stops, coffee begins aging. The first 24 hours are actually pretty exciting and necessary for the coffee to develop its flavor. After that, though, it’s all a steep downhill ride to the tastes-like-big-chief-tablet grave. As coffee ages, the beans emit CO2 which is why you’ll sometimes see your coffee bags get all puffed up. During the aging process, roasted coffee will throw off several times its own volume in CO2. This is why roasters choose to either sell their coffee in tin-tie kraft paper bags (the CO2 can escape through the top) or in flavorlock valve bags, which allow the CO2 to slowly escape through a clever one way valve without letting in oxygen which would stale the coffee. CO2 emission also helps to account for the extra-stale flavor of canned coffee. In order to keep the cans from exploding, commercial coffee roasters (think Nestle and Sara Lee) have to let the coffee stale and dump most of its CO2 payload before sealing up the can.
Depending on the particular coffee and the roast applied to it, your coffee could peak within the first week or as late as 2+ weeks after roasting. The only way you’ll know when the coffee peaked is by (1) guzzling it daily and (2) referring to the roast date helpfully printed on the package. No roast date? Don’t be surprised. Other than their own standards, coffee companies aren’t given a lot of incentive to print roast dates. Their primary customers (grocery stores) would prefer that consumers think coffee is no different than a twinkie that can be safely stored on the shelf until the end times. As a result, you’ll find most coffee roasters that print roast dates on their bags are working hard to produce a fresher, tastier coffee and get it to your retailer in a timely manner.
In the unfortunate case that you can’t find a bag with a roast date on it to save your life, the next tier down is “best by” dates. These companies, while not best-in-class, are at least admitting that coffee degrades over time and should be consumed sooner rather than later. You may never know how long a particular coffee roaster considers their coffee to be good; it could be several weeks or months, but choosing a coffee that has a best by date on the bag is better than nothing.
Less is more.
Strolling down the aisles at Costco you’ll see 2-3lb bags of coffee at dee-lightful prices. The problem is, even with your bordering-on-criminal coffee habit, it’s unlikely that you’ll use up the bag within 7 days of opening it. Keeping an opened bag of coffee for much more than a week can only end with stale flavor and tears. Don’t do it… for the kids.
Well, I hope I’ve given you a few more criteria for making this, the most critical decision in your day. If you have burning coffee questions that would make interesting Coffee Nerdist fodder, please @me or add a comment below .
Finally, if you’ve tried all the coffee in your town and want to branch out to other coffee roasters, here is a handful that I’m a fan of. While they may not be in your neighborhood, they will gladly deliver by mail.
Espresso Vivace (espresso only) Seattle, WA
Stumptown Coffee Roasters Portland, Seattle, NYC, Amsterdam
49th Parallel Coffee Roasters Vancouver, BC, Canada
PT’s Coffee Roasting Topeka, KS
Counter Culture Coffee Durham, NC
Ritual Coffee Roasters San Francisco, CA
Intelligentsia CoffeeChicago, LA
Terroir Coffee Acton, MA
Brown Coffee Co San Antonio, TX