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The Coffee Nerdist: Where My Whole Bean Coffees At?

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.

Bad Coffee Bins, No Donut

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.

Seattle's Espresso Vivace

"I'm fresh"

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.

"Mum, how old am I?"

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

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23 comments

  • Cuvee coffee in Austin,TX is considered one of best if not the best coffees. Zabar’s in NY, Sant’ Eustachio, and La Colombe (Torrefaction) are also premier coffees.

  • No list of online coffee stores is complete without mentioning The Daily Grind. They’ve been importing and roasting coffee beans since 1976 and they own two popular cafes in Albany and Troy, N.Y. If you want professionally roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffee, Sumatra Mandheling, Guatemalan Antigua coffee, El Salvador coffee, Costa Rican Tarrazu, Mexican coffee, Colombian Coffee, and other varietals, The Daily Grind is the online store to check out. They have a 30-day satisfaction guarantee policy, too. http://dailygrind.com

  • How about considering what’s behind the cup when discussing quality coffee.

    Consider the medicinal knowledge of coffee.

    Consider whether if feeds corporate coffers or people, or if it’s 100% fully mature and why natural coffee processing makes an incredible difference in any coffee.

    there is more non corporate propaganda, factual information at capulin.com than anywhere on the net. Check it out for yourself, and all our relations,

    You can’t feed folks, and not feed folks, for the same amount of money…. look behind your cup.

    daniel

  • All our coffee {available by mail anywhere in the world} is stamped with a roast date clearly stamped right below our label stamp. We roast 7 days a week . We are the 2010 roasters of the year by Chicago reader and 2010 Chicago magazine “Best cup of coffee in Chicago”. We are Asado Coffee roasters 1432 n. Iring park rd Chicago, Ill 60613 773-661-6530 thank you

  • Seriously, do yourself a favor and try Nespresso coffee/espressos.

    Single-handedly the best GD coffee I’ve ever had, presented in a very convenient and easy-to-brew package. You won’t be sorry. My favorite is the Ristretto, a blend of South American & East African coffees.

    Mmmmm…. coffee….

  • @everyone- Thank you for the chatter about other roasters and feedback, keep it (and questions) coming. I’m very happy to be here and serve.

    I was surprised to see all the wholesaler talk and I’ll admit, I was skeptical. Anything that adds cost or puts a delay between me and my coffees is a bad thing, but it looks like in some cases, they’re just organizing the sale and the coffee ships directly from the roaster. I learned something today!

    @Curtis- roasting your own is indeed fun AND tasty. My problem is I’m surrounded by great coffee roasters who are constantly churning out stellar coffees. If they ever slowed down, I might find time to dial up http://www.sweetmarias.com and start roasting.

    @Jason- freezing roasted coffee is a controversial topic all its own. And freezing unroasted coffee is YET another topic. There are exceptions, but my stance is- don’t freeze roasted coffee. Keep your coffee in a cool, dark place (a pantry or canister, NOT a refrigerator or freezer). In your case, repeatedly putting the coffee in/out of the freezer will cause moisture to form on your beans and stale them before their time. Additionally, coffee is a great attractor of flavors, so if you store anything else fragrant in your fridge (leftovers, etc) the coffee has the tendency to absorb those flavors. I love spicy curries… on my plate, not in my coffee cup. BUT! Don’t take my word for it. Buy a pound, split it and store half in a cool dry place and the other half however you want. Brew them side-by-side and judge for yourself. Whichever tastes better to you… wins.

  • I would also recommend Just Coffee in Madison, WI (www.justcoffee.coop). You can order their beans online, but locally, they deliver all their coffee by bicycle exclusively. Also, they have a blend called “The Reanimator” and its awesome.

    Plus, they are the go-to roaster of one Marc Maron of WTF Podcast fame.

  • The Siesta roast from Asado Coffee in Chicago is my new personal favorite at-home espresso blend. They have a couple of other blends available on their website but you have to go to the roastery to get Siesta. Personally I think it is far superior to Intelligentsia and Metropolis in most home (read not clover, trifecta, etc) espresso machines.

  • I visit a Costco a little farther from my local store (one North of Seattle around Mountlake Terrace). It actually has a roaster in store and provides a great price/performance when you pick up a warm bag (drool…). Watch (or smell) for them since I have seen one in Oregon also.

  • the broadway cafe in westport kansas city, MO roasts their own coffee and its amazing. they put the starbucks that moved in two stores down out of business. anyone in the area should check it out.