All you need to know...

Preground vs Grind Fresh – All you need to know…

September 23, 2017
title: preground vx grind fresh

I make a lot of assumptions. I assume that the train at that platform over there is going to leave any second – it’s usually not. I also assume that 5 hours of sleep will be enough because I haven’t got a lot on tomorrow. It never is, though. I assume that my favored sports team will miss that shot, lose that game, not make the playoffs. I’m usually right about that one, however.

Another assumption I make is that anyone who finds their way onto my website is interested in making great coffee.

Not decent coffee. You can get something that most people consider drinkable with a couple of purchases from the coffee aisle of your nearest grocery store. Not even good coffee, which requires a bit more knowhow, research and investment but is well within reach for anyone.

But great coffee. Coffee that sings on your tongue each morning as you are transported to a world of silky smooth tastes where that African single origin’s delicate notes of blackcurrant dance around your mouth. That’s what I want everyone to be aiming for.

So to tie that in to this article, I will discuss the merits of grinding your coffee fresh vs buying preground, all with the assumption that you have the end goal of making great coffee. As a sneak peek, I think preground is the better idea for beginners.


Grind Fresh vs Preground

Let’s talk definitions. Here are the two options I’m going to consider in this article.

Grind Fresh –> You have a grinder that you use to smash up whole coffee beans into coffee grounds just before you brew.

Preground –> You buy coffee that is already ground up and use it to brew.

Now the obvious answer is grinding fresh, right? The loaf tastes best when it’s hot out the oven and the bananas are juiciest right after they are ripened. With the same logic, freshly ground (and freshly roasted) coffee beans produce the best coffee. And that is true.

But there’s a snag.


Why grinding fresh is a BAD idea for most people

The most common misconception I meet when talking to people about coffee is that any old way of crushing up your coffee beans will do. The objective is to turn coffee beans into coffee grounds, it doesn’t matter how you do it, right? Wrong.

ground coffee with a sign saying grind

Let’s say you use a cheap burr grinder or (god forbid) a blade grinder. This will produce ground coffee that is full of fine particles that extract too quickly making your coffee bitter and silty and full of large blocks that barely extract at all making your coffee weak and acidic. You want even grounds, not dust and boulders. These uneven chunks, particularly the fines, ruin the extraction.

You wouldn’t give a michelin star chef a blunt and rusty knife and expect him to create gourmet cuisine, so don’t expect high quality coffee when you aren’t using high quality equipment.

So why is grinding fresh a bad idea for most people? It’s because they are not prepared to pay the $150+ to get something that can create great coffee. When people learn that that’s the minimum cost to get a grinder capable of producing the smooth grounds that make great coffee, they are taken aback. The reactions are similar every time.

“That’s more than I expected.”
“I’m not looking for a top-of-the-range model, just something cheap.”
“My blade grinder will be just fine.”
“Surely I can get something decent for less than $30?”
“I’ll just keep going to Starbuck’s!”

If this is you, and I think everyone goes through some variant of this at some point, I have two options you can choose. And neither of them involves getting a cheap, worthless $35 burr grinder or simply giving up on the idea of making great coffee at home.

But first let me talk a little about preground coffee.


Is preground all that bad?

Coffee beans are finicky things. The instant you crush them up they start to lose many of the compounds and oils that give them their unique flavor. In terms of how they affect their taste, here’s a quick and rough guide.

Time Post-Grind
0-15 minutes Peak condition to be brewed.
2+ hours Noticeable drop in quality to experienced coffee drinkers.
2-24 hours Capable of making decent but not great coffee.
1-7 days Capable to making a drinkable but stale cup.
7+ days Very noticeable drop in quality, even to novice coffee drinkers.

So as you can see, preground is not ideal. If you buy off the shelf at a grocery store it may have been ground weeks ago – and the vacuum packing only helps so much. If you buy from a local roaster that’s a lot better but your coffee beans will be a pale shell of their original flavor within hours.

An important point to mention is that the speed at which the coffee goes stale depends on the grind. The finer they are and the smaller the grounds, the quicker they lose flavor. I would massively discourage you from using preground for espresso which requires a very fine grind. If you’re going down that road, invest in a solid espresso grinder.

In fact, I’d recommend you steer clear of espresso full stop if you’re a beginner. Learn how to make brewed coffee first. Try the long, slow and easy hike to begin with, you can climb Everest later.

So the choice is:

Lose Freshness (by buying preground)

OR

Bad Extraction (by grinding with a cheap grinder)

What should you do?

little bowls of coffee beans next to little plates of ground coffee

Buy whole bean or preground…?


Here’s why you should use preground

I’m fairly new to coffee.
I’m not sure I want to spend $150 on a good grinder right now.
I like great coffee when I’m out but I’ve never really made it myself.

If this sounds like you, then you should use preground. And here’s why.

    1. 1. You can use it to test a good extraction. When you buy the coffee – ideally at a local roasters – and get it ground, go straight home and make a coffee. That is a freshly ground coffee with a good extraction. That’s your gold standard. You’ll be able to make that every every time if you choose to invest in a good grinder. All your coffee could be this nice, so savor it and mentally hold in your head how good it is. It might take only one cup for you to decide that $150 might be worth it after all.
      2. The staleness will not be that apparent. If you’re somewhat new to coffee you will not notice the difference in flavor – particularly if you keep it vacuum packed (most roasters these days give you sealed pack and a mason jar will do) and in a cool and dark place. If you do notice a depreciable drop in quality then at least you know what the difference is.
      3. It’s very cheap. This is a great way to introduce yourself to making great coffee with barely any investment. Pick up a $20 French Press or Pour Over and a $10 bag of great coffee and you’re done. Spending the extra $40-50 on a burr grinder you will hate and forget about within 6 months is not such a tiny investment. I’ve seen it too many times.

  • Here’s why you should grind fresh

    I’ve been making my own coffee for a while.
    I love the fresh smell of freshly ground coffee.
    I like to use different methods that require different grind sizes (French Press, Pour Over…)
    I don’t live near a good local roasters were I can pick up a bag of coffee and get them to grind it for me. (There are lots online but it’ll be a day or two of your preground coffee getting stale.)

    If this sounds like you then you probably want to seriously think about investing in a grinder. If you’re prepared to pay the $100-150 then do your research and you’ll get a piece of equipment that you will treasure for a long time. If you are serious about coffee, there’s no better investment.

    Just like the 5 stages of grief that people go through, there are a couple of stages that people go through when they’re first learning about good coffee.

    The first – and one I’m going to talk about now – is the disbelief when they discover how much a (good) grinder costs.

    “My blade grinder will be just fine.”
    “Surely I can get something decent for less than $30?”
    “I’ll just keep going to Starbuck’s!”

    However, I’m going to make the case that you should get one. Here’s some reasons.

    1. 1. You can make better coffee than coffee shops. There’s a bunch of reasons why it’s possible to do this and it mostly comes down to being able to choose top class coffee beans that are a bit out of price for coffee places to buy on a large scale. They have to make a profit, you don’t.
      2. Every time you wake up, you will know that a fantastic cup of coffee is heading your way very soon.
      3. You have opened yourself into the exciting world of Third Wave coffee . Where you will try delicate light roasts of exotic Single Origins from the foothills of Ethiopia.

      4. You can experiment with grind sizes. Little adjustments in coarseness can make big adjustments in taste. Experimenting is such an important thing for great coffee.

  • I can link you to my recommendations for hand grinders and automatic grinders . They’re pretty thorough and should tell you what you need to know. I have included cheaper grinders on those lists for comparison’s sake but again, I don’t really recommend anything below the Feldgrind (hand grinders) or the Baratza Encore (automatic).

    You’ll get a better deal for the price on hand grinders but it’s a small amount of work to carve them up. I don’t mind the 30-60 seconds of hand turning in the morning but some might.

    The happy converse to all this is: you only really need to spend money on the grinder. An acceptable French Press, Pour Over or Aeropress will all cost you less than $30 and whatever you have in your kitchen now is probably ok too. Notable exceptions to this are a solid autodrip coffee maker or the mammoth task of creating great espresso.

    cup of brewed coffee

    Want nice coffee? Make smart choices.

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