Want good coffee?
The kind of coffee where you take a sip, pull your head away, look at your drink and go “Damn, that’s good.”
The kind of coffee that says ‘notes of blueberry and licorice’ on the bag and it actually tastes of blueberry and licorice? (Yea, that’s a thing.)
The kind of coffee that gets you excited about going to bed at night because you can’t wait to get up and make that Kenyan AA in the morning?
Well, what is the most important thing about brewing coffee? It’s the coffee beans you use. If you’re using high-quality freshly roasted coffee then you’re on the right track to silky smooth coffee with flavors you can’t even dream of. If you’re using cheap, garden-variety preground rubbish then no amount of knowledge is going to be able to produce a nice tasting cup.
Now, actually buying good coffee is no easy feat. The majority of coffee beans that are sold (we’re talking 90%+) have one fatal flaw that makes lose massive amounts of flavor. Luckily with a little bit of knowledge, you can avoid this flaw and get much, much better tasting coffee. Oh, and it doesn’t really cost any more either!
Why are coffee beans so important?
Top chefs use the finest cuts of meat. An award-winning sommelier will only recommend wine of the highest quality. The best cheesemonger in the world uses the finest Brie, Camembert and Roquefort. I guess. I don’t know that much about cheesemongering. (Cheesemonging?)
The point is… you want coffee so good that you melt for a few seconds each time you take a sip? You need to treat buying coffee beans like quality food or drink. This is not something you can cheap out on.
What’s absolutely fantastic/mind-boggling is that the standard of coffee bean you are used to is (probably) pretty bad. Most of the big coffee chains offer highly caffeinated milk beverages with only the slightest hint of coffee. All those mountains of sugar and milk drown out the taste (and add to your waistline) and have made it normal to expect coffee to be a high-calorie treat rather than something that can be enjoyed… heaven forbid… without milk, sugar or cream.
In addition to that is the grocery stores that offer cheap rubbish that is way past its best before date. I mentioned the fatal flaw about most coffee and I’ll explain more in the next heading but you can go ahead and assume that all coffee sold in your grocery store is not what most experts consider ‘good’ coffee.
Why your coffee is bad
1. Most coffee you can buy is stale.
Here’s the big one, the massive flaw that ruins all coffee everywhere. Nearly all coffee beans that are available at grocery stores and chain coffee shops are stale. In this context, stale means the coffee has gone off since it was roasted, not that it’s out-of-date or undrinkable. Coffee that has been roasted stays at a peak flavor for about 15-20 days before there is a noticeable drop in taste and 30 days is the maximum before there is a real drop in the quality.
How do you know if your coffee is fresh? The key thing to look for is a roast date. When you see a roast date on your bag of coffee, it means the roaster is expecting it to be sold and consumed before it goes stale. If there’s no roast date, it’s probably mass-produced garbage and as there is no check on when it was roasted it can be sold even 6-12 months after the roast.
It’s possible you’ve never even tried freshly roasted coffee. You can go ahead and assume probably all the coffee beans in grocery stores have been sitting in shipping containers and shelves for months. The only places you can usually get them is through good independent coffee shops or coffee roasters. I’ll get on to talking about how to find them soon, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for any local cafe that offers its own coffee. Is there a roast date on the bag from a few days ago? Then you’re onto something.
2. Most coffee you can buy is generic.
Coffee beans that you can buy can be grouped into two categories: blends or single origins. Coffee blends are a combination of different beans from around the world designed to produce a smooth and balanced taste. Single origins are beans from single country, region or even farm where the inherent flavors of the bean are pronounced.
Blends are not necessarily bad, but they will be smooth and balanced. Single origins offer you the chance to explore the amazing inherent flavors of coffee beans. We’re talking strong, unmistakeable notes of chocolate, honey, lemon or grapefruit. It has to be tasted to be believed. One of the delights of making your own coffee at home or in the office is you can taste the zesty Kenyan single origin or that smoky Sumatran that you love.
3. Most coffee you can buy is cheap.
The third argument against coffee beans you can buy is that most of them are at a price point that is too low to source high-quality coffee beans with high-quality processing and handling. To go back to the craft beer comparison, the great-tasting pale ales you can get down at the grocery store are a bit more expensive than a crate of PBR. Mass-produced stuff is cheap, who’d-a thought?
If you’re interested in great coffee, you will need to accept that you are paying a bit more. But even the more expensive fresh roasted beans will end up being cheaper than that monster sized $7 coffee flavored milkshake (or latte as they call it) you get at your local Starbuck’s.
The coffee you are drinking is bad
Really good coffee is rare.
The first and second waves of coffee have done some great things in bringing this beautiful drink to everyone’s kitchen table or car cup holder, but they prioritized convenience over taste. The mass production of instant coffee seems unremarkable now but it was quite the revolution over a hundred years ago. The introduction of fast serving espresso coffee in big chains across the states was another revolution itself.
The third wave is the most recent of the coffee revolutions. By most estimates, it began in the early 2000s and was characterized by an artisanal approach to making coffee. High quality brewing equipment, ethically sourced single origin beans, a focus on fresh roasting and grinding. It’s transformed how good coffee can be. Kinda like the recent trend in craft beer and microbreweries where beer has gone from cheap, fizzy lager to hoppy, fragrant IPAs.
Where to buy from
You’re a lucky so-and-so, you know that? It’s 2017 and the options for buying great freshly roasted coffee are better than they’ve ever been.
I will always recommend that you look for your local roasters. It’s great to support local businesses anyway and you have the added advantage of being able to go into the place, chat with the owner or manager and get a look at what you’re buying. You’ll usually get the option of trying a brew before you buy! And oh look, here’s a nice little article on finding the best third wave roasters that are nearby.
Failing that, there are lots of excellent options online. Some use subscription models and some give you the option of buying a bag at a time. Even though you buy from the websites you can (and should) still get them fresh from the roast if you go to the right websites. The right websites I have happily put into my article here.
There’s a whole bunch of things that go into making great coffee beans. Things that I have written in some detail on these articles if you’re interested… But the great thing is that if you’re buying from a high quality roaster then all the work is done for you. Sit back, knock off the dust off your French Press and experience a whole new world of great-tasting coffee.
– I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating, you need a high-quality grinder to really get the best out of this. My personal preference is for beginners to go with preground over a cheap grinder for this reason, I go into more detail here.
If you’re ready to take the plunge and get a decent grinder then I’ve created what I believe to be the most comprehensive buyers guide for grinders here. Hopefully this helps you, either way let me know how you get on!
– I realize I might not be coming across as the nicest person by telling everyone their coffee is bad, but at least I’m not as mean as these 1950s husbands are to their wives!