Buying Coffee at the Supermarket

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Despite all the changes in American coffee habits over the last 40-odd years, the supermarket is consistently where about two-thirds of all coffee is sold. With their large number of coffee brands, supermarkets present the most complex buying situation. It's confusing to try to decide among the competing presentations.

When I'm confronted by such a decision for a product other than coffee, I look for a brand that I think would share my concerns for quality. I might go to a higher-priced item, and I would buy a smaller size for trial. This won't necessarily produce a happy result, and it might take a few tries before I find the product and brand that satisfy. When I do, I'll be loyal to that product until it disappoints.

Buying fresh and good food, even in specialty markets, requires a bit of work. It's always been worth the effort.

I'm sure you already know that I hope you make your coffee choice based on your perceptions of quality and freshness, rather than what's on special this week. A bit of research also might be in order. You could start with the companies' Web sites, looking for freshness and quality philosophy. You could also investigate the delivery channels that different companies use. Some roasters, with those long pull dates, go through the grocer's warehouse system, assuring that the coffee could not be fresh. A tiny number of roasters use their own trucks to deliver to the grocer. As long as they are diligent about putting fresh coffee on the truck, this should produce a fresher result.

Few markets date their bulk bins. If coffee is properly packaged in a valve bag (the bags with the internal buttons and little slits), it probably will taste fresher than bulk coffee, which has been exposed to atmosphere. Put your nose up to the valve and squeeze the bag. Evaluate the aroma.

Some companies have tried putting the roast date on the package; a few still do. Specialty coffee shoppers are too intelligent; they buy the freshest coffee. Inevitably, the less fresh coffee stays on the shelf, getting less and less fresh until it is removed. Most roasters have gone to a "pull date" or a "best by date", often in code so that they can rotate according to roast dates. Open dating is no guarantee: One well-known roaster has extended its pull date to one year from roasting!

There are a few supermarkets and wholesale clubs that roast coffee in the store. That should be freshest, but evaluate the skill of blending and roasting. Roasting requires skill and experience. If you live far from multiple sources, the freshness of in-store roasting may override other, more subtle taste considerations. If you live in a metropolitan area, you probably have access to many choices.

Buying fresh and good food, even in specialty markets, requires a bit of work. It's always been worth the effort.

Did I forget to remind you to ONLY buy beans to get truly fresh flavor? Ground coffee is never as fresh.

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Jerry Baldwin is co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. More

Gerald Baldwin purchased Peet's Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, California, in 1984, and worked diligently to sustain the vision of the founder, Alfred Peet. He remains involved as a member of the board of directors. Jerry was a co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. He remained involved until 1987 when he sold the company of eight stores. He accepts no credit (or blame) for the ensuing twenty-odd years. He also serves as a member of the board of TechnoServe a non-profit NGO working to alleviate poverty in Africa and Latin America. He has also been Chairman and Trustee of Coffee Quality Institute and President and Director of Association Scientific Internationale du Café (ASIC). Baldwin is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Specialty Coffee Association of America www.scaa.org, where he served as a director of the SCAA, and the the founding chairman of its Technical Standards Committee. Jerry was honored as Coffeeman of the Year for North America by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, and he is an honorary member of the Kilimanjaro Specialty Coffee Growers Association, known as Kilicafe. Baldwin was a founding director of Red Hook Ale Brewery and a founding contributor of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He writes in Sonoma County, California, a few miles from M.F.K. Fisher's home in Glen Ellen, looking over his small vineyard. Jerry and his wife, Jane, produce small crops of olive oil and Zinfandel in the Valley of the Moon.
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