Photo by Julius Schorzman/Wikimedia
First, PLEASE don't pretend that buying ground coffee is a negligible compromise. It's not. It is the single largest component of freshness, and it's under your control. If you're not willing to take the effort to grind your coffee just before brewing, you should ask yourself how important flavor and taste actually are to you.
It is often frustrating for those of us in specialty coffee to go to such lengths to get the freshest coffee to customers, and then have many customers choose convenience over flavor by buying ground coffee. Perhaps I should be consoled that no one was able to buy coffee beans in a supermarket until about 1980. But I want it all--or, more correctly, I want you to get all the flavor you deserve.
Just last weekend, an acquaintance reminded me how I had encouraged him to buy a grinder and grind his beans before brewing. Norm was ecstatic at the improved flavor. One more convert for fresh flavor! And of course, Norm is not the first to offer this ringing endorsement.
Not all consumers in all parts of the country have the same access to fresh foods, so here are a few suggestions for maximizing freshness wherever you shop.
I'll try to make it as simple as I can, but coffee is complicated. The simple exhortation for freshness might lead some to roast at home, but that has its own compromise. Professional coffee buyers and roasters spend significant effort developing their sources for exceptional coffees, buying and blending carefully and roasting to high standards--all before we get into the freshness discussion. Home roasters and smaller companies do not have the access to as wide a range of the best coffees. Shipping coffee from the tropics in less than container load quantities, as we had to do the early years, exposes the coffee to many perils of contamination, starting with weather. [Curator's note: It makes a mess! Roasting, I decided after long trial and mostly error, is something you shouldn't try at home.]
I depend on excellent coffees, straight or combined into great blends, roasted by experienced professionals. There is no way I could duplicate these results at home, despite my own experience. I would only roast at home if I was not in range of a UPS or USPS truck.
But not all consumers in all parts of the country have the same access to fresh foods, so here are a few suggestions for maximizing freshness wherever you shop. One overall observation is that low price may not indicate high value.
If in a shop:
• Get to know the company. Visit its website. Some shops are more dedicated to freshness and quality than others. When you walk in, try to form your own impression the same way you would in a restaurant or market. If you like the coffee, establish a relationship and get to learn more about the company and the coffee.
• Observe the way beans are displayed: best practice is a closed container to minimize the effect of circulating air, away from sources of heat (not in the sun) and moisture.
• Buy beans.
• Ask the roast date. Careful shops will mark their bins so they are able to tell you. Shorter is better.
If ordering via the Internet/telephone:
• Know your roaster. Quality roasters go to great lengths to move their coffee from their roasters to their stores or to customers at home as quickly as possible. Coffee is perishable, and they know it.
• Ask how soon the coffee is shipped after roasting. Check the roast date when the coffee arrives.
• Buy beans.