Where to Buy Fresh Coffee

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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.

Drink Fresh!

Presented by

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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