There is a ton of information out there on this topic, in the spirit of my blog I’m just trying to give you the summarized version. This post talks more about how to make sense of specialty coffee labels.
Don’t buy pre-ground. Don’t do it. You already have the burr grinder and scale I talked about in the must haves post. Coffee is all about freshness, you want fresh roasted coffee beans that you grind fresh right before brewing. This is another reason not to use pods, all that coffee is stale and pre-ground, not to mention overpriced.
The peak flavor for coffee is between 3-18 days after roasting, maybe up to a month. I was at my local organic type supermarket the other day and saw a bag of “premium” coffee and the roast on date was over 2 months ago. Notice I said peak flavor, this doesn’t mean coffee is undrinkable outside of this range, but that most agree this is when coffee tastes best.
Coffee tastes best if brewed within 30 minutes after you grind it, so combine the fact that not only is your coffee going to be 2 months old, it will have been ground 2 months ago. At this point, who cares about freezing, vacuum sealed containers or whatever storage method you use, you’re just preserving staleness. If time is an issue in the morning, grinding your coffee the night before and setting a timer on your coffee machine is just fine, it will be vastly better than any pod or pre-ground coffee you would use. I would not advise using the supermarket grinder though, even though it’s just a week that you’d be using it, grind as close to brew time as possible.
If your coffee only has a “best by” date and no “roasted on” date, stop buying it. Simple as this, if they aren’t willing to tell you when it was roasted, it isn’t worth buying.
Try to buy single-origin or single-estate coffee. Lately there is a lot of focus on sustainability and traceability of coffee. You want to be able to know who grew your coffee, where they grew it, how it was processed, how it was shipped and when it was roasted.
Also to know that in every step of the way things have been done in an ethical and sustainable way from fair wages to use of chemicals and pesticides. Coffee is so much more complex than light, medium, dark or french roast, which is the only information you find on most supermarket coffees. Most of what you see out there are blends of coffee beans, while there are some great blends out there from specialty roasters, the supermarket brands use this method to mix low quality beans with average quality beans to give you average tasting coffee. If you find a great local roaster that has both single-origin and blends, I’d say those blends are better than any supermarket blends.
It doesn’t really matter if you buy organic coffee. Many of these small producers are already using organic methods, however to get the organic certification will cost them thousands of dollars, which oftentimes is out of reach or money better spent elsewhere. If you are buying responsibly sourced single-origin coffee I wouldn’t worry if it is labeled organic or not.
Avoid coffee with flavors and additives. Coffee can have some amazing notes, but when you see flavored coffee, that means artificial flavors have been added during the roasting process. Flavors like french vanilla or hazelnut are artificially added, even by some very popular and successful coffee shops (*cough* Philz *cough*).
Explore light and medium roasts. We have been conditioned over the years to think that dark roasted and bitter coffee is “strong” or “bold” (thanks Starbucks) when in reality this is the way the big producers ensure uniformity. Not to say there aren’t some great specialty dark roasts out there, but usually the more you roast a coffee bean the more uniform and bitter it tastes, which means you can use lower quality beans to achieve this. A lot more of the tones and flavor comes out in light and medium roasts, try it without milk or sugar first and see if you can taste them. Also light roast coffee has more caffeine than dark roasted coffee, contrary to popular belief than darker is stronger. Vienna, French and Italian are all dark or darker than dark roasts.
When you find that great local roaster, try the light and medium stuff first and give them feedback and see what they recommend. Usually when I asked people what kind of coffee they like, they answer with medium or dark roast, but coffee is so much more complex than that. Country of origin, geographic region, bean type, growth elevation, processing method and so much more.
Buy from local coffee roasters. Not only are you supporting your local economy this is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting fresh roasted coffee. They should be able to tell you when a coffee was roasted and offer different types of single-origin and roast levels. There are also many small and independent roasters all over the U.S. that will ship you coffee that is roasted to order or roasted in the past few days.
Or…. Roast your own coffee. Learn how here.