The more you fall in love with coffee, the more you want to make sure you always have the best possible beans. As your tastes develop, you start to realize that plain old pre-ground stuff from the supermarket just won’t cut it anymore. So here are our 7 tips for buying the best coffee beans.
1. Always Buy Beans!
The golden rule of buying coffee is to always buy beans and not pre-ground. Why is this?
When beans are roasted, a whole lot of carbon dioxide is created inside, which is then given off after roasting is complete. For the first couple of days, CO2 is given off in large quantities, then after that, it is released much more slowly.
After the initial degassing, oxidization starts to set in, and the clock is ticking. Roasted coffee beans are only at their best for around two weeks – and there’s very little you can do to prolong this.
However, once the coffee is ground, the deterioration process is speeded up exponentially. After grinding, coffee loses its flavor in only a matter of minutes.
This means if you buy pre-ground, it is already stale. It’s past its best and there is no packaging in the world that can change this. Buy beans and grind them fresh before each brew.
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2. Check for a “roasting date”, not “best by” date
Having understood how short coffee’s optimum lifespan is when buying beans, you should check the packet for a “roasting date” not a “best by” date.
The roasting date, which should ideally be only a few days before, tells you how long ago the beans were roasted. If it was several months ago, you know the beans are already past their best.
However, if all you have is a best by date, you have no idea when they were roasted. Best by dates can be anything up to a year or more after roasting. This is basically the roaster saying they will taste ok up to that date – but it certainly doesn’t tell you when they are in their optimum condition.
3. Look for a one-way valve on the bag
Remember, freshly roasted beans are full of CO2, and that gas needs to dissipate. If beans are put into bags right after roasting (as they should be – you don’t want them sitting around for weeks first), they will still be in the degassing phase.
If a bag has a one-way valve, that gas can escape. If the bag doesn’t have a valve, the gas will cause the bag to inflate and eventually explode. This means if the bag has no valve, the beans were put in there after degassing was complete, meaning they’re already past their best.
Don’t misunderstand the logic; a valve doesn’t guarantee high-quality beans, but the absence of a valve does guarantee the absence of high-quality beans!
4. Avoid self-serve or Beans
Have you ever been to one of those places where the beans are kept in big drums and you serve yourself using a scoop? Avoid those places! You have no way of telling when the beans were roasted, and the beans are being stored in the worst possible conditions.
Kathy Gallo from Daily Cupo Said: These beans are exposed to light, air, heat and even moisture, the four deadly enemies of coffee. Even if these beans were exceptional quality after roasting, they certainly aren’t any more!
5. Look for Additional info on The Pack
Think about buying wine. Would you buy a bottle that was simply labeled “Chile” or “France” – or worse, just “South America” or “Europe”? If you’re even moderately serious about wine, of course, you wouldn’t!
You want to know about the region the grapes were grown in, the vineyard, the grapes used and if it’s a blend or if it was made from just one type of grape. You’ll also want to know the year and you’ll expect tasting notes – at the very least!
It’s the same for coffee. Look for the region, the farm, the altitude, the variety (not just “arabica” or robusta”, even within “arabica”, there are many different types) and so on. The more you know about a coffee, the more you can make a judgment about whether you’ll like it.
As a general rule, the kind of coffees that provide this level of information is usually much higher quality than ones just labeled “Colombia” or “Brazil” – although again, this is still not a guarantee you’ll be buying great beans.
6. Understand What You are Buying
Many famous coffees sell on their name alone, but just because coffee has “Kona” or “Blue Mountain” on the packet, it doesn’t make it a top-quality bean. Let’s take Jamaican Blue Mountain as an example.
True Blue Mountain is grown within a very limited geographical area in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. The growing conditions there are ideal, and the coffee produced is of extremely high quality. Due to the limited area, it is also very rare – and consequently, very expensive.
Genuine 100% Blue Mountain carries an official seal. If it isn’t 100% genuine, it can’t carry the seal – and if it doesn’t carry the seal, it can’t carry the name.
However, there’s a loophole. There is no restriction on selling Blue Mountain blends. This means coffees containing at least some beans from Blue Mountain (often less than 10%) and blended with inferior coffees from elsewhere can legally be sold as Blue Mountain blends.
However, there is so little Blue Mountain in there, you might as well be buying something else anyway. Make sure you are clued up and don’t hand your money over blindly. Do your research!
7. Know Where to Buy
Finally, make sure you buy from the right places. Specialist coffee shops are a good place to start. Some roast on site or sell the coffee beans they serve; failing that, they might be able to point you in the direction of a reputable high-quality supplier.
If you are lucky enough to have an artisanal roaster in your area, that’s another ideal option. They will be able to give you plenty of advice about what to try and will generally roast to order.
Failing that, there is always the internet. Many roasters are willing to mail beans to you. Again, just make sure you do your homework first.
Remember the Golden Rule – And do Your Homework
Tip number 1 is the golden rule. If you understand the basics of roasting and degassing, it will help you choose the best beans. After that, apply the rest of our tips and you are sure to start uncovering some real hidden gems.