Some Tips for Buying Beans

Despite the ubiquity of cafés in this country, a large majority of coffee that people drink is still brewed at home. There are two main reasons for this. First, brewing at home is more convenient than going out to a café to buy coffee. You don’t have to get dressed, or comb your hair or put on makeup before heading out to the café (though I have to say, these are not necessarily requirements in Portland). Second, brewing at home is generally cheaper, something that has become more important to coffee drinkers since the recession began. Buying coffee at a café can add up quickly, especially if you buy more than just brewed coffee or espresso.

Whether you go to cafés often or not, when you do brew coffee at home, you want to have good coffee.  So which coffee should you buy? It can be overwhelming to walk into a supermarket’s coffee aisle. There are coffees available in lots of different packages—you can buy coffee in bulk, bags, cans, jars and bricks. There are different brands, roasts, blends, country names and even different flavors. All of these choices can be more confusing than enlightening, so you have to sort through them to get something that suits you. By remembering a couple things, you will find it easier to get good coffee.

The first thing to remember is that good coffee starts with good beans, and good beans should be fresh. It is difficult to overestimate how important the freshness of the beans is to the taste of the coffee. Coffee beans are at their peak of flavor about a day after being roasted, and after that, the volatile aromatic compounds that give the coffee its flavor begin to dissipate. Therefore, you should always look for a roast date on the package. If you buy directly from a coffee roaster, you should ask when the coffee was roasted. If they won’t (or can’t) tell you, don’t buy it. They don’t care enough about quality to warrant your business.

Since freshness is so important, it is much better to buy whole beans than it is to buy pre-ground coffee. If you buy pre-ground coffee, even if it is ground at the store or café, the coffee is going to lose flavor quickly because the oxygen breaks down the flavor compounds inside the coffee.

If you buy your coffee at a supermarket, you should be sure to check the bags for roasting dates and expiration dates. Not all coffees have this, and if a company is afraid to put the dates on the bag, odds are you are not going to get the freshest coffee. Always look for the coffee with the nearest roast date or the farthest-out expiration date. Be careful about buying from the bulk bins too. Some of those beans may have been in there a while [Insider tip about buying bulk coffees: if you grind your own beans at the store, be sure to run a few beans through the grinder before catching them in the bag. You won’t get any flavored coffee surprises that way].

In addition to buying fresh beans, it helps to have an idea of what tastes you like. Do you prefer just a little bit of smoky flavor in your coffee? If so, you might want to look at a French or Italian roast. If you like lighter, more floral coffees, try a single-origin from Africa. Bright, sparkling coffees with crisp acidity? Try a Central American coffee. Most of the time, the coffee labels have descriptions of what you can expect in a coffee. Read them and try the one that sounds the best.

The best advice I can give you to learn more about blends and regions is to visit a café that sells coffee beans (if they roast their own beans, even better) and talk to the people that work there. A good barista will have opinions about what he or she likes and should be willing to let you try some of the café’s different offerings. When possible, visit the café during a slow part of the day so that the baristas will have more time to talk to you and make some samples. If you try to talk to them during the morning rush, you’re probably not going to have their full attention and they will just want to get you out the door so they can get back to working the line of customers.

If you buy some coffee and end up not liking it, don’t be afraid to take it back to the store. Roasters understand that not all of their recommendations will be right, so they should take back a bag of beans if you don’t like them (and haven’t used most of them). You’re paying good money to get good beans, so you ought to be satisfied with what you buy.

Hopefully these tips will help you when you go to buy coffee. Buying fresh beans and learning about blends and regions won’t necessarily guarantee you a good cup of coffee at home, but they will definitely improve your chances. Once you have good beans, you’re off to a good start.