Two Things to Make Your Coffee Better

Here are two things you can do to improve the flavor of your coffee without it being a fussy or neurotic adventure into siphon pots and rare cultivars of coffee grown above 6000 feet of elevation.

The number one thing you can do to increase your enjoyment of your coffee is to buy fresh roasted coffee and use it within a week.  You can go two weeks but the coffee quality degrades quickly after that first week.  You don’t have to buy super expensive coffee. If you are getting coffee roasted within 24 to 72 hours after it came out of the roaster and it costs you $10 or $11 a lb then you are getting something far better than anything at the grocery store. Coffee is at its best 12 to 72 hours after roasting. After that, the coffee flavor compounds begin to degrade and get stale. After about a week it is noticeable and after two weeks, I find it intolerable. You can learn what stale coffee smells like by keeping a little in a plastic bag for a month after you bought it.  Open the bag and smell. Compare that to your fresh coffee. It is kind of a cardboardy smell and flavor.

The best way to get fresh coffee is to buy it directly from a roasting company in your local area.  Many small cities will have a cafe that roasts and you may have a specialty coffee roaster that sells wholesale to local cafes and online.  If you have a specialty roaster in your area, they may sell coffee to walk in customers but you might want to call first to find out. The best roasting companies roast only what they can sell within a day or two of roasting. They want to get their coffee on its way to the customer as soon as they can manage it. The work flow at most roasting companies is entirely built around the concern of getting roasted coffee to the customer as soon as possible.

If you don’t have a roaster locally, then a cafe or coffee house may be your best bet. Most of them sell whole bean coffee pre-packaged into 12 oz bags or will take coffee they’ve bought in bulk and sell you the quantity you want. You can be almost certain the coffee will have been roasted less than a week ago.  

If you have a food co-op or fancy grocery store like Whole Foods near you, you might be able to get fresh roasted coffee. That may not always be true.  At the Whole Foods nearest me, the only coffee company with a “roasted on” date was the one I work for. There were at least six other brands of coffee there and all of them had a “best by” date. Coffee roasters who are serious about coffee quality are going to put the roasting date on the package.  If you see a “use by” date, then it is impossible to determine when the coffee was roasted and it should be avoided unless that is the only choice you have. Look for packages that say “Roasted On.”  With modern packaging and nitrogen flushing, whole bean coffee will stay relatively fresh for several weeks but when you open it up, use it within a week. I find coffee from nitro-flush packaging to get stale very quickly. Avoid the bulk bins. Those are a crap shoot. 

You can purchase coffee online. The downside to this is shipping is not cheap.  You can buy in bulk and get flat rate post shipping a lot of coffee companies.  5lbs is about what fits in a medium flat rate box.  You can freeze coffee to make it last longer though I’m not a big fan of the method, I’ll share it with you anyway. Split up the quantities to about what you are going to use in a week and pull out what you are going to use in a week and don’t put it back in the freezer.  That’ll buy you a little time.  

There are subscription services some roasters offer. I’ve never tried them out so I can’t offer an opinion of how they work but the idea seems like a good one.

The number two thing you can do to improve the quality of your coffee is to grind your coffee right before you brew it. The reason you want to grind your own coffee is the same reason you want to buy fresh coffee. Oxidation creates some nasty off flavors that you don’t want in your cup. Even if you buy fresh coffee but buy it ground, it will go stale much faster than if you grind it right before you brew it. The increased surface area makes the coffee susceptible to oxidation and reduces its shelf life significantly. 

I recommend burr grinders because they produce a more even grind. Blade grinders will produce a wide variety of particle sizes making your extraction of coffee solids uneven. Some of the coffee will be under-extracted, adding a sour taste to your coffee.  Some of the coffee will be over extracted, adding a bitter taste to your coffee.  Some of the coffee will be extracted exactly how you want it but maybe not much of the total mass.  A burr grinder will produce the most consistent grind for the most consistent extraction.

Blade grinders are OK and if you just won’t spend the money then get one but they don’t give you an even grind the way a burr grinder will. If you have the money, I recommend the Baratza Encore. It is the best value on a high quality grinder I have found.  They cost about $130 but they are reliable, highly adjustable and it does matter in the cup. I’ve owned one for a year now and I’m very pleased with it.  When the burrs wear out, you can get replacements and install them yourself in five minutes. 

Hand crank burr grinders are far less expensive and produce satisfactory results but you do have to crank them, by hand. Hario makes a good one for $25. Hard core coffee enthusiasts who travel bring one of these and an Aeropress with them in their carry on luggage, because hotel coffee sucks. I used an inexpensive hand crank coffee grinder for years and keep it around because I experience lengthy power outages from time to time.  Not having coffee for want of a hand crank grinder also sucks.

So there you go.  Buy fresh whole bean coffee and grind it yourself right before you brew it.  Two steps that make the biggest difference in coffee quality without a lot of fuss.