If you’re going to brew great coffee at home, one of the first things you need to have is good coffee beans. That’s why it’s number one in our Four Coffee Brewing Basics. Since we’re spending January focusing on the bean, it’s worth while understanding exactly what makes a good coffee bean.

When you’re in the grocery store, staring at an alarmingly huge selection of coffees, how do you know which one to choose and which one is most likely to be the freshest, tastiest cup of coffee on the shelf?

Grocery Store Coffee Aisle

There are a couple of basic things you can look at when you pick up that bag of coffee that will give you a hint about what’s in the bag before you spend your hard earned money on it.

Step 1 – Check The Roast Date

Always check the roast date on your coffee!Not sure how many times we can say this! Coffee starts to degrade quickly once it’s been roasted. There should be a roast date somewhere on the bag of coffee. Any good specialty coffee roaster is going to include this on their bag of coffee. Ideally, you want to consume your coffee within 2-4 weeks from when it was roasted. Depending on the store you’re in, that might be difficult to find.

If there’s no roast date on the bag, there’s no telling how old the coffee is. Coffee doesn’t go “bad” like milk does. Old coffee won’t make you sick, it just doesn’t taste as good. So many grocery stores will leave coffee on the shelf for as long as it takes to sell it. After all, they’ve probably already paid for it so it’s in their best interest to sell it.

Step 2 – Look for a Local Location

If you can’t find the roast date on the bag, one of the other things that can give you a clue is where it was roasted. Hopefully, there’s a name and an address of some kind somewhere on the bag that indicates where it was roasted and packaged. Look for something that’s somewhere in your general area. Transportation takes time. If you’re shopping in New York and the coffee was roasted in Seattle, it takes at least a week to ship it there by truck! You’re already a week into your precious 2 week window for ultimate freshness!

Step 3 – Get Whole Bean Coffee

Yeah – this is technically number 2, but we’ll let it slide here.

Whole bean coffee is always going to be fresher than ground coffee. All of those wonderful smells that are escaping when you grind coffee? We want that in the cup – not in the air. If coffee is ground in the bag, it was probably ground right after it was roasted. Unless it was roasted 15 minutes ago, that’s too long!

When you’re grinding your coffee, any grinder is better than pre-ground coffee. Even if all you have is a little blade grinder, you’re still going to improve your coffee by purchasing it whole bean and grinding it right when you make it.

Some Other Descriptive Clues

There are a couple of other key things you can look at that won’t indicate quality as much as they will indicate what flavors you might come across with this coffee.

Origin Notes: Single origin coffees (as opposed to blends) each have their unique flavor profiles. Typically, you’ll find these notes from different areas:

  • Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda)- Bright, fruity, acidic, lighter roasts
  • Indonesia (Java, Sumatra, Papua New Guinea) – bolder, typically but not always darker roasts, full body
  • Central America – Sweet, medium body, nutty, chocolate.

Keep in mind – these are very general descriptions. Read the details if they’re on the bag.

Roast Level: There are no standards to define roast levels. “Light” and “Dark” and “espresso roast” and “french roast” are all just relative terms put on a bag by roasters. There is no legal document that says an dark roast coffee has to be a certain way or a medium roast another way. We’re not the meat packing industry defining what USDA choice, USDA prime is.

Certain specialty roasters use a roasting scale that includes roast levels referred to as a “city roast”, “city plus”, “full city” and “full city plus” for levels of darkness. Generally, if you see those names on a description, you have an indication that the roaster has a little bit of a specialty bent than the mass marketed coffees out there.

Your Best Bet?

We’re generally not thrilled with the grocery store distribution model for coffee. It’s really, really difficult to maintain freshness and quality. Plus, when there are so many big red or blue cans or white bags with green logos, it’s difficult for the small, local roaster to stand out. As a result, most people pick up the mass produced, familiar and cheap stuff first and the specialty stuff sits. And sits. And sits.

Look for your nearest specialty coffee roaster. Or find a local cafe that roasts their own coffee. Take a few minutes, go out of your way, and buy a bag of coffee there. Talk to them. Find out what their roast philosophy is. We can promise you, they’ll be more than happy to talk about their coffee with a customer who is genuinely interested in a quality product.

You’ll be glad you did.