It’s easy enough to find reasonable coffee beans that make a passable brew in most grocery stores or supermarkets.
However, for those who are serious about drinking great coffee, sourcing the best beans is a must. Here’s our guide to how to find high-quality coffee beans.
If you want a preview about some of the things we’re going to look at, check out this video before you read on.
However skilled a barista you are, you can’t brew better coffee than the ingredients at your disposal. Even if you have mastered the art of brewing, if your beans are sub-standard, your coffee will never be better than mediocre. Here are some basic rules to follow when choosing your beans.
1. Always buy whole beans
If you care about drinking good coffee, the first and most basic rule is that you should always buy Whole beans and never pre-ground. Even freshly roasted beans are only at their best for a matter of two weeks or so, but as soon as coffee is ground, it rapidly goes stale.
You should grind beans just before brewing – after grinding, coffee begins to deteriorate in a matter of minutes. This means if you buy pre-ground coffee, it will already be stale before you use it. To avoid this, buy beans and grind them yourself each time you brew.
2. Make sure the bag they come in has a one-way valve
When beans are roasted, a large quantity of carbon dioxide is stored inside them. This gas is then given off over the following weeks, quickly for the first few days and then more slowly.
Remember, coffee beans are only at their best for around two weeks after roasting. This means they should be put into the bag and sold right after the process is complete. However, the CO2 the beans give off needs to go somewhere, and a one-way valve allows it to escape.
A valve in itself does not guarantee the freshness of the beans, but without one, you know the beans were put into the bag after degassing was complete, meaning the beans were already stale. If not, without a valve, the carbon dioxide would cause the bag to swell and finally explode.
3. Look for the roasting date, not best before the date
Again, bearing in mind that coffee beans remain in their optimum condition only for around two weeks after roasting, the bag should be labeled with a roasting date and not a “best before” date.
A best before the date can be anything up to a year after roasting. This means you have no idea how much time it took the bag to reach the supermarket shelf after roasting took place – several months may already have passed before you buy the beans.
Related Post: Best Home Coffee Bean Roaster
4. Avoid scoops, self-serve or bulk buying
The four enemies of coffee beans are water, heat, light, and air. After roasting, coffee becomes stale through oxidization, and these four evils speed up the process.
Coffee stored in large drums and scooped out into bags is constantly exposed to air and is almost certainly stale. Also, you have no way of knowing how long it has been sitting there since roasting.
Avoid buying in bulk, too. Even if the price is attractive, if you don’t finish it all off in about two weeks, you will be drinking stale coffee.
The next steps
Having understood the basics, you can apply this knowledge to dig deeper into the world of coffee to uncover some real top-quality beans.
5. Understand the label
Imagine buying a bottle of wine that was simply labeled “France” or “Chile”. No self-respecting wine lover would touch such a bottle. Wine connoisseurs require much more information, including the name of the vineyard, the grape, the growing region, the terroir and so on.
Yet people are content to buy coffee simply labeled “Colombia” or “Kenya” despite the fact that this is practically meaningless. Having said that, check out this video explaining the broad characteristics of coffees from different parts of the world.
Coffee labels should include information about the growing region or, even better, the individual estate the beans were grown on. Sometimes, even the name of the farmer can be found!
Other information can include things like the altitude at which the coffee was grown, the varietal (the type of coffee bean – top-grade coffee is always arabica but there are different types of arabica), the grade and so on. This level of detail can help you understand just what you are buying.
The label won’t tell you if you will like the coffee, but even if you don’t, this information will help you refine your search in future.
Where to buy great beans
Where you live determines how easy it will be for you to lay your hands on top-quality coffee beans – but there are always options.
6. Local specialty coffee shops
For many people, a local specialty coffee shop is a great place to start. Some coffee shops sell the beans they use to brew, while others even roast on-site. Even if they don’t sell beans, they may be able to help you locate suppliers that do.
In a local coffee shop, you should be able to ask for all the information you require about the beans you are buying. A useful tip to remember is that if the barista doesn’t know the details of things like origin, varietal or processing method, you probably don’t want to buy there anyway.
7. Local artisanal roasters
For those lucky enough to live near an artisanal roaster, this is an excellent place to source your beans. These roasters usually roast in small batches and take pride in what they do. They will be able to give you all the information you need about the beans and help you with your selection.
You can find them by asking in local coffee shops or searching online.
8. Buy online
If you are not fortunate enough to live near a specialty coffee shop or a local roaster, you can always turn to the internet. Many roasters can mail beans right to your door, an extremely convenient way to gain access to a wide selection.
Again, pay attention to the label and especially the roasting date. The best roasters roast beans to order, meaning they will be roasted specially and sent to you right after. Remember the two-week rule.
Experiment – and enjoy
As long as you follow these basic guidelines, a wonderful world of delicious coffee awaits you. A large part of the fun is tracking down and sampling a range of beans, and with time, you are sure to discover beans, roasts, and roasters that you love.
How do you source your beans? Do you buy them from a local coffee shop or do you have a roaster nearby that satisfies your needs? If you have something to add, please leave us a comment as we love to hear from you. And if you found this article useful, please don’t forget to share!
My name is Kathy Gallo, Editor of Ag Ferrari, a Coffee buff. The guide you find here is designed exactly for you, and it is our hope that you find it not only interesting but also actionable.