Where Can I Buy Better Coffee Beans?
I'm ready to take the plunge into making better coffee, and I've got all my gear picked out-but where can I actually buy the beans? Do I just get them at the grocery store, or is there something better I should get? Is there any way to try out different coffee before I buy a ton?
The Best Part of Waking Up
Dear Best Part of Waking Up,
You're absolutely right, great coffee starts with the beans. Don't get us wrong, brewing method is important. That's why we've talked about how to brew the perfect cup
Luckily, you have tons of options, both online and in your neighborhood. Even most small towns these days have at least one decent coffee shop, and as long as you know what you're looking for, you have plenty of options and ways to find the best beans for you.
Learn to Judge a Bean By Its Cover (and When You Just Can't)
The label on your bag of coffee can tell you a lot, and it can certainly tell you a lot about the freshness, type, and quality of the coffee inside. You won't be able to learn everything, of course, but it can definitely lead you in the right direction, and a little knowledge can take you the rest of the way. Here are some things to look out for:
- Buy whole bean, freshly roasted: We've mentioned the importance of grinding your own beans enough times before that it should be a no brainer. Whole bean will be harder to find, but you have control over the grind
, which is important depending on how you're making it, and your coffee will retain its flavors and natural oils much longer than if you buy pre-ground powered stuff. Seriously, once you start grinding your own, you won't go back. Check out this lesson from our coffee Morning School for more on this topic.
- Roast date versus "Use By" date: You might have a hard time finding a bag with its roasting date on it, but when you do, support that roaster. Most commercial roasters don't put a date on their bags at all, usually to obfuscate where the coffee is from and when it was roasted and packaged-this allows to them to mix and match batches that were roasted at different times, from different sources. Remember, a "use by" date is better than nothing but a roast date is best. Remember, most of coffee's flavor is in those oils, and those oils dry up and vanish quickly the more time passes between roast and grind.
- Pick the right type of bean: There are tons of different types of beans, but you'll see the two biggest varieties: Arabica and Robusta. If you have a choice, choose Arabica. Robusta is well known for its bitter, earthier taste, and is often used for instant coffee. Arabica is, for the vast majority of people, what you're looking for. Beyond that, you'll see tons of geographies and varieties of coffee, from Java to Kona to Sumatra. Experiment. There's no one rule to tell you what's good here, there are just too many variables. Explore different regions and tastes-this is where you should try to have fun instead of trying to laser focus on what's good or bad.
- Keep an eye on the source: Like we said, geography is something your taste buds will have to weigh in on, but source can tell you a lot. Look for single source or single geography in the same bag. Big roasters don't bother because they'll mix and match-whatever's cheapest for them. Single-source may cost you more, but it's worth it. If you see a bag with a specific geography on it, like "sumatra mandheling," for example, that means all of the beans in the bag came from the same part of the world. If you see "single estate" on it as well, that means all the beans came from the same farm as well as the same location. See why that might be a good thing?
- Pick the right roast type: We've said before you should keep an open mind on the roast type, but let's boil it down: Unless you're making espresso, you probably don't need an espresso roast unless you already know you love the flavor. If you hate the deep, strong flavor of coffee, you might consider a light roast. Most people prefer, and usually drink, a "City" roast or a "Vienna" roast. City is lighter, Vienna is most common. If you have choices, start with Vienna-it's probably what you're used to drinking and you can move around from there. This guide from Coffee Crossroads gets into the roast topic in-depth, and hits on some types of roasts you may not see very often.
With all of that knowledge, you should be in good position to look at a label and tell what you're getting into. Of course, there's no way to know whether you'll really like a coffee just by reading the label. However, you can tell that a coffee with an old roast date or a rapidly approaching best by date won't be as good, or a bag that's pre-ground or in general from a huge coffee "producer" won't be as good as something you'll get that's fresher from a real roasting company.
Hunt for High-Quality Roasters and Coffee Shops In Your Area
Look around for your favorite area coffee shops and roasters. If you live in an area where coffee is popular, you may have your selection of small batch, local roasters willing to sell you beans directly. If not, hit up Yelp or Foursquare and look around your neighborhood for coffee shops that are well reviewed and well liked. Head in for a cup, and see if you can buy a bag of their coffee. Odds are, they have a selection available to sell, and usually it's the coffee they have on the menu as well, so you can have a cup to see if you like it before shelling out for a pound of it.
This is actually my favorite way to find new and interesting coffee, and it gives you a real "try before you buy" opportunity that you wouldn't get otherwise. Some of my favorite roasters (Zeke's and Mayorga are just a few examples that are near where I live) are small batch roasters. Others are independently owned coffee shops that roast their own beans and only make them available in-store. Look around, you may find something you like in your own backyard. Plus, you'll spend your money with a local business that could use your support.
You may be asking "What about Starbucks, or the grocery store?" Well, Starbucks has made a killing off of the fact that they can sell you their coffee in their stores. Whether you like Starbucks or not, they're not the only place you can go to get a good bag of beans-but if you like Starbucks, go for it-they usually print use by dates (roast dates if you're lucky) on the bag. Your local supermarket probably has a decent selection or brands, but your selection may be mostly ground, big-name brands. Even so, don't count out the big box stores
Find World-Class Roasters that Ship Online and Deliver Anywhere
If you just can't find a decent cup in your area, and the big brand names aren't doing it for you, you still have options. There are tons of high-quality, world-class roasters that are happy to ship their coffee around the globe. We've mentioned some of them before, specifically Intelligentsia Coffee, Counter Culture, Blue Bottle Coffee, Tonx, Mistobox, and Coffee CSA.
Tonx and Mistobox are both primarily subscription-based services
CoffeeCSA is still a subscription
Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, and Counter Culture are all highly regarded for their incredible coffee. All three have subscription programs, but they're not necessarily the core of their businesses. You don't have to know a ton about coffee to shop with any of them, but it certainly helps. You probably won't order anything that you won't like, and many coffee shops just source what they need from one of these three.
Hopefully we've given you the information you need to tell good beans from not-so-good ones, and some options to try the next time you want a good cup of coffee. Remember, like any hobby, the bottom line is your personal enjoyment-you can spend as much or as little as you like, and dive as deep into this as you choose, it's up to you. You don't have to spend a lot of money or buy a bunch of specific coffee making gear to get a brew you'll love. Similarly, you don't have to settle just because someone else thinks your tastes or choices are too snobby. Do what you like, explore, experiment, and have fun.