How to make coffee that will impress the hell out of your guests, part 1 of 3: Good beans

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by Jay Gabler | March 18, 2009

Several years ago, I realized that given the amount of coffee I drink, I should think about taking my coffee-making a little more seriously. After a little reading and a lot of experimenting, I learned how to make coffee that generally impresses people. I’m no genius in the kitchen—anyone who’s tried my cooking can attest to that—but I have learned a few simple things about coffee that make a really significant difference in the quality of the finished product. In the interest of sharing the wealth, I’m putting my coffee-making tips in three successive blog entries. Today: part one, finding good beans.

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One of the easiest things the casual coffee-maker can do to improve the quality of his or her coffee is to start with freshly roasted beans. Freshly roasted coffee has a much richer flavor than stale coffee. Coffee starts to go stale the second it’s roasted, so you don’t want to waste any time. You can gauge the freshness of your beans by the amount of foaming they do when the hot water hits them—freshly roasted and ground coffee foams and froths copiously, while stale coffee just sits there and absorbs the water.

Your best bet is to buy unroasted beans and roast them yourself, which is a surprisingly easy process that can be done with a hot-air popcorn popper—but the next best thing is to buy beans that are roasted on the spot, as they are at multiple coffee shops in the Twin Cities. My favorite is the original Dunn Bros., at Grand and Snelling, where the roasters are expert and they sell enough coffee to make it feasible to roast large batches every single day. Smaller operations, like the Bean Factory on Randolph, move less product, so the beans you buy may not have been roasted as recently. (The Bean Factory, though, gets huge credit for offering individually-dripped cups of coffee, so you can try any of their beans—including their spendy Kona and Blue Mountain varieties—right on the spot.)

Don’t get me started on Starbucks’s claims of freshness. Their coffee—like that of most national chains—is not roasted in Minnesota, so it’s been shipped here from Seattle or God knows where, arriving (at best) days or (more likely) weeks after it’s been roasted. Their belly-button bags (more on these below) are a welcome innovation, but still, coffee roasted two weeks ago and stored in a belly-button bag is significantly less fresh than coffee roasted yesterday. It’s telling that most locations no longer post the date their Pike Place Blend was roasted—they label it as “freshly scooped on” the date the bag was opened. (If it’s not convenient for you to buy from a coffee shop that roasts its own beans, try buying from a shop like The Beat that buys its beans from a local roaster—in their case, Bull Run Roasting.)

What’s a belly-button bag? It’s one of those coffee bags with the little button in it that allows gasses to escape without allowing air to be admitted to the bag. The development of belly-button bags was an important innovation in coffee storage, because if you seal freshly roasted coffee in any airtight container without a belly button and keep it there for any length of time, the gas expelled by the beans as they stale may eventually cause the container to pop itself open. That’s right…any coffee you get from any mass-produced container without a belly button was stale before it even made it to the container. So all your friends who are used to drinking coffee out of cans and vacuum packs are used to drinking stale coffee. Serve them freshly roasted coffee, and they’ll think you have some kind of mysterious gift.

Those are the two most important things to bear in mind when buying coffee beans: buy them freshly roasted, and don’t grind them until you make the coffee. Grinding coffee beans exposes more of the beans’ surface area—which is precisely the idea, but it accelerates the staling process precipitously. If your beans were roasted two days ago but ground yesterday, sorry—they’re stale. Once you get your beans home, store them in an opaque sealed container at room temperature. Storing them in the freezer or fridge does slow down the staling process, but leads to temperature chaos when you go to brew the coffee. (Not to mention that given all the crazy stuff in most people’s fridges, putting your delicious coffee beans in there is just opening the door to funky flavors.)

You’re probably expecting me to weigh in with some opinions on coffee beans’ sources (Tanzania? Colombia? Sumatra?) and roasts (light? medium? dark?), but if you’re at the point where it really matters where your beans are from or the extent to which they’re roasted, you’ve been spending the last five minutes reading things you already know and you ought to move on to a source more expert than me. The pretty pictures on the Starbucks bags convince many customers that they are enjoying delightful floral notes from their Breakfast Blend even when they prepare it in such a manner that anything would taste like mud. But preparation…that’s the next installment!


Photo by Refracted Moments (Creative Commons).

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