Intro to Specialty Coffee: How to Buy

Counter Culture at Murky
A number of the people who read this blog aren’t into coffee the way a number of other people who read this blog are, so we thought we’d write a little bit on what makes specialty coffee special, and we thought we’d start with finding and buying your coffee at home.

It is easy to find a long, involved definition of specialty coffee, and I invite you to search sites like and the Specialty Coffee Association of America to read them. But the short answer is that specialty coffee means paying close attention to the production process to ensure quality at every step. This means growing quality beans, paying the farmers (and by extension the pickers) a fair price, roasting the coffee close to where it will be consumed, and drinking it before it goes bad, which is usually 10 days or so after roasting.

There are many systems in place to try to alert you to the presence of quality beans that you may have heard of: Organic, Fair Trade, Shade Grown, and Rainforest Alliance Certified, among others. However, in general, these certifications don’t really have much correlation to what your coffee actually tastes like. Anne and I learned this first hand when we sampled (gagged over?) a fair trade organic coffee from the local supermarket as part of her class last week.

With very few exceptions, it is all but impossible to find good coffee in the supermarket. Supermarket coffees often sit for weeks, even months, on the shelf. The coffee that we bought last week, for example, had an expiration date for next April. That’s significantly more than 10 days. If you have absolutely no other option, Whole Foods has a large selection of quality coffee, just make sure to buy the most recent coffee they have, and buy the pre-packaged (and house) coffee if possible, because air and light will harm the coffee in the open bins when it sits out in barrels like it does.

The best way to ensure quality coffee, however, is to find a source you trust. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of roasters across the country that pay special attention to their coffee and take pride in what they do. All you need to do is ask them about where they source their coffee, if they have a relationship with their source, and if they know when the coffee was roasted. A good, though fallible, test is to look at the coffee bags. Do they have a one-way valve on them? A one-way valve is sometimes hard to see but is a small circle with a hole in it. It lets the coffee give off gas, but doesn’t let outside air in. Is there a roast date? A roast date older than 10 days ago should be shunned, a roast date newer than 2 days should sit for a day or two more yet (a good rule of thumb is 3-4 days off roast is prime-coffee-brew-time).

After coffee has been ground, it has a shelf-life of only a few minutes before all the natural oils in the bean evaporate away. Because of this, you should always buy your coffee as whole bean and grind it fresh at home. Coffee purists will tell you to buy a burr grinder rather than a blade grinder because the heat of the blade will further roast the beans and burn them, but Anne and I use a blade grinder at home, and honestly, unless your palette is so good that you can tell the difference, a blade grinder will be fine for now. It’s worth it to have fresh ground coffee.

One last thing: don’t refrigerate or freeze your beans. Refrigerated coffee will pick up the flavors of everything else in your refrigerator, including the leftovers from last week, and there’s nothing like your morning coffee tasting like spoiled meatloaf. Coffee should not be frozen for three reasons: 1. Freezers, like refrigerators, don’t smell good. 2. When frozen coffee becomes unfrozen, it is coated in moisture, which can ruin coffee. 3. While freezing will keep coffee from going rancid, it will not preserve the coffee aroma or taste, which will evaporate over time regardless of temperature.

Next up: how to brew.


~ by neoney on October 24, 2007.

One Response to “Intro to Specialty Coffee: How to Buy”

  1. interesting! got so much to learn about the good stuff.


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