The ChefSteps team -- like everyone else in Seattle -- is pretty obsessed with making perfectly brewed rich, smooth coffee. It’s the beverage that wakes us up each morning and keeps us going through the afternoon slump, after all. We want to get it just right! And we want to teach people to make great coffee at home, too, which is why we partnered with world-class coffee experts to develop classes on both espresso and pour-over methods.
But whether you’re into French press or stove-top-brewed espresso, the best mug of java always begins with high-quality beans. Here, some tips on picking a product that’s sure to set you up for success.
Always go for whole-bean coffee
If you want to make delicious coffee, you’re going to need to buy whole beans. No exceptions here, people. Pre-ground coffee tends to lose its aroma and character quickly, and can often dry out and become stale on the grocery-store shelf. Stale coffee before you even get started? It’s just not worth the risk.
Choose beans sealed in an airtight bag or container
There are good coffees that don't come packaged in airtight bags, but those that do will retain their flavor and aroma better because they won't oxidize or dry out on the shelf. If your favorite coffee roaster doesn't use airtight bags, check to see that the coffee was roasted within the last two weeks -- the more recent, the better.
Your best bet for fresh coffee is to buy beans roasted within the last week. And even when you’re dealing with an optimally packaged product (see tip #2), you never want to purchase anything that’s more than three weeks old.
If you don’t see a roast date on the package, ask. Any good barista, roaster, or salesperson knows that the roast date of the coffee matters for optimal flavor and freshness. If your source doesn’t know either, well, we suggest you put the coffee down and exit the shop as quickly as possible.This isn’t where you want to be buying your coffee.
Avoid oily beans
Notable oil on the surface of coffee beans signifies over-roasting. When coffee is roasted, carbon dioxide naturally pushes oil outward through the cell pores. Extremely hot or long roasts will disrupt the cell walls and decrease the viscosity of the oils contained within the beans, meaning more oil will leak out onto the surface of the beans. When coffee beans stay cooler, the cell walls more readily stay intact, and the oil is too viscous to escape. Over-roasted coffee will taste bland and burned, whereas coffee that's been properly roasted will have retained the oils that contribute to the taste and texture of great coffee. Oily beans will also make your grounds sticky, causing irregular brewing. But, remember: A coffee can be darkly roasted without being over-roasted, so if you like dark roasts, simply look for beans from a good roaster that are dry on the surface.
Of course, if you're buying coffee in an airtight bag and thus can't see the beans, just stick with a coffee roaster you trust or ask a salesperson if you can sneak a peek before you buy.
Avoid untraceable coffee, too
Curious consumers should always be able to determine where their coffees come from, and knowing the country of origin isn't nearly enough. To say a coffee is Brazilian is meaningless -- that country is two-thirds the size of Europe, and cultivates an enormous array of coffee.
Ideally, your source should be able to tell you who grew your coffee and where. Even if this information isn't particularly useful to you at this point in your coffee journey, feel free to ask the question. How the seller responds is a good indicator of whether he's worth his weight in beans.
Consider the roast
Dark-roasted coffee fell into favor in a time when really good raw product wasn't easy to come by. These days, however, specialty roasters can source fresh seeds picked from the coffee plant at just the right amount of ripeness to impart a sweet, wonderful flavor. Think of these carefully cultivated coffee beans like you would a beautiful piece of beef. You wouldn't cook a pricey steak until it's indistinguishable from a bit of cheap chuck, would you? No! You cook it lightly to create a nice brown crust, and never enough to damage its distinctive and delicious flavor.
So if you're buying really good coffee, consider trying a light or medium roast. The flavors won't hit you over the head like the "bold" qualities of dark roast, but you may well fall for the lightly caramelized, elegant notes of lighter roasts.
What are your favorite sources for great coffee? We want to hear about them in the comments.