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The Emperor's New Beans: The Buzz on Specialty Coffee

How to choose the best coffee beans, and how to avoid stale coffee and overblown coffee marketing. Support your local coffee roaster community.

How do you choose the best coffee?

In 2017, specialty coffee will make up over 50% of the $48 billion dollar coffee market in the United States, and ~30% of coffee-drinking adults will make their daily cup a specialty roast. Coffee is considered “specialty” when it exhibits a flavor profile from its geographical origin, is freshly roasted, and properly brewed.

Demand for quality coffee is on the rise: these days, even grocery store shelves contain some hidden gems! But beware, any diamond in the rough is, by definition, surrounded by a lot of "rough". Other than being familiar with a local roaster or cafe, how can you know you're buying the best, freshest beans?

When you're buying coffee in the wild, here are a few things to keep in mind so you bring home the very best beans, every time:

  • Say No to Bulk: If you’re scooping beans out of a barrel or pulling the handle of a dispenser bin, you’re never certain exactly how old those beans are... and chances are, no one else knows, either. 
  • Expiration Dates are Bogus: The date you want is the Roast Date. Roasters that don’t provide one don’t respect you, or the coffee. Expiration Dates are for coffees that plan to sit for months on the shelf. Don’t buy it.
  • Drink Fresh: When you find a roast date, honor it. Coffee within two weeks of roasting is at the peak of its flavor. As coffee ages, its flavor profile will begin to decline and you won't taste all those flavors that make specialty roasts so appealing (and worth the price tag). Don't be afraid to ask the barista when the coffee was roasted-- and if the answer isn't satisfactory, don't be afraid to move on.
  • The More Info the Better... Unless it’s All Logo: If the bag is all branding and no info, move on: great beans have a story, and great roasters want to tell it. Slick packaging doesn't always mean the best cup OR the best company.
  • Don’t Rely on Certifications: Certifications like organic or free trade don’t directly inform the quality of beans, and may or may not coincide with the best or freshest coffee. Read more about our take on coffee certifications.
  • Ditch the Dusty Bag: Obviously. If it’s been sitting that long, you don’t want it. 
  • Pre-Ground is Passe: Pre-ground coffee allowed to sit for any length of time becomes flavorless, regardless of packaging. Always opt for whole bean (and if you need a grinder, we got em!)

Follow our cheat sheet whenever you buy coffee, and soon you'll be sipping pretty. And isn't that what it's all about?

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