It has become clear to me that the single biggest hurdle or restriction to improving the quality of coffee in the home is the actual coffee. I see this from my close friends who are seeking to improve the quality of the coffee they make in their homes, that accessibility or making the leap to access higher quality coffee is vague. Although, I have a geeky early post on buying quality coffee here, my hope is that I can break down those barriers and offer some clear options, to fit varying needs.
Where to Buy Good Coffee
If you're currently drinking Keurig, Foldger's, or the like, simply buying freshly roasted, whole-bean coffee, and grinding fresh, with a burr grinder will be a big step up. Try stores such as Sprouts or Whole Foods, they usually have freshly roasted bulk coffee for very reasonable prices. For many, this a great option to upgrading as it's as easy as going to the grocery store. For those lucky enough to be in certain markets, stores like these will sometimes offer really high quality specialty coffee, right on the shelves. I've seen pictures of people's local Whole Foods offering shelves chock full of high quality specialty roasters, making me very jealous.
If you're looking to get a little fancier yet, buying from local roasters or local retailers is another good option, just be sure to check the roast dates. If the coffee doesn't have a roast date but rather a "best before" or no date at all, I would look elsewhere. If you're looking to get started in espresso or really craft your manual or pourover brewing, finding a local cafe that has a coffee you like and can consistently get is a great way to go because you can directly taste how they think the coffee should taste as a reference or compass to your results at home.
If local options are slim or just not consistent, mail ordering your coffee is actually a lot of fun. I love being able to try coffees from roasters all over the country and am constantly searching for new roasters to try. You can start with roasters you know or look to start discovering by following along with my weekly #whatsCTpulling posts or even just searching others on instagram with hashtags like #homebarista or #specialtycoffee. Nearly all roasters will have a FAQ or information page to let you know their roasting and shipping schedule, so you can learn to time you orders so they land right when you need your next fix. I will often order multiple coffees from the same roaster to save on shipping, and then freeze the excess, which I'll cover in a minute.
Mail ordering coffee sounds a bit crazy at first, but it's really easy. Coffee companies seem to be inherently creative, so their websites are typically very attractive and easy to navigate. Just start browsing through the coffees with flavor descriptors that sound good to you and start trying them out. As you go along, you will begin to learn which origins and/or processing styles you prefer, and what roasters seem to produce coffees in line with your palette. Payment is usually through PayPal or secure site, and shipping is often times included over a certain amount, or if you follow roasters on social media, many will often run promotions for free shipping. Typically, coffee is shipped via USPS Priority Mail, getting it to your doorstep 2-3 days after roasting. Sometimes, it's still too fresh when you receive it!
So... Which Coffee Roasters Should I Order From?
There are an absolute ton of great roasters that have a constantly changing lineup of coffees from all over the world, many of which I've never had a bad coffee from. At risk of alienating some very deserving roasters, I'll point in the direction of a few of my very favorites:
- Mountain Air Roasting: I really love what these guys do, their selection of coffees is always changing and interesting, with a little something for everyone. I always receive good feedback from others that it's just great tasting coffee, and they do a really nice job of developing roasts while respecting the coffee's origins. Shipping is always free, and if you order 4 bags or more, you get a 30% discount, making their high quality coffee very reasonably priced. Bonus points to Mountain Air for having great bags that I use to portion out and freeze coffee in.
- Brandywine Coffee Roasters: Kind of a newcomer to me, but everything I've had from them has been very good, and you just have to love their packaging and promotion. Getting on their email list makes me question how they even make money since they're constantly running promotions with reasonably priced, high quality coffee. Their coffees tend to be roasted on the lighter side, with a ton of different offerings.
- I'm going to kind of cheat on this last one, because none of these are very creative, since they're all "bigger" players in the specialty coffee industry, but I've honestly not had any coffees I wasn't really happy with from the likes of: Intelligentsia, Verve, Heart, PT's, Bird Rock, or Counter Culture.
If timing the mail ordering is too much work or you just don't want to have to hassle with it, nearly all online roasters also offer subscription service, often at a slight discount. You can typically choose what type(s) of coffee you would like to receive and how frequently you receive it. This is probably the simplest way to good fresh coffee, consistently.
If you want the benefits of a subscription, but don't want to be locked into just one roaster, there are also some great curated subscription services. Mistobox is one of these services offering two price tiers of coffee from over 30 different roasters. You can choose the style(s) of coffee you typically like or have them surprise you, and dictate frequency as well. Prices start around $19 shipment, with lower pricing for 6 or 12 shipments. Shipping is always free, and they're constantly rotating coffees and adding great new roasters.
Crema.co is a similar spin, but with a more control over exactly which coffees you will receive. I've never used them, but as far as I can tell, they basically act as an intermediary "dealer" of sorts. You select the coffees you're interested in trying for the foreseeable future, how often you would like to receive them, and then they start shipping them, running through your list. Pricing varies based on the coffee, but this seems like an awesome way to pick and choose the best coffees from the best roasters without needing to bulk order from any one of them in particular because the shipping is always free. They also have a nice list of rotating roasters and a variety of coffees to choose from by type, roast level, or flavor.
Coffee for Espresso Newbies
My recommendations for those new to espresso preparation are a little different. When starting off making espresso, I always recommend you find a consistent, espresso friendly coffee and stick with it for the first 1-3 months. I make this recommendation so as you're learning your equipment, it's one less variable. As you become familiar with the coffee, it also allows you to directly note the impact of any tweaks or changes you may make.
If you have a high quality, consistent, roaster local to you, where you like their espresso, that's typically the best route. In addition to the benefits just listed, you can also ask the roaster or that cafe's baristas how they are pulling the coffee and what they have noticed, as well as have a direct comparison for your results at home.
If you don't have a local option that fits this criteria, I recommend either bulk ordering a 5 pound bag or multiple pounds from a reputable roaster. One big enough that the specific coffee you choose will be consistent from bag to bag, which can be important in the case of blends. Big name roasters tend to have a more friendly to work with espresso blend that will be more forgiving to technique and equipment shortcomings and just pull good shots. They do this for consistency sake within their cafes and wholesale accounts, and so they have something reliable to serve as the backbone of their espresso based drinks. Again, it helps if you've had a great shot you liked from one of the roasters to know if the coffee is even right for you to begin with, because not all coffee are.
So... Which Roasters Should I Try for Espresso?
I don't want to leave any deserving roasters out but here's a list of some I've enjoyed that came to mind. I purposely omitted some great offerings from the obvious big boy players like Stumptown's Hair Bender, Intelligentsia's Black Cat, and Blue Bottle's Hayes Valley, in favor of some that might provide a little chance to mix it up.
- Redbird Espresso from Redbird Coffee is about as inexpensive as it gets and used to be the go to started blend in the home-barista world. Admittedly, they did change ownership, and I haven't ordered from them since, but when a 5 pound bag comes in at $11/pound, you can't go too wrong. When I had it in the past, the coffee was well developed, and a friendly, classic, rich espresso.
- Black Mountain from Mountain Air Roasting: It's not secret that I love Mountain Air's coffees, and Black Mountain is just a damn good, crowd pleasing coffee as espresso or brewed. A steal at $11/pound or less, if you add a couple small 250 gram bags to take advantage of the 4 bag discount. Black Mountain will be lighter roasted than Redbird, but very respectful of the coffee's origin and well balanced.
- Phantom Limb or Blue Orchid Blend from Huckleberry Roasters: Phantom Limb was a really nice fruit bomb of an espresso blend from a roaster that I've liked everything I've tried from them. I love their thorough descriptions of each coffee other their website, and pricing is reasonable, with free shipping over $45.
- Hologram from Counter Culture Coffee: Counter Culture is admittedly not a small roaster, but they are less common, at least in the Western States. I mainly just had to include them because I just worked through my first bag of Hologram and was blown away by how it was just really good coffee. Counter Culture offers a few other blends to check out as well, so a subscription from them would also be well served.
Honorary shout outs to Southpaw from PT's Coffee, Monkey Bite from Bird Rock, StreetLevel from Verve, Epic Espresso from 49th Parallel, Stereo from Heart, and so many other killer coffees. This list could really go on an on, so please, by all means, follow along with #whatsCTpulling to stay up to date on what I'm finding from various coffees in the home.
So how do you store good coffee when you order 5 pounds?
You freeze it. That's right, freezing coffee is not bad... when done properly. This blog post gets into the nitty-gritty, but basically it comes down to this:
- Portion the coffee into 3-4 day's usage. Coffee will stale a little faster after frozen, so I try and only freeze what I'll use in 2-4 days upon taking it out of the freezer.
- Get all of the air out of the storage vessel. Whether this be freezer ziplocks (which I would recommend to double bag), canning jars, or vacuum sealing, just make sure to remove as much air from the coffee as possible.
- Place the coffee in the coldest, deepest part of the freezer. Freezing doesn't completely stop the coffee from staling, so you will want to use it within a couple of months.
- When removing the coffee from the freezer do not open the coffee until it has a chance to come up to room temperature. This is the most important part to freezing coffee, so the coffee does not get condensation on it and rot or get moldy.
When coffee is not being frozen:
- Keep it stored in an air tight container or bag, trying to remove as much of the oxygen (if using a bag) as possible.
- Try and keep the coffee away from heat and/or direct sunlight.
- Generally speaking coffee will remain "good" up to 2-3 weeks after roast date, depending on the coffee, the roast level, and how you're brewing it.
- Most coffees are generally best used between 5 and 10 or 12 days after roasting, but some lighter roasts in particular may not even open up until after day 10.
With high quality coffee more accessible and readily available than ever before, I hope I've shown there's an option for everyone. If you have any questions, comments, or would like me to expand on anything further, please leave a comment or reach out via the Contact Page.