What Coffee to Buy at a Grocery Store

This young man was found after staring at the coffee shelves in the Aisle 5 for too long.  People felt for him and left various items in his cart.  Photo by  Mohammad Sanaei  on  Unsplash

This young man was found after staring at the coffee shelves in the Aisle 5 for too long.
People felt for him and left various items in his cart.
Photo by Mohammad Sanaei on Unsplash

This is perhaps one of the most common questions I receive from folks.

They are the folks who are just beginning to step up their coffee game.
Maybe they experienced their first cup of solid tasting black coffee.
Maybe a trip to a coffee shop has blown their little coffee mind.
Maybe they just stumbled on this blog and don’t even know how they got here….

Either way, welcome to the good life my friends.

I still buy some of my coffee from the grocery store because, while I love trying online subscriptions or scooping up a bag off the retail shelf from my local specialty coffee shop or roaster, it’s called conveniency.

Also, at the rate my husband and I go through coffee with our Barista Breville Express (our espresso machine) we need a study supply of the good stuff at a friendlier price point.

Anyhow, I see it all the time. People take a couple steps back, one hand propping up their chin as they gape at the coffee shelves in front of them, “Where to begin?”

Coffees in grocery stores are wildly misleading because that is what they are paid to do.

Thanks to clever and sleek marketing, it’s no wonder we were all brought up with crappy expectations of coffee. Words like “gourmet” and “french roast” slickly wrap themselves around cheap gold foil and cursive font and call it job well done. Or today’s buyer may look for hype words like “organic” and see “whole bean” and incorrectly equate that to “fresh.”

Deep breaths, my friend. Because the good news is that there is good coffee available to you in the grocery store. And here is how to find it.

  1. Look for a roast date
    (Coffee Nomad Note: The peak time to brew coffee varies on the coffee but is roughly anywhere from two weeks to a month out from the roast date.)

    You wouldn’t buy milk without an expiration date. Why would you do the same with coffee? This is important because people forget coffee is a plant, a living thing that also has its own . life span. Before coffee is roasted, it is actually green (and a bag of “green coffee” really smells like grass). But once that seed of the coffee cherry is carefully caramelized thanks to the Maillard Reaction or roasting process, another process beings; oxidation. This means these freshly roasted beans begin getting exposed to oxygen which causes a new chemical reaction that - will demand a separate blog post - but ultimately causes the coffee to stale. This process especially occurs immediately after grinding (which is why all of us coffee snobs grind our coffee right before brewing).

  2. A Roast Date tells you so much more about a coffee than just it’s freshness; It tells you that the supplier actually gives a damn. They are being transparent on their product’s life’s span which is much more than most coffee suppliers in the grocery store can say, let alone can tell you where the coffee is actually from.

  3. Whole Bean Coffee Does Not Mean It’s Fresh.
    ”But I bought it whole bean!”
    ”But I bought it organic!”
    ”But I bought it Fair Trade! (another blog post)
    ”But I bought it in a BROWN PAPER FREAKING BAG.”

    I hear all of the above all the time. But it’s not your fault, really. It’s how many of us grew up thinking; if the label says “fresh whole bean coffee” than it must be true.

    Whole bean means they didn’t grind it yet, which is only one tiny, tiny step towards putting forth a great coffee product. Often, I find the whole bean coffees in places like Whole Foods or Central Market in those giant canister cylinders all sparkling alongside next to each other (oh, the options!) But take a really close look my friend….

    4. If it’s oily and very dark than it’s spoiled

    Yes, coffee can go bad. And no, your coffee shouldn’t shine like Danny DeVito’s forehead as he plans his next scheme in any show ever.

    That oil is just proof of that oxidation process has not only begun, but it has been occurring for a while now. That, or the beans are over-roasted.
    Think about it - all of that oil that has seeped out of your bean is not what you want to brew up.

Okay, you’ve got the DON’Ts, so here are some DO’s:

  • Do ask your local roaster if they are available at your local grocery store.

  • Do try one of the “giant” specialty coffee roasting companies that have been able to scale themselves to be on the shelves in chain grocery stories such as Counter Culture (my go-to), Intelligentsia , Stumptown, or even Blue Bottle in some Targets (may need confirmation on this one) while maintaining quality throughout the process.

Lastly, do EXPERIMENT with your coffee. With a little patience and a lot of curiosity you are going to find the right coffee for you.

More coffee q’s?
Email me at thecoffeenomad@gmail.com with the subject line HAAAALP.

Mugs Up,
The Coffee Nomad