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Coffee goes through several phases of production before reaching the consumer. Whole bean coffee is best defined as coffee that has gone through every stage of production except grinding. Stages of production include picking, sorting, deseeding, fermenting, drying, and roasting.
Generally, coffee originates from the seeds found in the tropical coffee plant’s berries. The first stage of coffee production involves sorting the berries to eliminate unripe or undersized berries. Next, machines deseed the berries, ferment the seeds, and rinse the seeds thoroughly. The seeds, or coffee beans, are then set out to dry before entering the roasting phase. Once the coffee beans have been roasted, they are packaged with an airtight seal and shipped off to the consumer as whole bean coffee.
In rarer instances, coffee beans are sold before roasting. This product, however, is called raw coffee rather than whole bean coffee. In these instances, the coffee beans would be roasted on-site at a café or in the home.
Many manufacturers take the additional step of grinding the coffee before it is packaged and sent off to the consumer. For the sake of freshness and fuller flavor, it is argued that it is best to only grind coffee as it is used. Coffee begins to lose flavor as it comes into contact with environmental factors such as air and moisture. Since ground coffee is more susceptible than whole bean versions, some consumers now prefer to buy their coffee whole.
Despite the growing interest in freshly ground coffee, many grocery stores still stock more ground coffee than whole bean varieties. Grocery stores carrying this coffee typically have a large coffee grinder available for costumer use. In addition, various home appliance manufacturers now produce home coffee grinders suited for a wide range of budgets, from the simple to the extravagant.
Grinding whole bean coffee is not as simple as throwing the beans in the grinder and letting them grind for a while. Different brewing methods require a different grind of coffee. For instance, coffee intended for use in an espresso maker should be ground as finely as possible, whereas coffee intended for a French press requires a coarser ground.
To preserve freshness, whole bean coffee should be kept in an environment that is dark, dry, cool, and as airtight as possible. Ground coffee should be used either immediately after grinding or within the next few days. Like whole bean coffee, ground coffee requires airtight and dry conditions to ensure freshness.
I've heard of people using hot air popcorn poppers to roast whole bean coffee at home, but apparently it's not a good idea. The difference between a dark roast and burned coffee beans can be measured in seconds, and a hot air popper isn't calibrated to work like that. I'm willing to pay extra for roasted whole coffee beans from a local microroaster, but I'm not willing to risk roasting my own gourmet beans at home.
A friend of mine who operated his own coffee bean microroasting company for years told me that fresh roasted whole beans should be treated like fresh baked bread. Whole coffee beans start to lose their flavor immediately after packaging, so he suggested keeping them for no more than two or three weeks. He said only order as much as you believe you can brew in that time period.
I thought he was being a little overzealous, since I have commercial ground coffee in my house that is several months old and it still tastes fine to me. He said that gourmet coffee enthusiasts would cringe if they heard me say that. The best coffee beans need to be roasted
, ground and brewed before air and moisture have a chance to affect the flavor. That's why vacuum packing is so popular with commercial ground coffees. Whole bean coffee is the choice for discerning coffee lovers, much like wine lovers seek out vintage or rare bottles.