For me, one of the signs of coffee obsession is that on most any trip to the grocery store I’m compelled to take a stroll down the coffee aisle… just keeping tabs, I guess. This trip I noticed the following:

  • Dunkin Donuts has moved in. Big time. This wasn’t a surprise… in my neck of the woods (New England) they’re saturating the airwaves with a whole new line of commercials. And when I say saturating, I mean there are currently significantly more DD ads on the television than political ads. Yeah… that many.
  • Emeril Lagasse has his new line-up of bright blue coffees out there, too, so thoroughly private-labeled it’s impossible to discern who actually roasts it. (Timothy’s makes Emeril’s K-Cups… I don’t know if they do the whole bean, too.)

But what really struck me is this: even though every single one of the coffees that I looked at — Dunkin Donuts, Emerils, Peet’s, Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Melitta, Folger’s, Equal Exchange and many, many more — was packaged in what appeared to be laminated, heat-sealed bags with one-way valves, virtually all of them were offered in pre-ground coffee, only.

That’s a damn shame.

There’s a whole host of complex chemical reactions that happen when coffee is roasted. The clock starts ticking… some volatile aromas waft away within hours, flavors fade in days. The coffee is for all intents and purposes rusting. Those fancy laminated bags do a pretty darn good job of slowing this process by taking oxygen out of the mix… but grinding those coffee beans exposes vastly more — several orders of magnitude more — of the coffee’s surface area to the ravages of this process of oxidation. Ground coffee immediately begins to stale.

Supermarkets, of course, have limited shelf-space. There’s a tremendous bit of calculus (and often as not, some exchange of legal tender) to determine what brands get put where, in what varieties, and quantities. Multiple styles of the same product — say, whole bean and ground — are frowned on. Discouraged, even.

If a roaster is given four slots on the grocery shelf, and if that roaster offers more than four varieties of coffee, well then… he’s in a fix. He can offer two coffee varieties in both whole-bean and ground, or he can offer four varieties, all of them pre-ground. Which do you s’pose he’ll choose? Mmmhmm. Why? Because 99% of folks buying that coffee — even the premium brands — just don’t realize what they’re missing.

Just say no to stale, pre-ground coffee.

There’s a world of difference between coffee you buy pre-ground, and coffee you grind yourself. Grinding your own coffee — fresh, just before brewing — is the single, most dramatic thing you can do to improve your coffee. Honestly. It’s like the difference between corn-on-the-cob that was picked fresh just a few minutes ago, and stewed, creamed corn; a dry-aged Kansas City rib-eye and a freezer-burned hamburger patty, or filet of sole and a fish stick. The thing is, pound for pound, whole bean coffee doesn’t cost you any more than the stuff that’s already ground, so why would you buy your coffee any other way?

Just say no. Don’t buy it. Find your grocery manager, and insist they carry whole bean coffee. Or find a local roaster who treats their coffee with the respect it deserves.

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