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To Grind or Not To Grind

To Grind or Not To Grind

The Myth

There’s a popular myth out there that if you ask a barista to grind your beans for you, you’ll get the stink eye and lose no less than 30 “cool points” in their eyes--maybe even be banished from that coffee shop for life.  It’s an unfortunate myth that even some misguided baristas have bought into.

That myth was heavy on my mind during a conversation we had last week while setting up our new website: do we include a drop-box that allows people to get pre-ground coffee?

There was grumbling, hipster-eye-rolling, and gnashing of teeth, but at the end of the day we all agreed on one thing: being a coffee community means meeting people where they’re at and helping them grow in their coffee appreciation along with those of us who have accomplished greater heights of coffee nerdom.  That means being happy for newcomers.  Not making hurdles for them.  We welcome newcomers who haven’t (yet) sunk $90 into a conical burr grinder  so they can still get a quality a experience making coffee at home.

So why all the eye-rolling about grinding coffee?  It all stems back to one question:  is coffee best made when it’s freshly ground, right before you apply hot water?  The answer to that question is simple: 100% yes.  

So is the eye-rolling justified?  ...Kind of, but not really.  

In the best of worlds, you want to grind your beans immediately before you put water on them, but even more important than this is to have as uniform a grind as possible (for more on the science of why this surface area exposure damages the oils/solubles, please see this’s good to know, but a very different article).  As stated earlier, though, many people just don’t have that luxury of a professional-grade Mahlkonig grinder at home, so we did our own research and invited coffee newbies in on the taste-testing process (we let people sign up for coffee classes to learn how different grinders affect the bean and cup, and learn why fresh grounds are best).     

The Experiment 

We conducted an experiment where we ground the same coffee (same bean and roast batch) and split it up into three categories:

  1. Ground it using a blade grinder (don’t worry, we were very aware that this tool is better used as a spice grinder than anything to do with coffee… but we had to try it.  Meet people where they’re at, right?)
  2. Ground using a Capresso conical burr grinder
  3. Kept some as whole bean to grind fresh each week.

Then we tried these different methods of coffee procurment right away, a week later, and two weeks later.  Each time we used a V-60 brew method (it was a few years ago… pre-wrecking ball Miley Cyrus).  I bet, given those variables, you can guess how the results stacked up.  

  1. Because of the horrible inconsistency of surface area that the grinder produces, it was a mix of over-extracted, unpleasant acidity and underextracted meh-flavors.  This was only more pronounced from week to week.
  2. The preground burr coffee was a noticeably noticeably different from the fresh-ground coffee (even to the uninitiated, newbie-palette) but the flavors were there.  If flavors can translate to sound, it was like someone turned down the higher frequencies of acidity by about a quarter of full potential.  The lower, velvety base-notes were dampened by about an eighth.  But the flavors were certainly still there.
  3. The fresh ground coffee had the full throttle aromatics, the speakers were turned up to eleven, and the whole spectrum of flavors were substantially fresher because those oils had been better procured.  No surprise there.  

Ok... What Does This Mean?

Having done the experiment, we had to decide how to bring the science of our findings and our mission together.  We toyed with the idea of just making the “grind” button on the website simply redirect customers to GoogleMaps for directions to the nearest coffee-shop (but we figured they wouldn’t appreciate someone coming and saying, “Yeah, so I don’t like your coffee, but can you grind Coffea’s stuff for me… Mama likes it fresh!”), and ultimately this was our conclusion:

We want our customers to include people who are just cracking into the specialty coffee world.  We absolutely want to help people understand why it’s worth investing in a grinder--at some point-- especially if you’re buying a $25, $30, or even $45 bags of coffee.  Having said that, I don’t think it’s going to help spread the coffee love if we just stone-wall someone from enjoying quality coffee at home until they make that grinder-buy… even if the coffee doesn’t have all it’s sound-board notches turned up.

We understand the science, we understand the way that some shops might look at this as a faux paux, but we also understand that people are all at different points in their journey of coffee.  

We’re more concerned about helping people grow in their appreciation.