Why Pre-Ground Coffee Will Never Give You the Cup You Deserve
Take a stroll down the coffee aisle and you’ll find them. Those coffee giants of yesteryear, represented by the large plastic tubs bathed in bold colors of blue or red; or the smaller tin cans crowded on the shelf, calling for your attention with their loud packaging and false claims of quality coffee.
You may remember these same tubs and tins sitting on the kitchen counter of your childhood, or peeking out from behind a dark cabinet door next to a stack of cottony white basket filters. You may still see them today hanging out in community centers and office break rooms everywhere.
These tubs and tins are not just containers jam packed with pre-ground coffee. They are symbols of America’s coffee journey. They’re markers along the well-worn road of America’s coffee pursuit. And, they’re symbols of where the road has taken us.
One sip of coffee made from the grounds in these tubs swiftly arouses feelings of mediocrity. Any anticipation of quality coffee felt when the seal on the tub is broken disappears with that first drink. Instead of a full-bodied, rich cup of joy coffee could be, the brewed cup from that tub today is the same brewed cup delivered decade after decade since World War II: flat on flavor and completely devoid of freshness.
How Does Ground Coffee Fall Flat?
The coffee drinker’s biggest enemy to enjoying coffee in its freshest form is oxidation. The process threatens the integrity of coffee every step of the way from harvest, to roast, to grind, to brew. The more contact oxygen has with the bean, the more time oxygen molecules have to interact with different chemical compounds in the bean, changing them, and thus negatively affecting the flavor.
Oxidation can occur if beans are left too long to dry when processed. It can occur if roasted beans aren’t quickly packaged, preferably with a vacuum seal. But it has its biggest effect when coffee beans are ground.
Ground coffee means the increased surface area on which oxygen can interact. Grinding coffee beans up exposes all the flavorful chemical compounds within the beans that make it so enjoyable to drink.
The finer the grind, the more quickly coffee oxidizes.
Vacuum sealing does help. But, seeing as coffee goes stale within minutes of grind due to oxidation, most ground coffee is halfway stale before it’s even packaged. So, when you crack the seal on that tub of pre-ground coffee, you’re getting a product that’s sub-par. You’d never buy a loaf of stale bread from the grocer, right?
Why Pre-Ground Coffee Is As American As Apple Pie
Turns out, America’s coffee drinking history is rooted in the whole bean. Before World War I, before coffee became the drink of choice among soldiers, it was roasted over the stove on doorsteps and windowsills, and sold by coffee carts that peddled whole beans up and down the avenue. After World War II, coffee became a mass beverage and a deeply ingrained part of our culture — only rivaled by soda.
As the popularity of coffee grew, small roasters became big roasters, big roasters became regional roasters, and regional roasters became national roasters all competing for the American consumer’s dollar.
As the price of green (unroasted) coffee fluctuated greatly and was often in crisis, the three major coffee roasters looked for ways to keep costs down and still get it delivered somewhat freshly to its consumers.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the first vacuum packaging was used on coffee. Since then vacuum sealing increasingly became the way coffee was delivered to the rest of America. The full-blown acceptance of ground coffee over the whole bean, however, came with the onslaught of World War II.
During this time coffee rationing became necessary, and from it came the practice of watering down coffee and reusing grounds. After the war was over, the thought of enjoying whole bean coffee became an antiquated, unknown notion. And Americans were officially used to weak, pre-ground, flavorless joe.
And to some extent, despite a persistent specialty coffee movement: the qualities of the whole bean continue to be lost in the shuffle. Much of the ground gained by enthusiastic promoters of high quality, whole bean coffee have been thwarted by the single serve pod revolution that has overcome the coffee-drinking nation, one household at a time.
Now brewing up a cup is as easy as throwing a pod in a special machine, pushing down the lever, and pushing go. Never mind how long the coffee pod’s been sitting on your shelf, the grocery store shelf, and the warehouse shelf before that. If most of us have never experienced whole bean coffee if we’re just moving from grounds in the tub to grounds in the pod, how do we know what we’re missing?
What we’re missing is the explosion of flavor and depth we could enjoy by keeping our coffee whole bean. That’s the very first step to take. There are other factors that go into quality coffee, of course. But, by keeping it in whole bean form up until right before you brew, will ensure the best flavor compounds are locked tightly within the bean.
Not All Beans Are Created Equal
The other reason coffee is pre-ground is so that major roasters can hide the fact they are using low-quality beans. There are two major classes of coffee: Robusta and Arabica. Robusta beans are low quality and low on flavor, but very inexpensive. Arabica beans are higher quality, better in flavor, and more expensive. Most pre-ground tub coffee is largely Robusta known for lackluster flavor and sour attributes.
Coffee bags that say 100% Arabica mean no Robusta is finding its way in. If you can find bags that are more specific about the geographic origins of the bean, then you’re doing even better in your quest to find high-quality coffee.
The darker the roast, the more likely the coffee roaster you’re buying from is trying to hide imperfections in a lower quality bean. So, look for medium roast or lighter just to be on the safe side.
If you’re just drinking coffee for the caffeine, then save your dough and go for the tub or the tin. Your wallet will thank you. But, if you want to experience the difference in freshness, grab a bag of high quality, lightly roasted, whole bean coffee (and a grinder). You won’t be disappointed.