Coffee drinkers are often faced with a choice: Do you buy whole bean or ground? Choosing the bag of ground coffee or a Keurig K-Cup keeps things simple ― you don’t have to grind it, and because the bag and the cup are sealed, the coffee probably stays fresh, no? These are two of the easiest possible ways to get java in your mug in the morning.
But we’re here to tell you that once you start buying whole bean coffee, it’s an absolute game-changer. And we promise it’s not that much more time-consuming or difficult than brewing a K-Cup or scooping coffee grounds into a machine. The rewards for buying whole bean coffee are plenty, as it’ll open up new worlds of flavor and aromas.
But don’t just take our word for it! We spoke to numerous coffee professionals who back us up. They’ll convince you that whole bean coffee is way better than ground coffee.
A quick coffee primer before our journey
All beans are legumes ― except for coffee beans. They’re not beans at all!
“What you’re actually brewing is the seed of the coffee fruit,” said Scott Byington, co-founder of Queen City Collective Coffee. Take a look:
“Like all fruit, it’s seasonal and has a shelf life,” Byington added. “In order to have the best tasting coffee possible, it’s picked at its peak ripeness, just like a ripe banana or avocado.”
After it’s been harvested, washed and distributed, coffee companies roast the green beans into the finished product you know and love.
Just remember: Coffee is perishable, so it’s important to treat it as such! “People treat it like a bean, like it’s a dried thing you can have in your cupboard forever,” said Eileen Rinaldi, founder and CEO of Ritual Coffee Roasters. “That’s not true.”
Why freshly roasted whole bean coffee is better than ground coffee
Flavor and aroma are two of the major components of a cup of joe. And if you buy ground coffee, you’re missing out on both.
Summer Zhang, a roaster and quality control expert at Onyx Coffee Lab, breaks it down scientifically.
“Freshly grinding whole bean coffee is better than drinking ground because the aromatic molecules will volatilize after grinding, and the exposed surface area of coffee increases significantly, resulting in faster oxidation,” Zhang said. “When it begins to oxidize, it starts to lose flavors.” The oxidation process happens quickly. “The coffee starts to oxidize whenever it comes in contact with air, there is not a certain amount of time when it starts being noticeable ― it’s different depending on the coffee,” she said.
The people who roast your coffee work hard to get coffee’s delicious flavor notes into your cup, but Byington said you’d never know it if you drink pre-ground coffee. “It’ll still have caffeine and taste like coffee, but you won’t get the layered sweetness and full body you might on a freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee,” Byington said.
If you’ve ever ground your own coffee at home, you know it makes your kitchen smell fantastic. When you outsource the grinding to a coffee roaster, you’re letting them take all the delicious aromas for themselves.
“The grinding process starts to release a lot of those aromatics,” Byington said. “A lot of taste comes from smell, so if you release the aromatics before you try the coffee, the taste is going to be more diminished, dull and flat.”
And if you’re thinking that flavors and aromas won’t be lost because ground coffee is sealed in a bag or a K-Cup, think again. “Even the most perfectly nitrogen-flushed Keurig K-Cups (editor’s note: nitrogen flushing is a popular sealing method) still have exposure to oxygen, and that’s the biggest enemy to retaining flavor and retaining aromatics,” Byington said. “All you’re doing is taking risks with coffee that aren’t necessary, especially if your main objective is to have a tasty cup.”
Whole bean coffee from specialty brands can often be more expensive than ground coffee, but it’s worth a second look if you’re someone who cares about environmental and labor issues of your purchases, as these roasters often form relationships with the farmers who grow and harvest the coffee. Sahra Nguyen is the founder and CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply, a specialty coffee company that has direct trade relationships with Vietnamese coffee producers.
“There’s a cost for cheap product,” Nguyen told HuffPost. “We help Vietnamese farmers exit a vicious cycle of corporate, commercial coffee production and get into specialty coffee production so they can earn better wages, support their land for agricultural sustainability and make sure it’s farmable for future generations.”
Despite receiving feedback that “Vietnamese coffee shouldn’t be so expensive,” Nguyen’s prices for her unique Robusta/Arabica blends are in line with other specialty coffee brands. “Do the math and work backwards,” she said. “If you’re paying $6 a bag, know that the store, distributor and company all have to make a profit. At the end of the day, what’s going into the grower’s pocket?”
Follow these simple steps to start brewing whole bean coffee
Maybe you’re not sold on buying whole bean coffee because your go-to coffee order has 14 pumps of sugar-free hazelnut and a gallon of half-and-half; you can barely taste the coffee anyway, right?
“If you have a drink recipe you love, swap your baseline pre-ground coffee with fresh ground single-origin coffee and see if you can tell the difference!” Nguyen said. “Even though a lot of the flavors will be masked (naturally), you’ll get slightly more nuance through a freshly ground specialty coffee than a flat pre-ground coffee.” There’s zero shame in liking what you like, but what you like could get even tastier.
Here’s all you need to properly try whole bean coffee. First: find a whole bean coffee with flavor notes that sound good to you. The flavor diversity of specialty coffee is off the charts, with java that tastes like chocolate and berries, angel food cake or papaya. In order to ensure a fresh cup, whole bean coffee should ideally be roasted no more than 7 to 10 days prior, though Byington said anything roasted within the previous month is OK.
Then, buy a grinder. Rinaldi likes the Baratza Encore, a burr grinder that she noted has a higher price point than some, but it’ll work for a lifetime. Nguyen said it’s also fine to go cheap.
And don’t worry. Grinding beans in the morning is not a time-consuming process. “Get a small, affordable single-cup grinder, which start at $16, and then you can graduate to a burr grinder,” Nguyen said. “If coffee’s a big part of your lifestyle and you want to improve your experience, invest in a $20 grinder. It’s not going to extend the time you spend on your coffee by very much ― maybe 30 seconds. You’re going to improve your life with one $20 purchase!”
A bag of whole bean coffee and a grinder can truly change your at-home experience. “During the pandemic, so many people have invested in home brewing coffee setups,” Rinaldi said. “One of my friends bought a grinder for the first time to make coffee at home and told me, ‘I had no idea how much flavor I was missing out on by not having a grinder! Coffee is a whole new experience.’”