Whether you're brewing on a French press or a Chemex, a tricked-out espresso machine or a workaday Bunn Automatic, the best coffee always starts with the freshest, highest-quality beans. Unfortunately, good beans can be hard to find—most supermarket varieties are stale before they reach the shelves, and even gourmet shops often bungle their inventories. That said, there are some keepers out there, and we're here to help you find them.
Go Whole Bean
One of the surest ways to up your coffee game at home is to buy whole beans and grind them yourself just before brewing. Because ground coffee is fragile, it quickly oxidizes and rapidly loses flavor, making preground packaged coffee taste like cardboard compared to the fresh stuff.
Like getting house-baked bread from a bakery, purchasing beans directly from a high-quality roaster goes a long way toward guaranteeing freshness. And since beans reach their peak within about 10 days of roasting, buying small quantities (a pound or less) at regular intervals means you'll always have fresh ones on hand.
Most roasters will ship directly to your door—some of our favorites are Blue Bottle, Sight Glass, Four Barrel and Intelligentsia—while websites like Craft Coffee ship beans from multiple small-batch roasters, including Portland's Coava, New York's Gimme! and Asheville's Mountain Air.
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When it comes to retail, our go-to spots for buying beans are shops with high turnover, like specialty coffee bars and small gourmet grocers. If it's unclear whether or not a store's coffee inventory is fresh, check the labels—many high-end roasters like Stumptown and Counter Culture stamp a roasted-on date right onto the bag.
Whatever you do, avoid playing the scoop-your-own-from-a-burlap-sack game. The coffee may look and smell tantalizing in the store, but those open-air burlap bins are some of the worst vessels for storing roasted coffee.
Hold 'Em Tight
Speaking of storage, now that you've found fresh beans and brought them home, you'll want to protect them from air, direct sunlight and temperature fluctuations.
If the coffee comes in a resealable bag—not the common fold-down-and-clasp kind, but one with an actual zip seal and one-way valve—then it's okay to store it in the bag itself. Otherwise, pour the beans into an airtight canister with a lid. It looks pretty, and it keeps them fresh. (We're particularly fond of this one.) Then stow it in a cool, dark spot in the cabinet—not in the fridge, the freezer or your grinder's hopper (that reservoir above the grinding gears)—until you're ready to brew.