You’ve probably heard this saying a million times over: “whole beans are better than pre-ground coffee”. Everywhere you go, everyone tells you to buy whole beans and get a proper grinder. It seems to be gospel among every coffee lover. Is it true? My answer:
YES! Whole beans are always better than pre-ground coffee.
“But why?” I hear you scream. And I applaud you for asking that. Especially when you’re starting out on your coffee journey, it’s good to be inquisitive. Don’t take stuff said at face value until you truly know the reason behind it. Let’s take a quick look (and a deeper look) into the reason why whole beans are better than pre-ground coffee.
At a Glance: The Quick Answer
If you’re here seeking a simple, quick, no-fuss answer, here it is:
Whole beans are better because they stay fresh for longer, and hence you get the opportunity to taste the full flavours of the beans when you brew your coffee. Pre-ground coffee is usually tasteless and flat.
In short, whole beans always taste way better! The full flavour is locked in the bean until you’re ready to grind and brew it. The flavour in pre-ground coffee has long since been released and lost, which is why it tastes thin and watery.
If you’re satisfied with the simple version of the answer, feel free to head off and get back to brewing your coffee. But, if you want to know a wee bit more about the cool sciencey behind-the-scenes process that takes place, read on.
An Explanation: The “Sciencey” Answer
So why do whole beans stay fresh for longer? It’s a little something called oxidation.
Collins Dictionary: Oxidation is a process in which a chemical substance changes because of the addition of oxygen.
Oxygen is actually a corrosive gas. Pretty funny how we’re breathing it every second, eh? To put it in simple terms, oxygen molecules attack any surface it comes in contact with. It’s what causes metal to rust. If mere oxygen can break down metal, what do you think it’s going to do to sensitive coffee beans? Coffee isn’t spared.
A single coffee bean contains thousands of tiny chemical substances: proteins, carbs, sugars and oils that makes coffee taste so good. When the bean is exposed to oxygen, oxygen molecules bond with the delicate aroma and flavour molecules. Then, oxygen slowly peels them away, causing the taste to deteriorate.
Whole coffee beans can stay fresh longer, because whole beans oxidize slower than pre-ground coffee. For one, the outer skin (or “pericarp” for my fellow coffee geeks out there) protects oxygen from reaching the precious flavours inside the bean.
Once you grind your beans, you have broken them up into thousands of tiny pieces. There is a much larger total exposed surface area, which oxygen can now freely attack. The taste is thus brutally and rapidly stripped away. That is the reason why pre-ground packaged coffee on supermarket shelves are usually already stale when you buy them.
Now, having mentioned this, don’t be fooled – whole beans themselves won’t last forever. Always check the roast date on a bag of beans before you buy it. If, for whatever reason, the roaster doesn’t print the roast date, it would probably be wise to avoid it. When it comes to coffee beans, the roast date really does take precedence over the expiry date. And if you are wondering about how long whole beans will last, it is usually good for up to 2 weeks after the roast date. That’s if you store it the correct way. You have to mitigate oxidation and any other reactions that might cause the beans to lose flavour. More on this in the conclusion section below.
To recap the sciencey part of it, it goes something like this:
- Oxygen: MUAHAHAHA you foolish coffee, you have broken yourselves up into millions of small pieces I can easily destroy!
- Oxygen: Ah, darn, your shields are up. Imma slowly poke at it. Could you, um, maybe open up…pretty please?
As a Result: The Taste
Whole coffee beans are packed to the brim with flavour and punch. Depending on the origin of the beans and the roast profile, it can taste of citrus, caramel, dark chocolate, cinnamon, cream and so on.
Right from the moment you lift your cup, try to indulge all your senses, especially that of smell and taste. Don’t gulp it all down in 3 seconds flat! Fresh coffee will have great aroma, body and finish. A 3-in-1 package that works together as one to give you the whole deal.
In simple terms, the aroma is the smell; the body is the main mouthfeel of the coffee; and the finish is the aftertaste that lingers in your mouth.
Unfortunately, you won’t be getting any of this in pre-ground coffee. You do have quite a choice, including but not limited to: watery, bland, thin, flat, ashy, bitter and yuck. The caffeine content will stay there, but that’s the only redeeming factor besides the cheaper price of pre-ground coffee.
A little tip: after you’ve brewed your coffee, don’t let it sit in your cup for too long. The same thing will happen (that pesky oxidation again) – the taste and smell chemicals in your brewed coffee will degrade from exposure to oxygen. It’ll turn bitter.
Whole beans versus pre-ground coffee. If it’s your intent to brew better coffee, and if you’re looking to really enjoy the taste of good coffee, there’s no debate at all. Good coffee is rich, fragrant and delicious. But, if you just want the caffeine hit and don’t really care too much about how it tastes, then yeah. Knock yourself out with pre-ground coffee.
Remember, even whole coffee beans can easily go stale if you mistreat it. Knowing how to properly store your coffee beans will go a long way in preserving its freshness. I’ve gathered a list of some of the most helpful tips and tricks in storing your coffee beans. It’s a compilation of what I’ve learnt over the years working in many different cafes, and I’m certain it’ll be of great use to you.