Whole Beans vs Ground Coffee: Which is Best for Brewing
Do you love great coffee? Does the rich taste of freshly brewed coffee get you out of bed in the morning? Personally, I can’t start my day without at least two cups of home brewed goodness.
One of the first questions anyone asks after they fall in love with the dark goodness is whether to brew with whole beans or pre-ground coffee.
The Whole Beans vs Ground Coffee debate is widespread, but leads to a general consensus that, if you’re not crunched for time, whole beans are always better.
Why do freshly ground whole beans taste better, last longer and provide a better overall experience than pre-ground coffee?
Here is what science and the experts have to say.
Coffee Can Grow Stale
When it comes to the question of Whole Beans vs Ground Coffee, expiration dates go a long way in producing an answer. Even though its shiny hard surface doesn’t always look like it, coffee is a very porous and chemically sensitive material that can degrade in unsatisfactory conditions and expire.
Just like an old bag of chips, coffee beans will grow stale if you keep them in your pantry over a period of time. This staleness contributes to a change in and loss of taste and quality, and the unfortunate truth is that pre-ground coffee beans go stale faster than whole beans.
Three factors contribute to this unfortunate phenomenon: carbon dioxide depletion, moisture and oxidation.
Coffee bean oils are water soluble, which is good because that is the characteristic which allows us to enjoy the taste and aroma of coffee in a drinkable cup.
Unfortunately, this characteristic also means that humidity in the air can dilute the richness of your beans. Ground coffee beans have a greater surface area for this to happen, which makes them more susceptible to dilution than whole beans.
That delicious taste you have come to crave is formed by the complex chemical compounds that make up coffee beans. Some of these compounds are less stable than others, meaning they change more quickly.
When the compounds interact with oxygen, they release some of the taste and aroma we associate with good coffee.
Grinding your beans accelerates this process – great if you are brewing right away and not as great if you are saving it for later. When it comes to ground coffee and flavor, if you snooze, you lose.
Carbon Dioxide Depletion
Related to oxidation, over time coffee releases carbon dioxide, the main molecule that transfers the tasty coffee bean oil to your actual coffee.
Grinding the beans or improperly storing them speeds up this loss of carbon dioxide, which leads to loss of flavor.
Here is a YouTube video explaining the process described above:
Even though buying ground coffee speeds up the loss of flavor described, even whole beans aren’t entirely immune to degradation. So what should you do? Below are some steps every coffee lover should take to keep their coffee beans as fresh as possible.
- Keep your whole beans in the right place. As mentioned, air, moisture, heat and light are your coffee’s worst flavor-draining enemies. To keep your coffee’s deliciousness intact as long as possible, keep your beans in an airtight, opaque container and place the container in a dark, cool area that does not stray from room temperature.
The bags and boxes that coffee comes in are generally not good for long-term storage, so move your coffee to a more suitable container as soon as you buy it.
- Buy in small batches. Almost immediately after roasting, coffee begins to age and lose freshness. By purchasing your whole beans in smaller, freshly roasted batches, you can ensure that you are getting the best flavor out of what you buy. Try buying in one or two week supply sized batches for a good balance between convenience and flavor retention.
What about putting your coffee in the freezer? Most experts advise that you don’t.
Since moisture is one of coffee’s worst enemies, putting your coffee in a moist environment that encourages condensation will only quicken its demise.
If you are a daily coffee drinker, it is even worse because each time you move the coffee from the freezer to your counter and then back into the freezer, the humidity and temperature changes will cause droplets of water to form on and around your coffee, an obvious no-no.
Whole Beans Provide Control
Brewing delicious coffee has a lot to do with your ability to control the process.
Water temperature, style of brewing, type of coffee bean, and grind size are all factors that will create a different taste, texture and aroma.
Grind size is the one that places whole beans above pre-ground coffee in the Whole Beans vs Ground Coffee debate.
Grind size has an enormous impact on the flavor of your brew, and different brew methods require different optimal grind sizes.
When you buy pre-ground beans, you lose the ability to adjust the grind size to your brewing method.
Here is a list of the recommended grind sizes for each brew method:
Grinding your own coffee beans may seem like just another step keeping you from enjoying your morning coffee, but the ability to adjust your grind size can have a large positive impact on the taste and aroma of your brew.
Also, once you get the hang of it, it takes just one or two minutes for you to grind the amount you need. If you love coffee, grinding your own beans will become just another part of the amazing process of enjoying your brew.
Once you have decided that grinding your own beans is the way to go, the first question you must ask is: what type of grinder should I get? The type of grinder you choose can have a significant effect on your enjoyment of the grinding process.
A mistake beginners often make is choosing a cheap grinder that not only produces inconsistent grind sizes but is hard to clean afterwards. This can cause frustration and cost you unnecessary time and effort.
Burr vs Blade
A good burr grinder will produce the most even grind, while a good blade grinder will be less expensive but still get the job done. If you have some cash to spare, most coffee experts suggest that you go for a burr grinder.
These grinders will provide you with the most consistent grind size, which will lead to the best brewing conditions and most delicious coffee possible.
It is important for me to warn you that not all burr grinders are created equal. In fact, there are many grinders out there that call themselves burr grinders but are, in fact, not.
If you come across a burr grinder that is under $100, beware. It may not be the real thing. So what brands should you consider? Here is a YouTube video talking about three good burr grinder options:
If a burr grinder is above your budget right now or you would rather first dip your toe in self-grinding coffee beans before plunging right in, a good blade grinder may be the way to go.
When looking at any grinder, a few factors to consider are: longevity, consistency, and ease of cleaning.
Self-Grinding Prevents Contamination
As mentioned previously, coffee is a very porous and delicate substance that is easily impacted by its environment. In fact, commercially sold coffee must be very carefully packaged to prevent a variety of problems.
A small valve is created with each package which lets carbon dioxide out while keeping air and moisture out. This prevents the package from exploding from a buildup of carbon dioxide while still keeping the coffee as fresh as possible.
Imagine coming home with a beautiful batch of pre-ground coffee only to realize three days later when you are brewing it that the onions you cut for dinner last night has somehow been partially absorbed into your aromatic brew.
Or worse, storing your coffee in the refrigerator you notice that it has taken on the smells and flavor of the thirty or so different food items you stored with it.
Another benefit of purchasing and storing your coffee as whole beans compared to ground coffee is that it has less surface area available to contaminate by odors like onions, trash, tomatoes, garlic and other unwanted substances.
That way, your coffee stays smelling and tasting like coffee.
You Absorb the Whole Experience
If you truly love coffee, then you dream about it at night before you go to sleep. You wake up with it as the first thing on your mind. You spend time with it as it steams in your mug, just like you would spend time with a lover, before you slurp it down.
Buying ground coffee is like speed dating. You sit at the table for ten minutes at a time and then move on to the next. It is much less personal and rich of an experience than the long-time lover experience you get with whole beans.
By grinding your own beans, you get a much more intimate and complete experience of coffee brewing and drinking. You get to ask yourself, what mood am I feeling today? What flavor do I want to extract from these whole beans?
As mentioned previously, the size of your grinds and method of brewing make a huge difference in the flavor profile of your coffee. Starting from whole beans allows you to make those decisions every morning to match the day you are having or want to have.
It also requires you to really learn what you are doing, since making mistakes in the brewing process can have unwanted consequences for your brew.
Whole Beans vs Ground Coffee Comparison
Now that we’ve talked about all of the considerations that place whole beans above ground coffee. Let’s compare the two in a final summary of benefits and drawbacks.
Whole Beans for Better Coffee
While that is a lot of information to take in, the general consensus among all coffee experts is that whole beans are better than ground coffee in the whole bean vs ground coffee debate.
It takes just an extra minute or two to grind your own coffee, but the improvement in taste and quality of your coffee is well worth the time and effort.
So the next time you go to brew your own coffee, whether that be with a Chemex brewer, Café Solo brewer, French Press or otherwise, do it with your own freshly ground beans.
Comment below if you have any questions, and go on and take the leap from ground coffee to getting your own grinder!