Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Jan 25, 2005 04:07 PM

Coffee - Ground or Whole Bean?

  • a

Many folks assume that whole bean, as opposed to ground, is the best way to buy coffee. My experience, however, is actually the opposite. I find that one of the most important factors in brewing a consistently tasty cup of coffee is getting the right grind. And I've always heard that, unless one uses a so-called "burr grinder," doing it yourself will result in an uneven grind (and thus taste).

I understand there's a freshness trade-off. I find, however, that the grind affects taste even more than freshness (up to a point, at least). Besides, if you buy your coffee in small enough batches, the difference should be pretty negligible. That's my thinking, anyway. What do you all think?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I think you should buy a burr grinder.

    Seriously, though: You still need to experiment with grind to suit your brewing method. Getting it pre-ground means you're just getting someone's best guess.

    I find I have to adjust a bit depending on the type of roast I'm using as well.

    3 Replies
    1. re: mrbarolo

      Absolutely - which is why I always demand a specific grind, depending on the method of brewing. But the alternative (shaking your automated grinder in hopes that you'll get an even and correct grind) seems an even bigger crap shoot to me.

      Also, I personally would not vary the grind depending on the roast. Doesn't that risk over or under-extraction of the coffee? Or am I overanalyzing this waaaaaay too much?

      1. re: a&w

        I don't have an answer to the question of over or under-extraction of the coffee by varying the grind according to the roast, but I did want to second your original opinion.

        For years, I've bought whole beans and ground them at home as popular wisdom dictates, but have had very mixed results. More often than not, the grind I produce is not fine enough for the flavor I prefer. Last year, I finally gave up the pretense.

        If it's good for Illy, it's good enough for me.

        I also drink enough coffee daily that it never goes stale.

        1. re: Melissa999

          I've ground my coffee for years and have always liked the flavor but I just got a burr-type. I have to say the improvement in taste is remarkable. I set it for slightly above medium and almost always use Kenya AA beans.

    2. Unless you can drink up all your grinds within 3 days, you are better off grinding yourself. Of course, I go the extra step and roast the beans myself so...and I do it caveman style, ie, on a castiron pan.

      3 Replies
      1. re: mod'ern

        Fascinating. Just out of curiosity, where did you learn the technique for pan roasting?

        1. re: a&w

          Not to horn in, but we had an Ethiopean babysitter for about a year. (Her mother also owned an Ethiopean restaurant in DC I believe) and she brought in green beans and showed me how they do it. Essentially, she threw green beans in a very hot, dry cast iron pan and shook it while they gradually darkened. I can't remember how she described the brewing process back home (it did not involve a drip machine and a cone filter, that much I recall). The results were pretty strong, but not unpleasant.

          She also descbibed an alternative serving suggestion which, if I recall correctly, involved something like butter in the coffee. She did not subscribe to this practice herself and we did not try it. I suppose at that point you sort of cross the line from beverage to soup, requiring a major mental paradigm shift.

          1. re: a&w

            >>Just out of curiosity, where did you learn the technique for pan roasting

            My friend turned me onto roasting green beans last Summer. He showed me on a propane heater and a enamel coated aluminum pot he'd set up out in the yard. We took turn slowly stirring the pot, imitating the roasting machines we'd seen, and listening for the 1st, and then the 2nd cracks. I didn't realize it then but he was almost as much a complete novice as I. The whole process took 45 minutes. I was not thrilled.

            So I did some research and figured out that it really shouldn't take that long (about 10-15 minutes). Many web sites sell high end home roasting machines. On the low end, they have popcorn makers, which is nothing more than a pot with a paddle attached.

            Well, I decided that I didn't need another kitchen gadget taking up space. The problem we had was that the thin enamel pot wasn't retaining any heat. That's why I now use a castiron pan.

            Btw, it is not easy to get a perfectly consistent roast using this method. I alternatedly stir with a trusty wooden paddle and "sautee" the pan. I only put enough beans to cover the pan. That's enough to cover me for about 3 or 4 days.

        2. I'm not saying I'm an expert, but I did a great deal of research on coffee when I was creating mystery shopper reports for coffee shops and studying up to open my own coffee shop (which I never did). Here is what I know:

          Un-roasted coffee beans can last for years without any adverse effect. Once the beans are roasted they will begin to loose flavor after 2 weeks. After they are ground flavor begins to deteriorate after just 24 hours. Brewed coffee looses flavor after about 30 minutes.

          The absolute BEST thing you can do to greatly improve your home brewed coffee is to buy a burr grinder and grind your coffee yourself. Sorry, but it's true.

          Is it ironic that I don't drink coffee?


          4 Replies
          1. re: ChefElias

            Since you know a little about roasting and grinding coffee, I have a question for you or anyone else who knows. Many years ago I had a customer who was from Jamaica and he went home for a visit. I told him how much I love Blue Mountain coffee and he said his friend had a plantation, he would bring me some when he returned. Imagine my surprise when he walked in with a SHOPPING BAG full of beans. The thing is, they were even better than I remembered, because he said he had roasted them himself in his oven, and they were a very light tan color. Now, my personal preference is, I can't drink Starbucks, Maxwell House, etc, way too strong, the most intense I like is 8 O'Clock coffee when I can't get the good stuff. These Jamaican beans were unbelievable. Never had anything else like them. I would do it myself if I could, but I'm not going to buy a barrel (or however they come) at a time. So is there a name for extremely lightly roasted beans? Or are they only homemade? I can't understand the infatuation with burnt tasting coffee. And while we're at it, when you talk about burrs, I have a coffee grinder I got for free from Gevalia at least 20 years ago (Krups) are there more modern ones that have better grinding mechanisms? I think grind-wise, mine is fine. But maybe there's something better out there.

            1. re: coll

              If you order your coffee right from a roaster you can usually specify how darkly you want your coffee roasted. You can thank Starbucks for destroying Americas coffee pallet. They started roasting their coffee beans to a blackened state and (I believe), through mostly marketing, convinced Americans that this was what coffee was supposed to taste like. If you visit the site linked below you can order coffee for about $8 a pound from many countries and specify your roast. The order of darkness:

              Light (sometimes called American Roast)
              Full (or City Roast)
              Vienna (much darker than Full)
              French, Italian, Espresso (these all compete for the title of “darkest roast”)

              Regarding your grinder: If it works, why upgrade? The only new feature out there might be more adjustability in the fineness of the grind. As long as your grinder is grinding evenly than there is nothing better out there.

              I hope this helps.



              1. re: ChefElias

                Yes it certainly does!

            2. re: ChefElias

              Right, but my question is, if you don't have a burr grinder, is it better to have someone else grind it for you. I really think it is, especially if you buy your coffee in small enough quantities.

            3. I grind the whole beans at home. I've been keeping my beans in the freezer as they seem to stay fresher that way (foil-lined wrappers and back into the freezer before the rest of the package has time to warm up). At room temperature, no matter how tightly I seal it, the coffee goes flat quickly. The ground coffee definitely does this faster than the whole beans.

              7 Replies
              1. re: Lee

                For the best extraction, however, you should allow the beans to come to room temperature before grinding. Grinding and then making coffee with frozen beans does not allow the essential oils to be extracted easily.


                1. re: ChefElias

                  Good idea, but in the morning, I don't know if I could get my brain past "the caffeine fix stumble" long enough to wait for the beans to warm up (LOL).

                2. re: Lee

                  I've heard you shouldn't freeze the beans at all. It removes the oils that are essential to the taste.

                  1. re: Spike

                    Hmmm... any articles with more info?

                    1. re: Lee

                      I looked at a bunch of articles. This one seemed to be the most comprehensive and make the most sense.


                    2. re: Spike

                      I too have heard you should not freeze coffee beans, but for a different reason. Most "frost-free" freezers have a heat cycle where they warm up periodically - long enough to keep frost from building up, but not enough to really thaw your food. I've heard that this cycling is what can kill the taste of the beans.

                      I keep my beans in the back of the fridge in a container with a rubber gasket.

                      That said I agree with the original poster 100% when he or she suggests that getting a proper grind from a reputable coffee shop is better than grinding your own if you don't have a good grinder.

                      Maybe part of the reason there's dissent on this has to do with how people are brewing their coffee. But I use a stovetop espresso maker (yes, I know it only makes really strong coffee, not true espresso) and a consistent grind is crucial to a good cup. I don't think it matters so much if you're using a drip or filter system.

                      If I get freshly roasted coffee ground for me in a shop to the right grind, it's still tasting better two weeks later than the stuff I grind fresh at home in my non-burr grinder.

                      1. re: Spike

                        I think this is a fallacy. Where do the oils go? When you freeze meat, does it lose its oil content? They tell you to freeze nuts to keep the oils from going rancid - do the nuts lose their oils?

                        I freeze my ground coffee beans and use them within a week. I buy them somewhere that doesn't have them sitting around longer than a week.

                        The secret to good coffee for me was using a lot less ground coffee than sellers suggest. For years I made my coffee way too strong - I think they recommend 2 Tbsp for 6 ounces of water...I cut back to almost half that and am much happier with the taste of the coffee.

                    3. I agree fully.... I have been the press, grinder, burr grinder etc. etc. etc. routes. I now stick with ground- low maintenance and still great dark roast Arabica coffee rocks! Boom!!