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Why we don’t sell pre-ground coffee

When I launched Cape Coffee Beans, there were a few important decisions that I had to make about what type of coffee we would and would not sell. Not selling capsules was an easy one (perhaps a topic for a future post) but I did mull over the question of whether we would sell pre-ground or not, ultimately deciding not to.

Coffee beans & ground coffee

Recently I’ve had a few customers ask about the availability of pre-ground coffee, admittedly a question that comes up from time to time, so I thought it might be helpful to put the rationale for not making this option available in writing (other than the fact that Cape Coffee Grounds doesn’t sound nearly as good as Cape Coffee Beans).

Freshness

First and foremost, we don’t sell pre-ground coffee at Cape Coffee Beans because of freshness. Once coffee has been ground and has contact with the air, it goes stale within a matter of days. While you shouldn’t believe anyone who gives you too specific of a prediction (it definitely varies by coffee), whole bean coffee can last several weeks. I’ve rarely been disappointed with a coffee that was up to 4 weeks old, and I’ve sometimes been pleasantly surprised by a coffee that was as old as 8 weeks from roast.

If you don’t believe me about this, visit someone with a grinder (if you don’t yet have one) and perform an experiment: grind a coffee and let it sit for an hour; once the time has elapsed, freshly grind some more of the same coffee; finally, compare the smell of the hour-old and the freshly ground coffee. You’d have to be seriously olfactorily-impaired not to notice a difference. Now, just think about what that means for the coffee that was ground a week ago.

If we were to sell pre-ground coffee, it would be next to impossible to have it consumed at its best once the time from roaster to us, and from us to our customers was taken into consideration, let alone the time from when the bag was first opened to the time it was finished.

The ability to adjust your grind

Another important reason that we don’t believe in pre-ground coffee is that it removes the possibility of adjusting your grind setting. Coffee beans come in all kinds of different sizes, densities and degrees of solubility. For those (and other) reasons, you may find one coffee’s optimal grind setting for a given brew method may vary from the optimal grind setting for another coffee. For espresso, this is always true, but it’s true more often than you might think for manual brewing applications as well. If you’re buying pre-ground, you’ve committed to a setting, and you can’t even test for tastier results!

It’s worth noting that there’s an element of personal preference here as well. Your version of the optimal French Press extraction may be slightly different from what the roaster, or whoever else did the grinding, enjoys the most. You forego a lot of control over your coffee if you let someone else pick the grind setting for you.

Incidentally, if you have a grinder and you don’t ever adjust your grind setting, it’s time to start experimenting!

A grinder is a small but very worthwhile investment

“But a coffee grinder is expensive!” I hear some of you protesting. No, it isn’t. At the time of writing this post, our most affordable coffee grinder is the Hario Mini Mill which comes in at R499. Inflation may eventually raise this price point, but when factoring in freshness and adjustability considerations mentioned above, I can’t help but firmly hold onto my very biased opinion that anything near this is a small sum to pay for better tasting coffee.

The technology for keeping pre-ground fresh isn’t available in SA yet

Some of the more internet-inclined readers of this may object to some of the assertions here in this post based on things they’ve read about pre-ground coffee being sold in larger coffee markets. It is true that some companies, particularly in the US, have started using some very fancy technology to grind coffee in oxygen-poor environments and hermetically seal just the right portion sizes into pre-packaged doses. While this doesn’t address the issue of grind adjustment, it does obviate the freshness concerns as the coffee only has contact with the air once, just before the individual package is opened for brewing.

If this technology were readily available here in South Africa, it might change the considerations slightly, but as of right now, none of the good coffee roasters we’re aware of have access to or are using this technology. I personally think that’s absolutely fine, for reasons I’ll elaborate on below.

It shouldn’t be all about convenience

While some may consider this the least important point, I actually think it may be one of the most important. So many things in life these days maximise for convenience. I personally don’t want coffee to be one of them. There is more to the enjoyment of coffee than just the drinking thereof. There is a craft to making coffee, one that I think everyone should partake in, but at the very least I think everyone should appreciate. Whether you’re making the coffee yourself, or someone is making it for you, I think there’s value in that coffee being made by hand, from grind to brew. Call me a romantic, an idealist or just plain biased, but I’d love for coffee to be one of the things in our lives that we protect from the seductive powers of modern-day convenience.

NB: Even in an environment where the focus on convenience is unavoidable, like a large office, there are still plenty of solutions that don't necessitate buying coffee pre-ground.

Operational considerations

In the spirit of full transparency, I do need to acknowledge that there is also an operational advantage to avoiding pre-ground. We have a constantly changing selection of dozens of different types of beans, and getting them into the hands of our customers quickly and efficiently while ensuring maximum freshness is already quite a challenge. Throw three or four different grind settings into the mix and the logistical complexity would reach levels that may tempt me with early retirement. It’s a challenge we’d tackle if it weren’t for the reasons mentioned above, but given all these considerations together, it’s a bit of complexity I’m happy to avoid!

A word on our roasters and pre-ground

It is worth acknowledging, as a final thought, that all of our roasters make pre-ground coffee available in some, way, shape or form. This piece is in no way a criticism of that decision, and I do feel compelled to address the apparent contradiction.

I think the reality is that all of our roasters would prefer to only sell whole bean coffee for the reasons mentioned above, as well as a number of logistical and practical considerations. Nevertheless, when you’re dealing with walk-in trade, a big proportion of people just expect pre-ground, and I think it’s understandable that our roasters would not want to turn away that business. Being based on the internet, Cape Coffee Beans has the luxury of being able to find and focus on the people who are passionate enough about coffee to buy a burr grinder.

Equally, when you’re buying pre-ground direct from a roaster, they will often grind it for you just before handing it over. This difference of a couple of days between grind and brew is significant, and it’s not one that we can surmount when delivering by courier.

Back to the grind

So there you have it. These are the reasons that you can’t currently (or for the foreseeable future) buy pre-ground coffee from Cape Coffee Beans. If you have any thoughts or reactions to this rationale, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please use the comment section below.

- Phaedon | Founder of Cape Coffee Beans

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