Into The Breach: Preground Supermarket Offerings

So many stale coffees.

So many stale coffees.

I remember when I started blogging, the idea was to be very Irish consumer-centric, to see what was available locally, and to judge it in that context. On a monthly basis, however, I buy no coffee in Ireland, not a single bag. I have Square Mile and Hasbean monthly subscriptions, and I tend to top those up with a few more bags of beans over the course of the month. Sometimes these come from the UK, sometimes from Scandanavia, Canada or the US. It’s not cheap. Our intermittant group-buys on do help with combined shipping costs, but nonethless, I shudder to think how much I’ve spent on coffee (and shipping) in the last year.

Something has been resonating in my mind since the Brewmaster course early this year. It was that, the Gold Cup standard isn’t about coffee quality per se, but about brew quality. The point being you can have the dirtiest, defect ridden coffee, but if you brew it to the standard it can still be Gold Cup. That may sound extreme, but it made me want to revisit readily available, preground, consumer coffee, available locally, and brew it to Gold Cup standard. I decided to approach this with a completely open mind.

Robert's Costa Rican.

Robert's Costa Rican.

So I popped round to my local Superquinn to see what was on offer. I purposely tried to avoid anything that I thought I would definitely hate, anything marked extra bold, or dark, or anything particularly high on that somewhat arbitrary and apparently ubiquotous “strength” number scale. Of course by coffee strength, they mean how dark it is roasted, and I guess how heavy the roast notes are in the cup. Coffee strength in reality is entirely dependent on the brewing process, on the ratio of coffee to water, and on the amount extracted. Anyway, I left Superquinn €30 lighter.

First up was Robert Roberts Costa Rica, which is sourced from the Tarrazu region, and is Rainforest Alliance Certified. At least I knew no frogs would be harmed. The back of the bag proclaims that the beans are slowly roasted to unlock the delicate aromas and flavours. The bag smelled really caramel/toffee sweet on the outside. I was positively optimistic. Opening the bag, those sweet sugars were joined by some earthy and woody notes. The bag states the grind is suitable for all types of coffee makers. To my experience the coarseness looks like a French Press grind. I would also say that the grind looked very even.

It wouldn't stand up on its own. Hence my hand.

It wouldn't stand up on its own. Hence my hand.

I brewed as follows (for all coffees, adjusting brew time if my TDS reading was off). I boiled my kettle and preheated a small Bodum Colombia French Press. Using a thermocouple, I waited for the brew water to reach 94C. I dumped the preheat water, added 20g of coffee to the press, and then added 300ml water. I replaced the press lid, and depressed the plunger slightly to submerge all the grinds. At 4 minutes I plunged, then passed the coffee through a prewashed melitta filter. It’s a bit of a contrived brewing method, but the double walled Bodum provides better brew temp stability, while the paper eliminates non-dissolved solids which would interfere with my TDS meter (and also provides a nice clean cup).

I found the mouthfeel on the Costa Rican quite pleasing, and some of those caramel notes did come through. Roast notes were present but minor, and some brighter, zippy notes also came through. It wasn’t particularly earthy or dirty at all, but there was a kind of pine wood note that came through quite strong. Not my favourite kind of flavour in coffee, but not offensive. All in all, I enjoyed my cup of Costa Rica.

Synaesthesia says more purple for this one. Blue bag confusing.

Synaesthesia says more purple for this one. Blue bag confusing.

Next up was Cafe Direct’s Yirgacheffe. On the shelf it looked the most apealing of the group to me. I’m quite fond of  Yirgacheffe as a coffee (both washed and natural) growing region. At home I realised it was the bag whose best before date would lapse the soonest (a mere month away). This meant the coffee was probably close to or more than a year. Nontheless I was somewhat releaved to get some of those familiar Yirg aromas on opening the bag: grapefruit, jasmine tea, floral notes. Again, the grind was marketed at cafetiere (french press) and filter, but to me looked more the former, and again, appeared very even. In the cup there was an upfront citrus, hints of floral notes, and a pretty light, typical Yirg mouthfeel. It felt a bit dead in the cup, I could tell there was more in there, but it seemed a little flat and tired. It wasn’t terrible, and I would drink it, but I was left wondering how good it could have been.

Sticking with Africa, next up was Bewley’s Kenya, from the Nyeri region, promising ripe berries and citrus fruits. This one was mercifully far away from its roast date, though still I suspect a couple of month’s old. The berries and the citrus were defintely in the cup. As a Kenyan, it wasn’t a big bold blackcurrant, like a Gethumbwini, rather that kind of Kenyan/Yirg hybrid that is a little more nuanced, more grapefruit, more blackberry. I’ve had quite a few Kenyans this year, and it seems to have been a really good year for Kenyan crops, at least in terms of the quality I’ve seen. While the Bewley’s one is very palatable, it didn’t compare in terms of explicit fruit notes to any of the Hasbean or Square Mile Kenyans I’d had this year. It was a Kenyan, with the volume turned down a bit.

A lot of marketing ideas went into this bag.

A lot of marketing ideas went into this bag.

Java Republic’s Sumatra Blue, a blend containing 40% Brazilian Bourbon, 40% Sumatra Lingtong, and 20% Costa Rica Tarrazu, was next up. This bag had a roast date, and even time, which is nice, it was still a couple of month’s old, which is not great, but kudos for putting the date on there. The bag also contained a really hefty amount of pseudo-technical marketing nonsense, like their 21 minute slow roast, and gimmicks like the Great Taste Award badge. This was ground to a french press specific grind (not omni-grind), and was evidenced by slightly less resistance on the plunge. Most people who know me well, probably know I’m not a huge fan of Asian origin coffees as a generality. I do in fact know people in the speciality coffee world who use Lingtong as a dirty word. This was kinda woody, like the Robt Roberts Tarazzu, it’s sweetness diminished by some lingering roast notes, that finished a little bitter. Overall it’s pretty balanced, but of all the coffees to this point it was the one that was most starting to taste like a generic coffee, as if the individual flavours were blended or roasted out (this was a 4 on the roast scale – the darkest I bought).

Purple is correct.

Purple is correct.

The Tanzania Kilimanjaro from Cafe Direct kind of reminded me of a mediocre Kenyan. The blackcurrant was pretty tame, and the promised vanilla overtones I’d find closer to a wood polish, and there’s a real roast finish. The aftertaste was bitter. There was a nice balance of acidity, but the aftertaste makes this a bit unpleasant. Had high hopes for this one.

Lastly Bewley’s Guatemala, promising a unique taste with a spicy twist. This was probably the one I had most difficulty with. The cup is dominated by a kind of green, uncooked bramley apple acidity, and a kind of buttery mouthfeel. For me this became quite cloying very quickly. Added to that, there was a lingering note that was distinctly vegetal. Synaestehisa, the phenomenon of associating perceptions from one of the senses with those obtained from another sense, ie associating a colour with a particular taste really applies with this coffee for me. This coffee just screams “green”.

Green is correct, unfortunately.

Green is correct, unfortunately.

Some good experiences and some not so good experiences, but if there’s an overall theme to emerge from all this, it is that with precise brewing you can get tasty cups of coffee, that can reflect a terroir, from something at which many coffee snobs, myself included, would upturn their nose. I don’t think it’s any great news to people that preground coffee loses its vibrancy, becomes flatter, staler than it’s freshly ground equivalent. You could tell that in a number of cases here. I think with the a lot of care you can make a pretty decent cup of coffee from some preground coffee. When I show the same amount of care with more expensive speciality/whole bean/fresh coffee I routinely make better, more interesting cups. However, when I become casual, take less care with my dose, grind, water temperature, brew time, I’m usually rewarded with an average to pretty poor cup, often worse than the carefully brewed preground stuff.

Good quality, freshly roasted coffee is a crutch in a way. Without deviating from whatever brewing technique you use, you can produce better tasting coffee, typically by spending more, buying fresher, buying from good roasters. It’s a bit like the Irish Government during the Celtic Tiger era: if there was a problem, the solution was to throw money at it until it went away.  I don’t think most of us are doing coffee at any level justice. It perhaps exaggerates the deficiencies of preground, yet still leaves us occassionaly dissapointed by our higher grade choices. The platitude goes: if you want to produce good coffee at home, the first thing you need is a decent burr grinder. I’m starting to think that the first things should be a thermometer, scales, and a TDS meter.

I’ll leave you with a question:

Excellently brewed, preground, middle of the road quality coffee OR poorly brewed, fresh, top quality coffee?



9 thoughts on “Into The Breach: Preground Supermarket Offerings

  1. Great post — Since my espresso setup is currently in storage I have been “roughing it” with a $200 burr grinder (Baratza Virtuoso) and an Abid Clever dripper.

    I have to say that I’m shocked by the particle distribution of the Virtuoso. I have resorted to sifting the grinds through a mesh strainer. I’m left with a nice even French Press grind in the strainer and a heavy layer of powder in the waste bin. My digital scale tells me I’m losing 40% of the coffee in the sifting process. Wow.

    My point is, you might be on to something that a burr grinder is not in any way a panacea for the home coffee brewer. The preground coffee, typically ground on huge industrial roller grinders, has a more even particle size and less fines than the average home burr grinder produces.

  2. You’re right about the roller grinders. The consumer end is really espresso driven. Would I be willing to lose freshness to gain better particle distribution? No.

    Try a finer mesh maybe?

  3. At least the consumer grade coffee marketing strategy on your side of the ocean looks cool… Ours is boring. Its almost surprising to me that you get the growing region on a bag from a grocery store. We are lucky to get anything like that.

  4. Chris C says:

    Sorry to jump in so late, but just found your blog today (and I must say, I’m damned impressed)!

    David, would you mind sharing your methodology for filtering through the Melitta filter after brewing in the French press? I’ve tried this myself (using coffee I’d freshly ground) and the fines have always clogged the paper filter so badly that a good portion of the cup remained in the filter for several minutes+. I figured that this coffee, still in contact with fines, was thus overextracting and ruining the experiment I was conducting…. Although considering the discussion above about the superior grinding consistency of industrial grinders, perhaps you didn’t do anything special, you just didn’t have significant fines in the grind!

    • Hi Chris, thanks. I don’t do anything particularly special. Are you plunging with the French Press first (so most of the grinds stay in the press pot)? Other than that, you could try pouring slowly along the sides so the fines stay on the side of the filter rather than at the bottom.

  5. Chris C says:

    Hi David,

    Yes, plunging first, so that only fines are left to be filtered – and of course because it’s ONLY fines that are collecting in the filter, they seem to plug it up completely much more so (and more quickly) than when making a regular pour-over. I am using a Rocky though, not one of the more high-end grinders, so I may just have excessive fines in my grind. Or perhaps it’s because I grind a little finer than some for French press, to get a faster extraction time, and thus generate more fines that way. I’ll try your tips and see if it helps. Am I to understand that you can filter FP coffee through a Melitta filter without it clogging, even when grinding yourself (not just when using pre-ground from an industrial grinder)? And if so, may I ask what grinder you’re using?

    Thanks again for the great blog, I’ve been reading and watching videos all day. 🙂

    • I’m using a Mahlkonig Tanzania at home.

      To be honest, I haven’t done the filtered french press in a little while. Now that I think of it, what you can do is collect together the top of the filter, and twist it together, so you apply a little pressure to any remaining liquid, pushing it through.

      There shouldn’t be too much liquid though, maybe 30ml or so?

      • Chris C says:

        Ah, well the Tanzania would help, wouldn’t it. 🙂 (Had never seen it before just looking it up now, but it seems remarkably similar to the Ditting KR805 I used at my last shop. Does it have the awesome magnetic burr mounts the Ditting has?)

        Another good tip, thanks. It’s been a while since I was trying, but I seem to remember it was the last ounce or two, yeah. I just didn’t want to skew my results by not getting it all, but I suppose it really wouldn’t have, in retrospect. The next thing I was going to try was cloth filter over top of the paper filter (so cloth first, then paper, hopefully not losing too much heat in the process).

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