Somewhere back in the 70s or 80s, grocery store shoppers were introduced to the wonderful world of bulk products. These grand rows of foods ranging from candy to flour to beans and cereal were displayed in large, “fancy” plexiglas containers, inviting the shopper to overindulge in goodies and staples at prices that couldn’t be resisted. All the while the shopper felt so victorious thinking of all the money she was saving by choosing products sans packaging, regardless of the fact that she bought lentils, which she never eats. The grocer looked like a hero to the shopper, showing a generous tolerance to shoplifters of 1-2 gummy bears, or that old lady who always used her hands to dig out a few more dried apricots. It certainly paved the way for today’s bulk food and junque giant, Costco.
Although these bins are less common in grocery stores now, they still hang on in patchouli scented health food stores, and in nearly every grocery store I’ve seen for the display and dispensation of coffee. If you buy your coffee at the grocery store, I know you know exactly what I’m talking about. There, shining in the distance is a shelving display stacked 6 across and down filled with what you believe to be fresh coffee. You get closer, and notice that almost every container’s front surfaces is a greasy brown textured mess as the beans have created etched in goober streaks as a few ounces of coffee are emptied out into your awaiting paper-ish bag. Usually accompanying this display is a grinder that lets you destroy your coffee even further as you select a grind from “drip” to “ Turkish” at the turn of the dial. How convenient. You scamper off happy with your fresh, bulk food purchase.
Let me tell you what you’ve just paid $11.95 for…
Let’s just back up to the facts about proper coffee storage. Coffee’s mortal enemies are light, air, and moisture. To properly store coffee, it must be in an airtight, opaque container at room, or slightly below, temperature. These bins have everything going wrong for them. They’re not airtight, opaque or moisture barriers (that being the least of the possible problems in this storage situation…but we’ll skip that tangent). The worst of the situation is that they’re almost NEVER clean. That chunky brown greasy front is the coffee’s oils building up on the surface as week after week, the beans are left to grow old and stale. There are 2 reasons that coffee oils are on the surface of the bean. Reason 1- the coffee was roasted very dark, and the oils emerged from inside the bean to the surface. Reason 2- the coffee is old, because as any degree of roast ages, the oils migrate to the surface.
I can almost promise you that it’s likely that you’re not in the presence of freshly roasted dark, oily beans when staring into the tempting little box of coffee in a miniature peep-show of sorts. The reality is that it’s more likely that those coffees are weeks or months old. They arrived from the roaster in a bulk 5 pound bag, and the grocery store stock boy poured the next “fresh” batch onto the remnants of the last order. I’m merely guessing here, and I don’t know what the grocery store protocol is to clean those bins, but the reality is that there’s usually so much gunk built up inside those little boxes that you can see it from isle 4. What’s the problem with coffee oil? When coffee oil comes in contact with oxygen, the process of rancidification begins within 45 minutes. Once rancid, oils boast unpleasant noxious odors and flavors. Ever had rancid butter? I rest my case.
The only time I’d buy coffee out of an open bin or container is if I visited the roaster’s shop, and that morning’s coffees were displayed for sale just like a baker has today’s fresh breads out. You ask for your fresh beans, and get a 12 oz bag that you’ll immediately place in your countertop airtight canister when you arrive home..just like you’d put the ice cream into the freezer when you arrive home (read carefully here…Ice cream in freezer, Coffee at room temperature). At the store, you’re much better off buying something that’s sold in an airtight bag, as long as you can figure out how old it is. Don’t waste your money on anything that you can’t finish up within 2 weeks of the roasting date. Buying anything other than that? You’re just spending your money on “day olds” so to speak. The bummer is the store isn’t giving you the “day old” price.