I rather drink freshly ground coffee over pre-ground anytime. However, when I reflected on my preference, I couldn’t find any good arguments.
I needed a better answer, so I wrote to the world’s leading experts in coffee quality and sensory analysis.
My question was pretty straightforward:
Do you consider that freshly ground coffee is better than pre-ground coffee? Why?
Additionally, I asked them the same question to my favorite online authors. I still can’t believe the helpful and interesting answers they wrote back.
If you want to learn their take on this, keep reading!
What does mean “better”?
I have learned much of my coffee skills thanks to fellow coffee lovers like Kyle Rowsell. It wasn’t surprising to read his answer, as he told me that “freshly ground coffee is essential to extract the optimal flavors from the coffee bean.”
Jonathan Gagné sent me a similar answer: “I think freshly ground coffee is generally better because aromas have less time to degas, and oils have less time to oxidize and become rancid.”
Although Jonathan and Kyle have very different approaches towards coffee and writing, I enjoy very much reading them, as well their Instagram posts. However, I wanted to dig deeper and learn about scientists’ educated opinion.
After reading their answers, I understood why it was so difficult for me to find good arguments. When we judge one cup of coffee as better than others, we’re speaking about coffee quality and personal preference at the same time. The boundaries between them aren’t as clear as we’d like to think.
Although coffee culture has changed dramatically in recent years, superior coffee quality is still debatable. Like most products, coffee quality depends a great deal on the consumer. In the words of Professor Edgar Chambers IV:
“Better” is a highly subjective term that depends on who is drinking the coffee. Is fresh ground “better”? It depends on who is drinking the coffee. Many people are quite happy with their pre-ground coffee, and freshly ground of the same beans would be different and might taste off to them. On the other hand, people who are used to drinking fresh ground coffee could find flavor notes in pre-ground beans they don’t like. Then, if pre-ground coffee is better or than freshly ground coffee is highly subjective.Professor Edgar Chambers IV, Sensory Analysis Center Director (Kansas State University).
However, experts like Professor Chambers have advanced huge steps to determine coffee quality in more objective terms. Obviously, the word better is too simplistic to assess the coffee quality on a scientific level. But, when people like you and I want to elevate their coffee experience, we don’t need to learn advanced techniques and sensory analysis jargon.
Surprisingly, enjoying specialty coffee can be challenging because it doesn’t taste like regular coffee. As Professor Davide Giacalone would put it:
Whether one is better than the other really depends on what you mean by “better.” Consumers who are used to pre-ground coffee probably don’t mind or would even prefer the pre-ground because that’s what they are used to (familiarity is a very strong predictor of what we like and dislike).Professor Davide Giacalone, Southern Denmark University.
In other words, we tend to like flavors and aromas that we know better. So, if you’re a coffee geek like me, don’t get offended if your friend says that the freshly ground, Chemex-brewed, Natural Gesha, which you prepared, tastes awful. Just serve her your best instant coffee next time she visits.
Objectively, great coffee is different from regular and lousy coffee. However, to cover the coffee quality topic, I would need to write an entire post.
Let’s agree on a simple premise: freshly ground coffee smells and tastes different than pre-ground. Although I prefer freshly ground coffee, it has to do a lot with training and a positive attitude toward exploring new ways of enjoying coffee.
When we are talking about the specific differences between freshly ground coffee and pre-ground coffee, Professor Carolyn Ross says:
Aroma is a major factor in coffee enjoyment, and pre-grinding the beans may lead to the loss of some of these aromatic compounds. So I would say that in general, freshly ground would be preferred, but that isn’t to say that pre-ground coffee is undrinkable.Professor Carolyn Ross, Director of the Sensory Program of the Washington State University
On balance, freshly ground coffee offers more intense yet less conventional flavors and smells. Additionally, recent studies suggest that coffee antioxidant activity is the highest in fresh coffee.
So, if you want to know if freshly ground coffee is better than pre-ground coffee, you might want to ask yourself if you’re willing to try something different first.
Still, I want to show you which are the main differences between pre-ground and freshly ground coffee. Moreover, I will tell you why freshly ground coffee is my favorite choice.
Why I prefer freshly ground coffee?
Great cafés around the world serve freshly ground coffee on demand. Venezuelan coffee culture has a strong European influence, so all cafés and bakeries offer espresso-based drinks with freshly ground coffee.
I learned to drink coffee in this way because I used to have lattes and macchiatos along with my mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. Back at home, my family had pre-ground coffee only. Although it isn’t terrible, I always preferred freshly ground one.
However, it isn’t that simple. Professor Giacaldone puts it very clearly: “I think if you compare two coffee from the exact same beans and the same grinding method (the premise is important), the fresh ground coffee is going to be more flavorful.”
In other words, lousy coffee will always be bad. But great coffee will be richer if it’s freshly ground and will last longer if stored as whole beans. As Professor Chahan Yeretzian states:
To preserve the freshness and full aroma, roasted coffee is best stored as whole beans. Once ground, aroma loss and oxidation are greatly accelerated, mainly due to the opening up of the pores and the much increased surface areas.Professor Chahan Yeretzian. Head of Analytical Technologies and Head of the Coffee Excellence Center (Zurich University of Applied Sciences).
Yet, beyond familiar flavors and aromas, convenience and costs play a huge role here too. High-quality grinders are expensive, and even a good and affordable grinder usually costs more than 100$.
In short, to decide your favorite between freshly ground coffee and pre-ground coffee, the most critical factor is your attitude towards exploring unexpected flavors and aromas in coffee. Yet, if you’re willing to give it a try, I recommend you to consider the following:
Do you mind spending time grinding coffee every time before drinking?
Grinding coffee with a decent grinder takes a few seconds. Yet, coffee grinders cleaning and maintenance can turn down many coffee enthusiasts.
I tried manual grinders first and enjoyed it for a while. But at some point, I couldn’t stand the slow process anymore.
In general, hand grinders are more affordable, but the best ones can outprice even some fine electric grinders. If you want my opinion, don’t spend hundreds of dollars
Do you want to grind your coffee in different sizes?
Grind sizes change coffee aroma and taste. Moreover, brewing methods require different grind sizes.
If you have several brewing devices like a French Press pot, a V60 dripper, and a Moka pot, you’ll want to grind on-demand for every device.
Are you willing to spend more than 100$ on an entry-level grinder?
Grinder prices turn down many coffee enthusiasts. Sure, you can find hand-grinders below 20$, and even some electric blade-grinders at a very low price range. But, if you want to enjoy a great aroma and taste, you’ll need a decent burr grinder.
The coffee brew taste and aroma depends hugely on the grinding quality. And, as it happens with many things in life, price and quality are directly proportional.
Burr grinders are significantly pricer than blade grinders, and although you can find many affordable burr grinder options, I can’t recommend any of the cheapest automatic burr grinders.
I asked myself all of these questions about grinding fresh coffee, and I enjoy answering yes to all of them. My morning ritual changed dramatically, and my palate adapted to a more complex and richer coffee experience after a few years.
Now, let’s talk about you. Unless you answered yes to the first question, you might prefer pre-ground coffee.
Suppose you’d like to explore a richer coffee experience, but you don’t want to spend time or money. In that case, you could find local coffee roasters that grind your coffee beans at the moment of purchase. Quality packaging can protect the coffee from staleness for a while, and you could still enjoy some of the freshness.
As with any middle-ground solution, you’ll compromise freshness at some point, so whenever possible, buy coffee for a short period of time, like a week or two.
Why does freshly ground coffee tastes and smell different?
Coffee loses CO2 and aromatic compounds after roasting. Good packaging prevents coffee beans from going stale, but it’s inevitable.
CO2 is crucial for crema, the foamy layer on top of any espresso. For other brewing methods like drippers, CO2 becomes evident through small bubbles. Then, the aroma is at the core of a pleasant coffee experience.
However, I wouldn’t assume that pre-ground coffee goes quickly stale as some authors claim. According to Professor Carolyn Ross:
Coffee beans can be ground to minimize the loss of volatile compounds and stored in bags that also minimize changes. The big coffee companies know this and use various technologies to minimize the loss of volatile compounds prior to packaging. And then minimize changes in the ground coffee once stored.Professor Carolyn Ross, Director of the Sensory Program of the Washington State University
In short, freshly ground coffee tastes and smells different because it is different. Time changes the essence of ground coffee because of exposition to:
When we open a coffee bag, the coffee inside gets in touch with oxygen in the air. If it’s pre-ground, coffee absorbs more oxygen quickly, as Professor Chahan explained before.
Oxidation changes coffee, just like it changes avocado, or bananas, for example. After a while coffee will transform. Eventually, coffee will lose most of its aroma and will acquire new, unpleasant flavors and smells.
Humidity affects coffee too. The magic behind our favorite coffee drinks depends on coffee oils’ solubility in water. The downside to it is that tiny water particles dissolve coffee slightly. If coffee is pre-ground, then humidity will alter it more seriously.
I learned a trick a few days ago with left-over coffee. It works like magic to absorb unpleasant odors. I’ll explain it better in another post because it’s a useful and exciting trick. However, it means that coffee absorbs odors around it.
Avoid putting pre-ground coffee close to smelly stuff like spices, fresh vegetables, or cleaning products. Even during a shop trip from the supermarket, avoid bagging coffee along with those, especially if it’s pre-ground, as it will absorb a lot more odors.
Freshly ground coffee is that good?
As subjective as it might be, I can’t recommend anything but freshly ground coffee. It’s not enough to enjoy the best coffee possible, but it will make a huge difference.
Keep in mind that freshness doesn’t mean too much if coffee beans are not high-quality ones. In other words, coffee beans quality last longer if stored whole. If they were poor-quality beans from the beginning, it won’t make a big difference.
As coffee experts acknowledge, personal preference plays a significant role. However, if you choose pre-ground coffee, keep in mind that it will last more if it’s properly stored and kept away from your spices, onions, and soap.
If you want to learn more about other key aspects to improve your coffee experience, I wrote a piece about my best tips and tricks.
Give it a try to freshly ground coffee and let me know what you think. Did you enjoy it?