Whole bean verses ground coffee, which is best for you?

To Grind or Not To Grind? Whole Bean Vs Pre-Ground Coffee

The decision of whether or not to grind your own beans can be one of the most important and difficult decisions in your coffee journey. It's a decision that typically comes with a bucket load of questions: Is it worth the hassle? Does it actually affect the flavor of the coffee significantly? Are the purists right in claiming that grinding your own is basically the only way? How easy or difficult is it to grind your own beans? And most notably, is it worth making the switch? 

In this article, we will try and help you navigate these questions and explore the pros and cons of both using pre-ground coffee and grinding your own. 

If you are looking for a quick answer, then basically we argue that grinding your own beans is ultimately the better choice for flavor and the ability to experiment and develop your brewing skills.

The Advantages of Sticking with Pre-Ground Beans

If you have dipped your toes into the world of specialty coffee then you will know that pre-ground is often portrayed as ‘the bad guy’ in the coffee scene. It is often charged with being completely stale, mass-produced, and ultimately leading to a sub-par coffee experience. But is it true? 

While there are downsides, we believe that using pre-ground coffee is sometimes actually the best decision and (despite what the purists say!) can still make a delicious cup of brew.

The basic advantages of sticking with pre-ground coffee are convenience and cost:

Portafilter with pre-ground coffee

The Convenience of Pre Ground Coffee

Perhaps the most compelling argument for going pre-ground is that it's simply so much easier. You order your coffee, wait for it to arrive, and then voila you are ready to brew. This means that there is no fiddling with grind settings or second-guessing if the reason your coffee tastes off is you have the wrong grind size. This is a particular advantage when it comes to espresso as it means that you dodge the arduous and tricky skill of ‘dialing in’ your grinder.  

By sticking with pre-ground coffee you have one less parameter to worry about in your morning brew and can focus on making a reliable and consistent cup of coffee. Also what the pro-grinder advocates often don’t tell you is that using a grinder is actually far trickier than it looks. Finding the exact grind size for a given brewing method such as pour-over or French press is often finicky and can at times feel like an exercise in futility. 

So, for myself and my wife, we used pre-ground beans for the first year or so after we bought our first espresso machine and found it worked like a treat! Especially as we were just entering the world of coffee it meant one less thing to worry about and made some really enjoyable and consistent coffees! 

Therefore, if you're all about convenience and are more interested in a quick and delicious brew than an extensive coffee routine then pre-ground may actually be the best choice for you.

Cup of coffee with USD currency on a table

Save on Costly Coffee Gear

The other major advantage of sticking with pre-ground coffee is that it means one less piece of equipment that you need to buy. Another secret that the coffee world sometimes stays silent on is that not all grinders are born equal. While grinding your own beans is often flaunted as a one-way ticket to better coffee it is not quite that simple...

The basic reason for this is that cheap grinders = inconsistent extraction = horrid tasting coffee.

The final flavor of your coffee is largely governed by a process called extraction where the hot water ‘extracts’ some of the compounds and flavors from the ground coffee beans. The size of the coffee grind determines how much and how quickly coffee is extracted.  

However, cheap or blade grinders typically grind up coffee beans inconsistently. This means that instead of being one uniform size the grind becomes a mixture of smaller and larger coffee particles.

This in turn, results in some of your ground coffee being over-extracted and tasting bitter and other bits being under-extracted and tasting sour and unpleasant. Basically, a cheap grinder may end up sabotaging rather than lifting the flavor of your coffee.

The long and short of it is that to really get the benefit of grinding your own beans you need to invest in a quality burr grinder which we know aren't cheap. Pre-ground coffee, in contrast, is typically ground in a high-quality commercial grinder resulting in very uniform grind size. 

So, a major component in the decision between pre-ground and grinding your own is how much money do you want to sink into your coffee gear? 

Therefore, the advantages of sticking with pre-ground beans are greater convenience and lower cost.

The Advantages of Grinding Your Own Beans

So while we still bear good memories of the pre-ground days, we did make the switch and have never looked back! 

There are two compelling advantages to grinding your own beans; better flavor and better flexibility:

Better Flavor 

This was really the clincher for us. In short, grinding on demand retains the maximum flavor and aroma of your coffee beans. 

What many people may not realize is that coffee beans are really a form of fresh produce and as such go stale over time. Stale coffee beans are a little bit like that cereal that has been sitting in your pantry forever. It's probably edible if push comes to shove, but it will taste old and cardboard-ish and really should have been chucked out a long time ago. Coffee beans are exactly the same. 

The outer shell of a coffee bean is effectively a natural storage container for the flavor and aroma of the bean. As soon as the beans are ground this protective layer is removed and the process of the bean aging and going stale is accelerated. For this reason, virtually every cafe grinds on demand.

Note: As soon as you grind your beans, much of the distinctive flavor and aroma dissipates leaving a far more bland taste in its place. 

This means that virtually all pre-ground coffee is well on its way towards becoming stale. While it can still make a tasty coffee, it's really not what it once was.

Most baristas recommend that ground coffee should be used within 3-5 minutes of the grinding process. Hence, I'm sure you can see the problem of beans that were ground weeks or even months ago… 

Accordingly, grinding your own beans (provided the beans are fresh) assures that the maximum flavor and aroma make it from the bean to your cup!

Pre-packaged ground coffee with whole beans with grey background

Better Flexibility 

Another significant advantage of investing in a quality burr grinder is that it gives you the freedom to experiment. This is particularly important if, like us, you love everything coffee and regularly use multiple brewing methods.

Most pre-ground coffee, depending on where it's bought from, either comes in a generic medium grind size or a specific fine grind size for espresso. The problem with this is that it fails to cater for most manual brewing methods. 

Grinding your own beans means you have access to a wide range of different grind sizes. Which means, you can easily use the same packet of whole beans for your Aeropress one day, Pour Over the next, and then your Plunger the following day for good measure.

It also means you can micro-adjust the grind size to find, for example, the perfect V60 grind size for your palate. Grinding your own beans gives you the freedom to experiment and has helped us take coffee beyond simply an enjoyable drink to a hobby and passion.

For the above reasons, we would go so far as to say that grinding your own beans is a non-negotiable if you are serious about getting into the wonderful world of coffee. While you can make nice coffee without it, it is hugely significant in helping you to step up the flavor of your brew and your own development as a home-brewer. 

Summing it Up...

Grinding Your Own Beans

The Good [Pros]

  • More flavor and aroma make it from the bean to your brew
  • Allows you to easily use multiple brewing methods 
  • Allow you to micro-adjust the grind setting for your given brew 
  • Is surprisingly satisfying and fun

The Bad [Cons]

Who is this for?

The serious home brewer who cares about both the flavor and process of coffee

Buying Pre-Ground Coffee

The Good [Pros]

  • Is very convenient and takes minimal effort
  • Doesn’t require the purchase of a grinder 
  • Typically has a very uniform grind size 

The Bad [Cons]

  • Loses much of the original flavor and aroma of the coffee beans
  • Makes it harder to experiment with different brewing methods 
  • Means you have no ability to adjust grind size for your specific coffee maker

Who is this for?

The general coffee lover who enjoys a good cup of brew but isn’t too bothered about the process of making it.

Tips for using Pre-Ground Beans

At first glance, the process of using pre-ground coffee seems too simple to even require additional guidance. However, we believe that just about anything in life can be done well or done badly.

Firstly, your coffee should be stored in an airtight container somewhere cool and away from direct sunlight. While it can be kept in the freezer if it's not likely to be used soon. However, this is less than ideal and should only be done as a last measure.
A bag of ground coffee with a pour over coffee maker and mug

For many of us, the go-to place to source pre-ground coffee is our local supermarket or grocery store. Despite the convenience, this is actually a terrible idea! Coffee on supermarket aisles has often been roasted months in advance and ends up sitting on the shelf for weeks on end. All of this ensures beans that are old, mass-produced, and generic in flavor. 

Instead, we recommend sourcing coffee from local specialty roasters. Many specialty roasters now sell pre-ground coffee for a wide range of brewing methods and will be happy to grind your beans specifically for say - your Aeropress. Additionally, you could buy whole beans again from a specialty roaster and then get your local cafe to grind it for you in their commercial grinder.

By sourcing beans from a specialty roaster you can know that you are getting beans that are fresh, often roasted for a specific brewing method, and just generally high quality. The quality of your coffee will never exceed the quality of your beans.

Finally, it's important to store your beans correctly. They should be stored in an airtight container somewhere cool and away from direct sunlight. While they can be kept in the freezer if they are not likely to be used soon, this is less than ideal and should only be done as a last measure.

Tips For Grinding your own Beans

As with pre-ground, the first important consideration is the quality of your beans. Even the most exalted burr grinder can do little to save old cheap beans. So we recommend sourcing your beans from a local specialty roaster. Alternatively, here is a list of some great quality beans that might be just right for you.

Grinding coffee beans with a burr grinder

Also, while it does often prove more expensive we recommend that you only buy the amount of beans that you will go through in 2 weeks. For us, that ends up being around 500g of beans. The reason for this is that beans are best extracted in the first fortnight after being roasted and then still taste good up to a month, after which they begin to more rapidly deteriorate. 

The beans should be ground immediately before use so as to retain the maximum flavor and aroma. As with pre-ground, they should be stored in a cool place (like a cupboard) in an airtight container. 

Finally, make sure that you experiment! Try changing the grind size one setting more coarse or more fine for your given brewing method and see how it tastes. Find the perfect grind setting for your palate and not just what the company or someone has recommended.

Final Thoughts

Well, we hope this article has helped you navigate the often tough decision between grinding at home or buying pre-ground. We hope we have convinced you that if you are serious about coffee and flavor then you ought to at least consider the option of grinding at home. 

We can say from our own experience that, while we still have a love-hate relationship with it, grinding really has upped our coffee game and given us a deeper appreciation for the art and skill of brewing delicious coffee!

About the Author: James Hyslop is an unashamed coffee lover who enjoys experimenting with different brewing methods and seeking to understand the world of coffee. He regularly writes about everything coffee at The Coffee Folk.

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