If you survey the bags of coffee at your local café or grocery store, you’ll notice they all fall into two broad categories: ground and whole bean.
While the shelf life of whole bean is generally longer, the reasons for offering ground coffee are manifold, from greater convenience to a generally more consistent, uniform grind size.
Deciding whether to offer ground, whole bean, or a combination of the two is a choice most roasters will have to make. But should some roasters prioritise one option over the other?
To learn more about the pros and cons of each, I spoke with three-time South African Barista Champion and MTPak Ambassador, Ishan Natalie.
Ground coffee vs whole bean: What’s the difference?
Whole bean coffee, as the name suggests, is roasted coffee in its unaltered form: once it leaves the roaster it will usually be rested for a short period, before being packaged and distributed or stored.
Ground coffee, on the other hand, involves passing whole bean coffee through a grinder with a preset “grind size”. The grind size is typically based on different brew methods, such as French press or moka pot.
Both whole bean and ground are designed to cater to different consumer needs. For example, ground coffee is considered more convenient as consumers can readily brew it without needing a grinder.
However, despite its convenience, one of the main disadvantages of ground coffee is its lack of versatility.
While the grind size will generally be more uniform than whole bean ground at home, the entire bag is limited to a specific brew method. This means that if you want to move from an Aeropress to a V60, for example, it could produce unwanted flavours in the cup.
Freshness is also another fundamental difference between ground coffee and whole bean.
In general, whole bean coffee stays fresher for longer due to the way in which oxidation occurs. Oxidation is a process by which oxygen replaces the carbon dioxide that escapes as the coffee degases. As this happens, the coffee loses its distinct aromas, leading to stale and often rancid-tasting flavours.
Ishan explains that when coffee is ground, its surface area increases exponentially. As a result, the rate of both degassing and oxidation increases.
“Whole bean coffee can stay fresh in the bag for about three months, maybe a month or less once it is opened,” he says. “If you look at ground coffee, the moment you grind it, most of the carbon dioxide trapped in the bean has escaped and oxygen has gone in. So that reduces your shelf life to around three to seven days.”
At the same time, however, he notes that there is a way – albeit expensive – to keep ground coffee fresh for longer.
“If you want to sell pre-packaged ground coffee, you have to nitrogen flush the bags [to remove oxygen inside],” he says. “But it is a massive investment, and I think that is why you always find ground coffee from big brands and whole beans from smaller roasters on retail shelves.”
Why does freshness matter?
Freshness has been a pillar of the specialty coffee sector since its emergence in the 1990s. Not only is it used by roasters and coffee shops to entice customers, it has become a byword for quality.
Chahan Yeretzian is a professor at Zurich University of Applied Sciences, who researches extensively into the subject of coffee freshness.
In his study, he defines freshness as “coffee that exhibits no impairment to its original qualities”, with the original reference point being coffee that has just been roasted.
He and his team suggest that there are two types of coffee freshness: chemical freshness (which relates to aroma degradation and oxidation) and physical freshness (which relates to the degassing of coffee beans).
During roasting, coffee undergoes a series of complex reactions forming a large number of aroma compounds as well as CO2, which are trapped inside the bean.
After roasting is completed, the CO2 is gradually released from the bean through a degassing process. However, once coffee is grounded, the aromatics and gas retained inside the bean are immediately released into the environment.
In fact, studies show that as much as 40-50% and 59−73% of CO2 is lost within the first few minutes of grinding. The loss of CO2 is not ideal since it plays a significant role in creating a protective barrier that keeps oxygen out.
Ishan tells me that detecting coffee on the palate makes up only 15% of the sensory experience, while the remaining 85% relies on aromatics travelling through the nasal passage.
As a result, coffee that has lost its aroma compounds or gone stale will reduce coffee’s sensory experience considerably.
Catering to the needs of consumers
While coffee freshness is important when deciding between whole bean and ground coffee, convenience is also crucial. Not everyone has the time or inclination to grind their own coffee at home, which could put them off roasters who sell whole bean only.
To tackle this problem without compromising freshness, Ishan says roasters should offer an in-store grinding service.
“I believe there’s a big opportunity where a lot of cafés don’t promote their grinding service,” he says. “So if they sell whole bean, they need to put up signs. We see the habit of customers picking up coffee and if they see it is whole bean coffee, they put it back down and walk away.”
Selling whole beans with additional grinding service allows café owners and roasters to appeal to consumers who value both quality and convenience, without having to invest in expensive equipment.
It is also a good opportunity to initiate conversation with consumers, allowing them to understand the difference between whole bean and pre-packaged ground coffee. At the same time, they can also provide guidance for consumers on how to best brew the coffee at home.
“Start a conversation when you are selling the coffee just to understand how they do things or advise them on how to do things better if there is an opportunity for them to do things better,” Ishan explains. “Customers really value and appreciate that.”
To provide a thoughtful grinding service, instead of opening a bag of coffee from the retail shelf and grinding it into the same bag, Ishan suggests roasters take coffee directly from the roast stock and grind them into a new packaging.
He explains that this helps with the integrity of coffee, as well as preventing double exposure to oxygen. He cautions that the whole bean coffee packaging might have some oil residue which could contaminate or affect flavour when ground coffee comes into contact with it.
Whether selling whole bean or ground, coffee will degrade over time if it is not properly protected from external factors, such as oxygen, moisture, heat, and light.
To preserve its freshness and ensure customers enjoy your coffee at its best, it’s essential to invest in sustainable multilayer packaging.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable coffee bags that not only protect your coffee but also minimise the environmental impact of your product.
With the help of our expert design team, you can customise any of our kraft paper, rice paper, LDPE, and PLA bags with your branding, as well as any additional features, from resealable zippers to recyclable degassing valves.