Beans, beans the magical fruit. Image from flickr user nate steiner

When it comes to most things, the final product will be crappy if the initial ingredients are crappy, jungle juice being the exception. Because coffee is by now a twice-daily part of your life, shouldn’t you treat it with some respect? Today, we’ll be talking about getting the best beans in your area.

When it comes to coffee beans, the order of quality is usually based on where (non-geographically) the beans come from. In descending order: your backyard farm, a coffee shop that knows what it’s doing (e.g. Intelligentsia, Philz, Blue Bottle), a fru fru grocery store (like Whole Foods or Bristol Farms), a local, mediocre coffee shop, Starbucks and its competitors and finally run-of-the-mill grocery stores (Safeway, Ralph’s, Vons, etc.).

Your Backyard Farm

This won’t apply to most people, but if you have a coffee farm in your backyard, could you send HackCollege a sample?

A Coffee Shop That Knows What It’s Doing

Walking into an Intelligentsia is the only way I can relate to that one character on Sex and the City character when she walks into a shoe store. (Oh wait, I mean when any character walks into a shoe store. Please, don’t ask me why I know this.) Everything is pristine and you know it’s legit. Asking about a coffee feels like asking about a car you’re about to buy; and they treat it with the same seriousness. While you’re in here enjoying the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had (albeit a $5 cup), pick up a pound of some awesome beans. Make sure you prepare them correctly. A pound might run you $18, but that will last you more than two weeks!

The Exception: There will always be that coffee shop that thinks it’s better than it actually is. Having a conversation with a solid barista should feel like watching a Ken Burns documentary: you learn a lot of information about the subject. If people working behind the counter can’t tell you the difference between two beans, they don’t take themselves seriously enough.

A Fru Fru Grocery Store

Most neighborhoods around private schools have fru fru grocery stores moving in. These are the Whole Foods, World Markets and Bristol Farms of the world. You can identify them by a few factors: number of organic items offered and the prices. While you should probably stay away from Whole Foods for normal grocery shopping (they actually ship their food just as far as Walmart and their prices don’t reflect the quality but are just merely a markup), Whole Foods is good for coffee. Scoop yourself a pound the next time you’re in the fancy part of town. Pay attention to the roasting date!

The Exception: Some sly grocery stores will slap the “organic” label on coffee. I have yet to taste a difference between organic and “poisoned” coffee, so you can bypass this for now. Don’t assume the organic label means higher quality. Also don’t necessarily jump for the Fair Trade label, either. What’s most important is the roasting date.

A Local, Mediocre Coffee Shop

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, coffee shops take themselves a little more seriously than others. And yes, they somehow compete with Starbucks.

The Exception: “Coffee shops” in Amsterdam.

Starbucks and Its Competitors

Ah, Starbucks. Chronic over-roaster of beans, yet consistent taste deliverer. Starbucks takes quite a few shortcuts and fast ones to convince you that their beans are the freshest around. Be wary of the “scooped on” label; it does not equate to a “roasted on” date. Be wary of any bag with the air completely sucked out of it; those beans have long since died and are no longer “breathing.” And whatever you do, don’t buy preground beans.

The Exception: Peet’s Coffee. Somehow Peet’s gets it right. They’ve realized that the bean issue is a good way to distinguish themselves from Starbucks. See if there’s one in your area. The one in Marina del Rey makes bomb lattes.

Run-of-the-Mill Grocery Stores

This can be broken up into two separate categories. Beans you can scoop and grind yourself and freeze-dried, pacakged-in-China beans. I’ll let you figure out which one is better.

The Exception: If you find an exception, let me know.

Where do you get your coffee beans?