Want better coffee? Follow this guy's lead

For a better cup of joe, learn how to order, buy and brew like a pro.

Patrick Main, beverage innovator for Peet’s Coffee®, talks about coffee with the kind of knowledge and passion you’d expect from a sommelier.

He started out as a barista with Peet’s in 1988 before rising up the ranks. Today, he’s leading beverage innovation for the craft coffee company, and he’s the man behind all its signature drinks.

If you’re looking for a better coffee experience, you’ll learn a lot from this Q&A with Patrick.

Q: What do you wish more people knew about coffee?

A: Freshness counts. It makes a huge difference. Buying stale coffee is like buying a stale baguette. It’s not going to kill you, but it’s not the same experience as having a baguette that’s baked that morning.

If you’re buying coffee and there’s not a roast date on the package, I wouldn’t buy it. It could have been roasted a year ago. The industry standard can be a year, or even two years, from roast—but so much of the life of the coffee is just gone by then.  

We make sure our beans aren’t sold in grocery stores more than 90 days from their roast date. Even then, they often sell within 30 days. And in our coffeebars, we won’t sell beans more than 21 days past their roast date.

Q: How should we choose between dark and light roasts?

A: They’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. If you’re in a darker roast, that’s going to tend to develop deeper, richer flavors. I’m thinking of complex flavors like caramelized sugars, dark berries, earth, nuts, pipe tobacco and leather. The lighter roasts can have highlights like citrus and fresh raspberries.

To put it in context of another drink, if you like a big, hearty, complex cabernet sauvignon, then a dark roast might be for you. On the other hand, if you’re someone who likes a crisp riesling or sauvignon blanc, then a lighter roast might be what you want.

Q: Is it true that lighter roasts have more caffeine?

A: The impact of roast on caffeine is pretty minimal and is vastly outweighed by other factors, like the type of bean and the way it’s brewed.

Q: What about the beans themselves? Is arabica or robusta better?

A: On the specialty, higher end, you’re going to see arabica. Generally speaking, robusta coffees don’t have the same fine flavors that higher-groomed arabica does.

There are some very traditional Italian blends that rely on robusta, and that can be OK. Robusta coffee does have a lot more caffeine and a lot of body. For an espresso blend, it can add a lot of body and crema. But even those blends will just use a little bit of it.

Q: Should people pay attention to where beans come from? Can this impact flavor?

A: Yes—yes, it does! Coffee is an agricultural product, so its terroir is important. What kind of soil is it grown in? What type of elevation? What type of weather? All of the environmental factors have a big impact on the way coffee matures and the way the fruit ripens.

There are general qualities of the regions—Central America, East Africa, Pacific Islands—but even within the regions, there’s going to be a lot of variety based on things like what side of the mountain it was grown on.

In Central and South America, those coffees tend to have a lot of bright citrus, sometimes cacao.

East African coffees tend to be a little sweet—again citrusy, but also like dark berry and tropical fruits. There are a lot of floral elements, too.

And then coffees of the Pacific tend toward earthiness. They’re mellow, full-bodied, maybe like dry fruit, sandalwood and nuts.

Q: Are there common mistakes people make when buying coffee at a coffee shop?

A: For me, a big mistake is in not exploring—sort of getting into a rut and always buying the same thing. Like always getting a cup of drip coffee, and the same thing with beans. Some people get the same blend all the time.

One thing that I would really urge people to do is ask questions. Ask about other beverages on the menu. Is there a signature beverage that the cafe offers? Or a seasonal beverage? Check it out.

If you’ve been buying the same blend or the same coffee forever, talk to the person behind the counter about what you like about that. They might be able to help you find something that would be appealing to you but maybe a little different—and maybe you’ll want to try something radically different, too.

Q: When we order a coffee at a shop, should we ask for a pour-over? Or is the vat OK?

A: I would ask when the coffee was brewed. And if they can’t tell me, I wouldn’t buy it. It’s like an old cliché: the pot of coffee that’s been sitting on a burner for 4 hours. That stuff tastes awful.

We won’t let brewed coffee sit for longer than a half hour. After that, we’ll brew a fresh batch. That’s probably a much shorter time than the industry average, but I wouldn’t drink coffee that’s been sitting out for more than half an hour.

If you’re doing a pour-over drip, that’s appealing for a number of reasons. It’s going to be fresh, you’re watching it being brewed, and you have a wider range of options to choose from. A lot of places will have a brewed coffee of the day on tap and ready to go, and then they’ll have 2 or 3 coffees that are available as a pour-over.

Q: When we make coffee at home, should we be grinding our own beans?

A: Getting back to freshness, you want to buy it fresh, and you want to store it well. And you can think of each of those beans as its own little package. Once you grind it, you’ve sort of opened the package.

At first, that little bean had outer edges that were exposed to oxygen—the real freshness killer. Once you grind the bean, everything’s exposed to oxygen. So you want to minimize the time between grinding and brewing.

Q: So we should avoid pre-ground coffee?

A: If you can, yeah. There are ways you can store pre-ground coffee that can minimize it. But man, it’s a pretty big difference.

Q: And what about the brewing process?

A: It really depends on how you like your coffee. So, if you want your coffee to be very clean and without any residual oil or particles, then you’ll want to use a filter method, probably a paper filter method. It’s going to give you the cleanest option. I use a Chemex® maker and like it with the brighter roasts. I really, really appreciate the clean brew from a paper filter. It sort of lets those flavors really light up.

When I want something a little chewier—and to get the full expression of the coffee—then I’ll do something that’s more of a direct infusion process like a French press, where you’re letting coffee and water sit there together for a long time and then separating the coffee from the water. That actually allows a little bit of sediment and oils to come through. Some people don’t like that, but you’re really enjoying the coffee in a fulsome way. I like that with a full-bodied, darker roast, and I enjoy the body and depth that come through.

Q: How should we be storing our coffee at home?

A: The key is minimizing light, moisture and air. I would recommend something that’s airtight. My favorite canister for this thing is by Airscape®. They make these cylindrical canisters, and there’s an interior lid that slides all the way down so it’s pushing right on top of your beans. No matter how much of your coffee you use, you can push tight against your beans. That, to me, is the most effective.

Q: Is it OK to store beans in the fridge or freezer?

A: Not the fridge. Coffee likes to attract flavors and aromas from around it. Whatever your fridge smells like, your coffee is going to smell like.

The freezer is controversial. The main thing is not to take beans in and out of the freezer.

If there’s a limited-time coffee that I really love, and I want to enjoy it in about a month from now, I will keep it in the original bag and then wrap it with freezer bags to protect it from moisture and freezer burn. When I take it out, I’ll leave it out and use it. You don’t want coffee going in and out of the freezer.

Want more from Patrick Main? When he’s not inventing mind-blowingly delicious beverage recipes for Peet’s, he’s busy recording music and touring across the U.S. and Europe. Check out this awesome video of him tearing up a keyboard while talking coffee.


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