The Story of Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground
We stopped the clock on coffee’s aging, empowering coffee drinkers everywhere
Our founder James built his reputation on selling coffee beans roasted within 48 hours. Living up to such a high standard for the past 14 years eliminated the possibility of selling ground coffee, no matter how much our guests asked for it. We haven’t liked saying “no,” and we haven’t meant to seem stubborn.
But we can’t deny the negative impact that time takes on coffee beans once they are ground. And we couldn’t let our guests take home something that we knew would fade the moment we placed it into their hands.
So you can imagine our skepticism when Neil Day, Founder of Perfect Coffee, came to Blue Bottle’s cupping room to share his proprietary technology—a technology that claimed to preserve the flavor of just-ground coffee for months.
We scoffed. We bristled at the thought. And then, after more than a little prodding, we did something gentler: We gave it a try.
What we learned was simple. We weren’t against “ground” coffee. We were against serving coffee to our guests that wasn’t as delicious as we knew it could be. We were against a diminished sensory experience. But what if we could preserve the beauty of the coffee while also making it more accessible to our guests? Well, that was something different.
Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground is not ground coffee as we have ever known it before.
This coffee is dialed-in to the precise specifications of our Quality Control and Training teams and then ground to suit the brewing method and coffee type you will be making. The actual grinding takes place in the “dome,” where it is also sealed, so oxygen never touches it. The coffee tastes as delicious on day 1, as it will on day 180. It’s the next best thing to drinking coffee in one of our cafes, but better in one way: You can take it with you anywhere.
We can’t send our scientists, QC team, or skilled baristas home with you when you buy a bag of our coffee beans. But we can send you home with Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground—and that's the closest we’ll come to transporting James Freeman himself into your kitchen, where he can quietly coach you through every pour.
James, do you remember when you first began to grind your own coffee from whole beans?
James: When I was a musician on tour [James played the clarinet], I wasn’t exactly staying in nice hotel rooms. Making coffee became this comforting little ritual and gave me a sense of control—control over sensory experiences, which at that time felt elusive. At that point, I had a Zassenhaus grinder, the kind with a little drawer that you’d pull out. I would home-roast my coffee and pre-grind it for plane trips. Prior to that, I had first bought a grinder when I was a student at UC Santa Cruz. I had to sell a beloved car because I was broke and bought the grinder as a consolation.
Neil, when did you first come to coffee and how did you become aware of the differences between just-ground coffee and pre-ground coffee?
Neil: I became a coffee drinker about the time that I became a serious programmer—in my teens. It was the drug of choice among software engineers, and I drank a lot of bad coffee.
I didn’t have an “adult” moment of coffee appreciation until I was in college. There was a good food and spice store in town that roasted their own beans. They had really nice Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, and I bought all that I could afford, a quarter of a pound. After they ground it at the store, I raced home to make it on a French press. I was enthralled. The next morning, fired up to repeat the experience, I was utterly disappointed. This was 1987—there was no knowledge in the U.S. about what made good coffee. Or at least, I wasn’t exposed to it.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I began to get interested in making consistently better coffee. I could sit down and experiment with quality beans, a grinder, and varying water temperature, and get really nice results in an hour or two—a necessary contrast to the engineering work that I was doing.
James: I became hopelessly obsessed with coffee for similar reasons. Working on a piece by Mozart or Messiaen, you could never be profound enough. Your playing could never not be disappointing.
And here was coffee, this delicious little thing, a problem that was actually solvable.
The Perfect Grind
We know that serious coffee brewers consider the grind the hardest part of making a satisfying cup at home. Why is getting it right so elusive?
James: There are two types of grinders. One uses a blade—think of a food processor—and the other uses two metal disks called burrs. Blade grinders chop indiscriminately, turning the coffee into uneven grounds. The danger of this is that when exposed to water, smaller particles over-extract and larger particles under-extract, giving you less control to bring out the desired qualities of a coffee.
On the other hand, burr grinders crush the beans, producing grounds that are roughly uniform. So, this is the first step: having the right tool. But then, the mystery of a good cup of coffee is that each day in its life cycle, a particular roast behaves differently. The ideal grind size will change according to the subtle shifts of a roasted bean from day to day. The only way to figure this out is by testing different grinds side-by-side, each and every morning.
And this gets even more complicated, because while a burr grinder is great, its settings have no equivalence across grinders. Meaning no two are exactly alike. Each grinder wears differently and the precision of construction varies between machines. This is even true for the highest-quality grinders.
Neil: Yes—this makes for a problem in translation. I’m a very quantitative person. But to communicate the ideal grind for a particular coffee, analogies and sensory cues were our best guides. And, to be honest, when it comes to sensory things, I’m a little slow. For example, when I’m told that the ideal grind should feel like sand, I stop to think, well, did you grow up on Cape Cod?
James: Or, Carmel or Santa Cruz? There are all these qualitative cues for something that should be more objectively defined.
So where does Perfectly Ground come in?
Neil: Perfectly Ground was basically a hobby run horribly amuck.
I believed, against all evidence, that there had to be a way to convey and measure grind size. A particle’s dimension is, after all, a physical property. But for a long time, no one in coffee could figure out how to do this.
After years of work, we figured out how to get the measurement part down. But, we also discovered that no one on earth wants to do a science experiment at 6 am in the morning—tinkering with their own grinder until just right. Professionals perhaps, but it wasn’t going to be a way to make it easier for normal people to enjoy coffee.
We started to think that if only we could take care of the measuring and grinding, making the coffee would be pretty easy. But, at the time, there was no way to package coffee and keep it fresh. It was pretty much an article of faith in specialty coffee that ground coffee was always going to be terrible.
James: When I started Blue Bottle, that was certainly my belief.
For years, we’ve been selling either whole beans or grinding the beans just before we make our guests their coffee. We know from experience that coffee, once ground, rapidly degrades. And, we’re not talking days, we’re talking minutes.
Oxygen quickly robs the grounds of its delicate moisture balance and dulls the distinguishing flavors that make that particular coffee special. Our commitment to what might seem a maniacal sense of freshness is rooted in close observation of how coffee behaves—as a company, it’s been one of the most important things we’ve stood for. That’s why we always stamp each package’s date preceded with the words “Roasted On,” so the home brewer enjoys the coffee at its peak.
Neil, your breakthrough was that you figured out how to grind the coffee in an oxygen-free environment and hermetically seal it. While you had a business contracting with different coffee companies, you had long been a fan of Blue Bottle. And James, your reputation (and Blue Bottle’s) was made on a promise that precluded pre-ground coffee. So, what happened when you both finally got together and cupped coffee?
James: When Neil came to our cupping room, we were more than skeptical. Inwardly, I scoffed. Maybe not just inwardly, come to think of it.
We were certain that we would be able to pick his product—pre-ground Blue Bottle beans—out of a lineup of our own just-ground coffee beans.
Neil: James was very courteous, but I’ll admit that I could tell from his body language that he was not pleased to be presented with my heretical object. This was clearly not a mainstream idea. And here I was meeting with someone who had deeply held beliefs and a strong sense of what good coffee should be. So it was an exciting, but nerve-racking, moment.
James: To be honest, I truly intended to hate it. But, much to my dismay, it was actually really delicious.
After overcoming our surprise, we set up a series of blind tastings. We were still certain that we’d be able to pick the pre-ground coffee out in a line-up. But we couldn’t. Not on the first, second, or fiftieth try. There was simply no discernible difference between our just-ground beans and the grounds coming out of Neil’s little sealed silver packets. Needless to say, we were stunned. No one had been able to do this before.
I realized then that here was something incredibly useful. For years, our baristas have borne the brunt of dissatisfied customers who want pre-ground coffee. They’ve appeared inhospitable, when that’s the opposite of our intentions. For that alone—to be able to say “yes” to ground coffee in an uncompromised way... I had never been so thrilled to be proven wrong.
Since partnering, how has Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground evolved?
Neil: When people have created new coffee technologies, they often have tried to replace human judgement. There’s this idea that science alone can make better coffee. But, in practice, I’ve rarely seen machines do a job better than a person. What machines are really good at though is doing a job in a repeatable way faster than humans can. So, with Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground, we weren’t trying to replace the good sense of a roaster or a barista. We were just trying to make their judgement on one batch of coffee repeatable and scalable.
I brought the technology, but Blue Bottle Coffee brought the human touch. What I mean by that is the thousands of hours of barista training and the rigorous standards of our Quality Control team (who cups our coffees every single day)—there’s no replacement for that.
James: Our baristas spend months learning how to “dial it in”—that is, how to find the grind most appropriate for a specific roast and brewing method. A package of Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground is as close as you can get to a roaster’s and barista’s expertise. This is a culmination of years of close observation that rivals the best in our cafes—no small feat.
Unparalleled Home Experience
Looking at the larger coffee scene, how does Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground differ from other products on the market?
James: This is a premium product. My guess is that it won’t appeal to the same demographic as a k-cup. Because at the most basic level, it’s not about getting something that prioritizes convenience over taste. It’s about giving our guests something that has both extraordinary taste and more ease.
Neil: The thing that I don’t like about most single-serve approaches right now is that they take one of the important parts of the coffee experience away—making it! We take the hardest parts of making coffee out of the equation, but we don’t rob you of the joy of preparing it yourself.
The first time you make Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground, with no practice, you’ll have a very good result that will surpass your usual coffee at home. The tenth time, you’ll have an excellent result.
You still get to have a personal journey.
James: We’re surmounting the grinding barrier, but we’re not eliminating technique.
Neil: With Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground, you’re essentially getting a timeshare on a $5,000 grinder, operated by someone who is very skilled and knowledgeable. Think of it as the fanciest burr grinder out there, maintained by experts and calibrated every morning.
How do you want people to feel when using Perfectly Ground?
James: I want people to feel triumphant, to have an “I made this!” sense of excitement.
I remember the very first time I roasted a chicken. I used a recipe from the Chez Panisse cookbook by Paul Bertolli. The recipe starts with a great first line, “More than a recipe, this is a tribute to roast chicken, which can hardly be improved upon by the additions of a sauce or fancy seasonings.” I followed its basic instructions, like take the chicken out ahead of time so it wasn’t ice cold and let it rest after roasting. So simple, but so delicious. I couldn’t believe that such an outcome sprang from my efforts.
That’s the analog we’re shooting for with Perfectly Ground.
And, just the decaf alone solves the coffee-for-mother-in-law problem. Because you know, you’re like, “Ah she’s coming… I forgot to go to the kiosk to get decaf!” Buy a box of decaf four times a year and you’re set.
Where is the strangest place you’ve made Perfectly Ground?
Neil: I made a delicious AeroPress at 10,540 feet at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
James: Well Neil, I’ve actually made this coffee at 30,000 feet! But that has been in planes, not on a mountaintop. And let me say, these surpass my musician-era pre-ground coffee by a lot.
Any predictions for the impact of this coffee?
James: Was it Niels Bohr who said this? “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”