Back in November 2011, rworange started a thread entitled "Where to buy a pound of coffee?" -- see http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/820538 -- and I realized that I never posted a comment in that thread. It also got me to thinking about how long it's been since I purchased coffee locally.
Now, I know a lot of people who roast their own beans. Not only do I not have time for that, but I have no personal inclination towards that direction. I view it a bit like winemaking: 35+ years in the wine trade has taught me that, while I can (and have upon occasion) make wine, it's better left to the people who do it professionally. So, too, roasting coffee. Unless I have serious interest and a lot of time to devote to it, I'm far better off buying my coffee already roasted by someone who knows what they're doing, and does it for a living.
(Just my 2¢; YMMV.)
But that said, I rarely buy ANY coffee locally, and pretty much only on an emergency basis.
The problems I have with locally roasted coffee are relatively simple, but my decision has little to do with taste. That is, I have a strong dislike for Starbucks (I find it "over-roasted"; for me, the nickname of "Charbucks" fits) and prefer Peet's, but I never buy it in beans -- either from a Peet's location or from a market. But taste is NOT the biggest issue . . .
If one goes to a market, be it Berkeley Bowl, Buy-Rite, Andronico's -- let alone Safeway or Lucky's -- most of the whole coffee beens that are sold are either sold in bulk bins (exposed to air; certainly NOT fresh), or in bags/tins with a "Best By mm/dd/yy" date (also not fresh).
There is an oft-quoted "rule" on the internet, "Babbie's Rule of Fifteens." Simply put, it states that
1. Green (unroasted) coffee beans must be roasted within 15 months of harvesting, or they go stale.
2. Roasted coffee beans must be ground within 15 days of roasting, or they go state.
3. Ground coffee must be used within 15 minutes of grinding, or it goes stale.
Now, people may or may not agree with this, but through personal experience, I've found these "rules" to be a solid and reliable guideline. In other words, give or take a little, it's by and large true, at least in so far as #2-3 are concerned. I've detected considerable drop-off in quality from using beans more than 15-18 days old, and from using beans ground more than 10-15 minutes earlier.
Starbuck's Peet's, Cole's, Peerless, etc. make it difficult to know how fresh the beans are, in that the beans are either stored in bins or in "Best By" dated bags (rather than "Roasted On" dated bags). Places like Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and Ritual do not use sealed bags with one-way gas valves (to vent the carbon dioxide gas that all freshly roasted bags give off), and so they, too, can get stale very rapidly as the beans interact with oxygen in the atmosphere.
So if one wants freshly roasted beans, what do you do?
My answer to the above is to buy online. I know this sounds -- at least on the face of it -- someone odd, but places like Flying Goat, Ecco, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and dozens of others *all* roast and ship on the same day. For example, I usually get my beans from a place called Red Bird Coffee Co. in Bozeman, Montana. I place the order on the weekend, use a credit card or PayPal; my coffee gets roasted on Monday, and I receive the package via USPS Priority Mail on Wednesday or Thursday -- 48 to 72 hours after roasting, and well within the 15-day "window," so it's all gone before staleness can become an issue.
Anyone else do this? How do you insure your coffee beans are freshly roasted?