Today, we wanted to take a shot answering this disputed question: when is coffee at its best?
Coffee is a perishable product. This fact goes without saying, as the majority of specialty coffee drinkers understand that coffee is grown, harvested, and has a shelf-life. Unfortunately, non-specialty coffee drinkers refrain from treating coffee as a perishable ingredient. They see ground/whole bean coffee as a kitchen paperweight that is good until it’s gone.
There are a plethora of misconceptions that concern coffee freshness. Folks on both the specialty AND non-specialty sides of the coffee spectrum are prone to error when it comes to this subject. The internet is chalk full of articles about coffee shelf-life, aging, and freshness. Opinions abound, and it’s difficult to get a good read on what’s fact and what’s hearsay.
If you came to this blog for the answer to “when does my coffee expire?” or “how old can my coffee bean be?”, you’ve come to the right place. The article covers freshness in the first section. If that’s all you want to know, read there and you can be on your way.
If you wish to dig a bit deeper, continue reading! We discuss a couple of other coffee variables and their relation to brewing. Even experts ask “when is coffee at its best?” It’s a difficult question, so hopefully, we will clear some of that up.
When is coffee at its best? When it’s fresh… but not too fresh.
Above, I mentioned the many internet articles that misconstrue facts about coffee freshness. While this is indeed the case, understand that there are specialty coffee experts out there that set the record straight.
James Hoffmann (former World Barista Champion, specialty coffee expert, guru, etc..) wrote a great little blurb on his thoughts about freshness in green coffee. He mentions this Cat & Cloud podcast, which is also wonderful.
There are plenty of incredible coffee thinkers out there, but since specialty coffee exists in such a small niche, finding this information can be a cumbersome task. Coffee experts like Perger, Hoffman, Rao, and Licata provide worthwhile information. We can all learn from what they have to say. It’s important to understand that the majority of coffee drinkers aren’t aware that this information exists. This could be a reason why the coffee freshness debate is ongoing.
Roast Date Impacts on Freshness
Almost any bag of specialty grade coffee will have a roast date printed on it. The roast date, as its name suggests, is the date that the green coffee was roasted and made brown.
The general rule of thumb is that coffee expires 2 weeks after the date of roast… which isn’t exactly the case. It’s actually a huge oversimplification.
Pete Licata stated this in the article we posted above:
“While we very commonly tell people that freshness only lasts for 2 weeks or so, the reality is slightly different once again. Sure, peak flavor may only last for a couple weeks, but I have tasted numerous coffees which were sealed that were fantastic after a month. Sometimes even longer.”
So as you can tell, time isn’t the only parameter that affects freshness. It’s more complicated than that.
There are many variables at play when determining coffee freshness. To truly gauge a coffee’s freshness, we must examine the roast date alongside other pieces of information:
- Growing Region
- Roast Characteristics
- Ground vs. Whole Bean
Storing a coffee correctly is the best way to preserve freshness.
After a coffee is roasted, micropores in the bean expand. This further subjects the coffee to oxygen molecules in the air, which deteriorates flavor (process of oxidation).
We heat seal coffee bags in order to minimize the oxidation process. The less contact coffee has with oxygen, the slower it stales. Fresh coffee NOT stored in a heat sealed bag will begin to taste stale after a couple of days. This is why we use vacuum seal containers and tupperware once opening the bag.
Depending on the roast profile and growing region, coffee stored in a proper heat sealed bag can last well over a month.
If your coffee is sealed properly:
- Peak flavors in filter coffee will be present around 5 days post roast.
- Peak flavors in espresso will be present 1-2 weeks post roast.
Buying pre-ground coffee in any form is usually a bad idea. In the article we posted at the top of this section, James Hoffmann states that “ground coffee is pretty much dead after 24 hours no matter which way you look at it.”
Just stick with heat-sealed, whole bean coffee.
Growing Region Impacts on Freshness
Coffee is grown in a myriad of regions around the globe. Growing location has a massive impact on a coffee’s molecular density, processing and farming procedures, and flavor profile. For instance, a Brazilian coffee and a coffee from Yemen will have different characteristics. The beans will differ in density, and the two will most certainly taste different.
According to Pete Licata (info found in his article at the top of this section):
- Lighter roasted, higher density coffees tend to need less degas time, but taste good longer after opening.
- Darker roasted coffees tend to need a little more degas time but stale faster after opening.
- Lighter density coffees tend to need average degas time but also stale very quickly after opening.
Yes, we must take roast profile into account, but it’s clear that region has an impact on a coffee’s expiration date. The seed to cup journey affects coffee in every way. It’s important that we understand it.
For the most part, the darker a coffee is roasted, the shorter the expiration date. This doesn’t mean that we light roast every coffee. Some coffees are more balanced and developed when they are a medium style roast.
Again, region and roast profile go hand in hand. The characteristics of a growing region impact a roaster’s decisions.
Most dark roasted coffees are what we want to stay away from. They are much more prone to oxidation, and much of the flavor soluble content is scorched.
Can A Coffee be Too Fresh?
Yes. Yes, it can.
Once a coffee is roasted, it begins to off gas (or degas). Remember the expanding micropores we mentioned?
These pores expand and release CO2 and aromatics – a lot of it. Most roasters wait around 24 hours before cupping and packing the newly roasted beans. This is when degassing is the most intense. During the first 24 hours, chemical changes could still be happening within the bean. If consumed before this time, the coffee will have off tastes.
For more info about the science behind degassing, look at this article from Clive Coffee. They interview Trey Cobb from Greater Goods – one of the roasters we featured in our Ultimate 2018 Espresso Guide!
In Clive Coffee’s article, Cobb states that:
“For any coffees prepared as an espresso, we recommend waiting at least 5 days after the roast date before using. Our internal standard is between 7-11 days before use as espresso. For drip/pour-over, we wait 4-7 days. For cold brew, 10-14 days. The “sweet spot” varies according to coffee roast degree (light/dark), bean density, physical size, processing method and even the varietal(s).”
As you can see, the “when is coffee at its best” argument goes two ways. Coffee should neither be too fresh nor too aged.
- If the roast date is well over a month old, you may want to refrain from purchasing the coffee.
- If the roast date is around a month old, the roaster is reputable, and the coffee is high quality… the choice is yours!
- Check the bag to make sure it’s heat sealed.
- Always buy whole bean.
- Fresher doesn’t always mean better. Wait a few days after the roast date to consume.
Now that we have freshness covered, let’s move on to some practical coffee tips.
A Good Grind
When is coffee at its best? When you have a good grind.
You need a decent grinder. We’ve probably mentioned this in 10 articles by this point, and we will continue to do so. We can’t stress it enough. A good grinder will take your brewing game to the next level.
Here’s an article we wrote that provides all the information you’ll need.
Why a grinder is important:
- It allows you to make confident brewing decisions.
- Grinding accuracy (narrow particle size distribution) helps prevent updosing. This saves coffee and keeps your cup sweet and balanced. [updosing means to add more coffee to make up for sour or weak flavors]
- Dialing in grind is the most effective way to determine taste characteristics of bitterness, body, and various flavor solubles.
Proper Water Chemistry
When is coffee at its best? When you brew with good water.
Coffee is 98% water. This means that water is the main ingredient, and thus, important.
If the main ingredient in a dish is tainted by off tastes and odors, chances are the dish will turn out shabby and miserable. The same goes for coffee. If you’re used to brewing with RO or spring water, you may have noticed a difference in taste when you use hotel tap water. If your palate is in check, it’s pretty apparent.
Scott Rao, the SCAA, the CBI, and others have done extensive research when it comes to water chemistry for coffee.
Here is a useful chart from Scott Rao’s book, Everything But Espresso [post provided image below.]
Adjusting water chemistry may seem far-fetched and over-the-top. However, if you’re curious what it’s all about, try using Third Wave Water. It’s a great way to get your water where it needs to be.
… At least switch from off tasting tap water to spring water. You’ll never go back.
The more we learn about coffee, the more we realize how little we know. Asking a seemingly simple question like “when is coffee at its best?”, becomes mind-boggling.
Brewing coffee is a beautiful craft that deserves practice and care. Understanding the processes behind coffee aging and freshness allow us to be more effective as baristas and homebrewers.
We at Blue Penguin believe that coffee is adventure. It’s not because of the geekery or the alchemy – coffee is an adventure because we get to explore it with others! The world of specialty coffee is a close-knit community. It’s a wonderful thing.
Keep learning. Keep exploring!