The freshness of coffee significantly impacts its taste, with stale coffee often resulting in a dull, less vibrant flavour. Freshly roasted coffee beans contain a complex mix of aromatic compounds that break down over time, altering the taste. Storing coffee in whole bean form in a cool, dry environment away from moisture and UV can help maintain its quality. Coffee is usually at its peak freshness between 3-14 days after roasting and noticeably decreases in flavour and aroma quality after 60 days. Ground coffee, however, stales much faster due to a greater exposed surface area. Factors such as exposure to moisture, UV, and temperature fluctuations also affect the freshness of the coffee, accelerating the degradation process. Unfortunately, coffee in supermarkets and chain coffee shops often tastes stale due to the lengthy supply chain and lack of freshness indicators but local roasteries can provide fresher beans.
Your coffee tastes like what ?!?
When I see people online complaining about coffee tasting like gym socks, it breaks my heart but we've all been there - that heart-sinking moment when a much-anticipated first sip of coffee tastes bitter and gross. You feel betrayed- it smelled so good, but now you're just stuck with this horrible flavour, so you load up with milk and sugar to make it a little more bearable. This unfortunate reality is, sadly, all too common.
So why does your coffee taste so bad? Most often, it's not your brewing skills, it's not your water quality; it's just the staleness of the coffee. Many people do not realize that roasted coffee is a perishable product meaning it will eventually go bad and spoil, probably sooner than you think. But it doesn't have to be this way, and you don't need to break the bank to enjoy a much better cup of coffee.
Considering the amount of effort and expertise that goes into growing coffee, harvesting it, processing it at the mill transporting it across continents, roasting it and finally brewing it, why would you want to settle for bad coffee? Would you not want to do everything you could to preserve that quality so that you can enjoy it in your cup?
Let's delve into why freshness matters and how we can ensure we get the freshest brew possible.
Coffee Freshness: More Than Just a Date
So how do we measure freshness in coffee? Most often, the time elapsed from the date the coffee was roasted is a reliable starting point for determining the freshness of your coffee because the degradation of the aromatic compounds requires time. How do you know how fresh your coffee is? You can ask your roaster or look for a "roast date," which is simply the date on which that particular batch of coffee was roasted. This should not be confused with a "best-by" or a "sell-by" date included on some supermarket coffees.
Generally speaking, coffee in whole bean form stored under the right conditions is at peak freshness between 3-14 days after roasting and remains in fairly good condition up to 60 days from the date of roast, although, with noticeable decreases in the quality of the flavour and aroma. Ground coffee deteriorates much faster and will stale in a matter of hours or days because much more of the internal surface area of the bean is exposed after grinding.
Not bad, right? Considering an average person drinking 2 cups a day might consume about a pound of coffee within those 14 days, it's not as intimidating as it might have seemed initially. Bottom line: you have enough time to drink your coffee while it's still fresh.
So why does this process take weeks rather than days or hours? Roasting coffee creates carbon dioxide (CO2), which slowly leaks out of the coffee through the tiny cracks and fissures in the bean's structure over the following weeks. As this CO2 leaks out of the bean, it displaces the oxygen in the air around the coffee and prevents it from accessing the beans and initiating the oxidation that results in the development of the dull and off-putting flavour of stale coffee. Eventually, this flow slows down enough to allow oxygen into the structure of the beans, resulting in the eventual staling and spoiling we talked about earlier. You can see the release of CO2 in fresh coffee for yourself when you try to brew with it. When you add hot water, fresh coffee foams up and doubles or triples in volume. Stale coffee, on the other hand, barely releases any gas at all.
But why is coffee only at its best 3 days after roasting? Letting coffee rest after roasting for a minimum of 24 hours is important because the amount of CO2 that is released is significant and will interfere with extraction during brewing and can negatively impact the flavour and aroma of the coffee due to the creation of carbonic acid when dissolved in water. During this resting phase, the aromatic compounds in the coffee also stabilize and create a more balanced and nuanced flavour profile, resulting in a more consistent taste from brew to brew. 3 days after roasting is usually when the coffee has stabilized enough to be at its peak in terms of flavour and consistency.
You may hear people talk about oxidation and oxygen being the enemy of coffee freshness. While this is technically true, it is only partially correct. Oxidation is only one type of reaction that can lead to the degradation of coffee flavour and aroma, and it does not necessarily require oxygen, although it is one of the most prevalent and reactive oxidative agents in our environment, especially when it comes to food. Other reactions that can result in the degradation of coffee aroma and flavour include hydrolysis, Maillard reaction breakdown, and enzymatic reactions.
While the amount of time elapsed from the date of roast is very important, it is not the only important factor that determines the freshness of the coffee. Other factors come into play, such as exposure to moisture, UV, and temperature fluctuations. All of these factors have the potential to accelerate the degradative process. For example, excess moisture and UV exposure lead to the degradation and conversion of desirable volatile aromatic compounds into less desirable forms. Additionally, many reactions, including oxidation, are temperature-dependent and will accelerate if the coffee is stored in a hot environment.
While time is sadly not something we have the power to control, proper storage of roasted coffee is crucial to maintaining quality. You should store your coffee in whole bean form (not ground) in an airtight, opaque container away from moisture and UV. This means storing it in a cool and dry cupboard away from windows, direct sunlight and sources of heat and moisture such as stovetops, ovens, sinks, dishwashers, and espresso machines. Grind coffee just before brewing and don't freeze or refrigerate your beans, even if you vacuum-seal them.
How to Find Fresher Coffee
If freshness is so important to coffee quality, why is the coffee found at supermarkets and in chain coffee shops most often stale? The answer to this question lies in the lengthy supply chain and the absence of standardized freshness-indicating information.
The reality of roasting coffee at scale is that it requires centralized facilities and, therefore, a much longer time to get to where it ultimately needs to be before you consume it. Grocery stores also buy large quantities of coffee products, so they often sit on shelves for much longer than the coffee you can buy at your local roastery or café. Furthermore, many coffee products do not have a roast date, just a best-by date or a sell-by date, which are not required or regulated in Canada and are up to the manufacturers' discretion. This leads to coffee sitting on shelves for unpredictable amounts of time. No wonder it often tastes so bad compared to the coffee you can get at your local specialty shop.
So, where to go to get fresher beans? To us, the answer is clear: go to your local roastery. The Region of Waterloo is lucky to have several small, locally-owned and operated roasteries to choose from. At Eco, although we don't label each bag with a roast date, all of our coffee gets shipped out within 48 hours of roasting, and we would be happy to tell you exactly when your coffee was roasted; send us an email or give us a call during regular business hours.
Coffee Quality: The Bigger Picture
As important as freshness is to your cup of coffee, it's not the end-all and be-all when it comes to coffee quality. Starting with high-quality coffee, getting it fresh from a skilled and diligent roaster, and developing your brewing skills are all equally vital to maintaining quality.
Roasting and brewing skills can often make or break a cup of coffee. A coffee roasted a week ago by a professional roaster will always be preferable to a lower-grade coffee roasted unevenly on a skillet at home by an amateur a day ago. However, the most important part of the coffee supply chain is what happens on the farm and the choices made in the cultivation and milling of the coffee. The rest of the supply chain must maintain and enhance the quality that is imparted at origin.
Freshness is an important part of coffee quality, and maintaining it can feel like a race against time. But understanding how to measure it, knowing where to find fresh coffee, and mastering the art of storing and brewing it can help you preserve and reveal the coffee's remarkable flavours. Once you taste the difference, you will understand that a good cup of coffee is worth the effort.