Coffee is a fruit, right? It’s a cherry that grows on a tree. While the “vegetal” part is processed away, leaving just the pit – the fresh coffee bean, the green bean, our favorite part – is still a perishable type of produce and, like anything alive, will slowly meet its destiny and eventually go bad.
Does coffee go bad?
Yes, even the best coffee may go bad. However, it’s not like moldy cheese or rancid fish. While the flavors may not be optimal or the best they can be, the stale coffee may actually still taste better than even a less expensive, properly roasted coffee.
It depends on your palate and what flavors you enjoy. To be clear, old coffee will not make you ill, it may just taste more like burnt cardboard. Thus, making it hard to justify paying a premium for the best coffee if it tastes the same as Folger’s.
What is fresh coffee?
- Green coffee beans are harvested once – sometimes twice per year. They are processed according to local preferences/styles, dried, and then sold in the markets to be distributed throughout the world. In this state, there is just enough moisture in the green coffee to last about a year before drying out completely and ultimately losing its flavor characteristics. Green bean sellers or your local roaster will show great concern for how these beans were stored, where they were procured, and where they came from.
- Whether you get your coffee beans online, at the grocery store, or from your favorite local roaster, the roasting process is the final step in a coffee bean’s life. Once roasted to a light, medium, or dark roast, roasted coffee – once ready for brewing – should only last between 3-21 days. Properly roasted green coffee will have the best flavor provided it is fresh and brewed within this two-week window. Even the best coffee may start to taste funny after it sits in your home for longer than this recommended time.
- So, you’ve picked up your favorite coffee beans, they were just roasted (you saw them do it or there’s a roasting date on the package), and you’re ready to do some brewing each morning of the next week. You make fresh coffee every morning, should you grind the new beans all at once, or make a batch one at a time? If you want to enjoy the best coffee with the freshness you paid for, it’s recommended that you grind the coffee beans just before you start brewing. Ground Coffee has much more surface area than in its bean form and will rapidly oxidize once it is exposed to the air in your home. Think of the roasted bean as a protective shell that seals in the flavor. In fact, you should see tiny bubbles in your freshly brewed coffee – this is a sign of freshness. The best flavors are stored in these gases. Without water content or oil – the things that either dry out or become rancid, coffee isn’t all that different than burnt cardboard.
- Store your coffee beans in as airtight a seal as you can find. Whether the bag is recloseable or you have a favorite jar with a nice silicone/rubber seal isn’t terribly important – the freshness can only be protected. You’re simply trying to maintain the best flavor profile possible during that sweet spot of two-weeks from roasting until brewing.
Like with other processed foods, coffee could be dried, cured, salted, canned, or preserved. Luckily for us, roasted coffee provides the best flavors so most efforts to preserve fresh coffee have the roasting process in mind.
Within the time parameters listed above, fresh coffee will differ from stale or old coffee in that it contains chemical compounds that are, typically, more “pleasing to the senses”. The moisture content and oils are what transfer most of the flavors you experience in your favorite coffees. With time, moisture will dry out and the oils will quickly oxidize leaving the wonderful flavors you wrote down at that cupping you went to. That description you read about your favorite coffee bean online means nothing once the roast has passed its time and becomes stale.
How do you make fresh coffee?
You brew your favorite beans shortly after they’ve been roasted. Ideally, you enjoy your coffee within 3-14 days of the roast date.
Is freshly roasted coffee better? Does freshness matter?
Good coffee is judged by the flavors it contains, and the flavors start to dissipate if the roasted coffee is not used for a while. Freshly roasted coffee is definitely better than stale coffee. Whether or not you can taste them or describe them to your friends, flavors exist.
According to researchers, of the 850+ volatile chemicals (VOCs) found in coffee flavor and aroma, 40 have low odor thresholds and/or higher concentrations that make coffee so distinctive. They may be terpenes, bioflavinoids, minerals, or simple chemical structures that exist in the foods that you use to describe that espresso you tried at your favorite coffee shop.
If you want more information on more of the chemicals found in coffee or the health-related risks and/or benefits check out our article here.
How can you tell if coffee is fresh?
Simple things you can do to tell if coffee is fresh include:
- Look for a roast date on the packaging.
- Look for a flavor seal on the packaging.
- Avoid ground coffee beans, especially if you’re paying top dollar.
- Look for other signs of freshness
- Sealed jars
- Airtight containers or bags
- Newness of packaging
- Smell it
- Taste it
The ideal time to brew freshly roasted coffee is between 7 and 21 days from when it was roasted.
Before 7 days, it is still degassing, and after 21 days, it starts losing aromas.
Freshly harvested and processed “green” coffee beans typically last one year from the time of harvest and should be roasted within that time to maintain ALL of the desirable flavor profiles.