Make it last with these expert coffee storage tips.
So, you’ve gotten a delicious bag of coffee delivered to your door. Maybe you've even bought in bulk. You’re excited to drink it and the first cup tastes totally delicious, even better than you imagined! Assuming you’re not hosting a perfectly-timed and well-attended brunch, it’s time to put that coffee away — but not just anywhere will do! You want to put your coffee away in a place that’ll ensure it tastes delicious for as long as it takes you to finish it. What to do?
What Does Freshness Mean for Coffee?
The concept of coffee freshness in the popular imagination is a relatively new one, like most specialty coffee concepts. I’ve found bags of coffee in my parents cupboard that were literally years old. And they’ve asked me if I wanted to try them. That's understandable, because unlike many of the things we consume, coffee doesn’t spoil in a traditional way. Old coffee doesn't smell rotten and it won't make you sick. It doesn't even really look different, in the way that, for example, an old chocolate bar looks whiter than it used to.
But the taste difference in an older coffee definitely noticeable. Even if it’s not gross, like an old bag of spinach, older coffee loses a lot of what makes that coffee special. That's especially the case for those aromatics that help the flavors really pop.
The first, and probably least helpful tip for storing coffee: try not to. If you’re at all skilled at buying the correct amount of groceries, try bringing that same energy to your coffee buying habits. Keep note of how long it takes you to go through a bag, and try not to buy coffee more frequently than you need to. You’ll still want to store that coffee properly even if for only two weeks, but it does make freshness concerns a little less important.
Most advice I've encountered describes your kitchen as a rogues gallery of villains trying to attack your coffee, which I think is pretty hilarious. The first of these villains — in a shocking betrayal considering how often we rely on it to live — is air. The flavor we call “stale,” whether in reference to beans or to cold brew that’s been sitting around for a while, is largely the flavor of oxidation.
Many roasters have reacted to this problem by putting a plastic zipper on their bags, which is certainly not 100 percent airtight, but definitely an improvement over twist ties. If you want to transfer coffee out of the bag, as long as it's already a few days off roast, look for as airtight of a container as possible. There are plenty of food-safe canisters with relatively sealed snap lids that will do the trick, and odds are you already have a useable jar on hand.
Heat is pretty much never good for coffee until you start brewing.
The jar only works though, if you keep that coffee out of direct sunlight. Your coffee’s tan enough, so those UV rays are going to do it nothing but cause harm. Rule of thumb: bright spots near a sunny window, bad; dark cabinets and pantries, good. That principle applies even in an opaque container, as heat is pretty much never good for coffee until you start brewing. Oxidation works faster when it’s warmer, so while coffee won’t spoil without refrigeration the way milk does, cooler is generally better!
Settling the Debate
So why, then, is there still debate about whether or not to put coffee in your freezer or refrigerator? As far as whether coffee can and should be frozen in general, the answer is a relatively agreed upon: Yes! Frozen coffee will oxidize slower, preserve coffee's bright flavors, and it will seemingly help coffee grind more evenly. The question lies in how said coffee is frozen.
Here, an air-tight container becomes even more important. Coffee beans are pretty porous and can take on aroma easily, so if you have other food in your freezer, the danger of your beans absorbing aromas from pork chops and veggies is very real (some die hards have gone so far as to buy a separate freezer just for coffee). And if you’re storing coffee for more than a few months without an airtight container, there’s the added danger of freezer burn.
Anybody freezing coffee for professional purposes does so in vacuum sealed bags that really get out all the oxygen. If you happen to own that equipment for food storage, you now have another use for it. For the rest of us, just aim for as airtight as possible. Zippable plastic freezer bags with as much air squeezed out as possible are totally fine for short-term freezes.
Another fear for frozen coffee is condensation; if that coffee comes out of the freezer and is exposed to oxygen, will water vapor condense into liquid on its surface and give you wet beans? If your coffee is really well-sealed, you could guarantee this doesn’t happen by taking it out of the fridge and letting it come to room temperature for about 15 minutes before brewing. In my experience, though, as long as you work quickly, you can get that coffee out of the bag and into the grinder before seeing most ill effects.
- Set your coffee buying schedule so each bag won’t last longer than two or three weeks (hint: you can automatically set your coffee subscription to do the planning for you!)
- Buy whole bean and grind it fresh if at all possible
- Store your beans in an airtight container
- Keep your beans away from sunlight and heat
- Use the freezer for longer-term storage
- When using coffee from the freezer, take out only as much as you need, moving quickly. Then put the rest back in the freezer ASAP!