We’re asked to make a lot of decisions when we go to the grocery store — many of which we make without giving a second thought. When you’re buying fruits and vegetables, for example, you’re likely assessing how fresh they look and making decisions about which item you’ll buy. Are the leaves of a head of lettuce green and vibrant, or are they drooping and beginning to brown? Do the cherries look like they’re in season or will they be tart and unappetizing?
Coffee has no visual giveaways. It’d be difficult to look at a bean and say, “This is fresh!” versus “This is old!” Instead, coffee bags will usually have a “roasted on” date, and like any other variable — elevation, country of origin, variety — the freshness of a coffee can inform the way you taste and brew your coffee, so it’s an important factor to understand and pay attention to.
It's very likely that if you go to a grocery store, you'll find coffee bags of all different roast dates - or perhaps some without a roast date at all. Depending on the store, coffee might be regarded as a shelf-stable item like beans or pasta, but coffee is much more like a fruit : it tastes best when fresh, and a roasted coffee bean can degrade over time. And if no one is paying attention, the bags on the shelf of your favorite grocer might be carrying stale coffee beans that have been roasted months before.
Here's how coffee freshness is impacted over time - and when it's important to pay attention:
Coffee beans vs coffee grounds
How long does coffee stay good for? Well, a coffee bean vs. a coffee ground will actually vary in how it is preserved. Keep in mind that coffee storage methods also affect freshness. Answering the question "how long does coffee stay good for" will also depend on how it is stored as a roasted bean versus a ground bean. After it is opened, fresh ground coffee can be preserved for about three to five months, meanwhile fresh coffee beans can stay good for six months. Coffee beans last longer because with coffee grounds there is more surface area that gets exposed to oxygen, ultimately affecting how long it stays fresh.
Freshness after roasting
Whether you’re drinking drip coffee or cold brew, coffee goes through a number of phases before it lands in your cup. The idea of freshness morphs as you move through the coffee supply stream (green coffee can last months, even years, if stored properly, and roasters can adjust their profiles based on the age of a coffee to maximize the flavor in the bean), but the relationship between freshness and flavor becomes much sharper once you get to the end of the line: when the coffee is roasted and shipped. So how long do roasted coffee beans stay fresh?
During the roasting process, coffee beans become less dense and more porous (coffee loses about 25 percent of its mass during the roasting process), so in a way, the volatile compounds that make coffee taste good can more easily escape once the coffee is roasted. “We roast our coffee fresh to order on purpose, so customers can enjoy the best flavors that particular coffee has to offer,” says Miranda Haney, Lead Trainer and Events and Marketing Coordinator for Greater Goods Coffee Co in Austin, Texas.
“Fresh-to-order” is probably a phrase you’ve seen before, and in coffee, it really matters — in grocery stores, coffee is being ordered to fulfill stock versus going directly into the hands of a drinker. “We have no clue what happens to the beans once they leave our roastery,” Miranda says. “That's why it's best to buy directly from roasters or vendors that pay attention to roast dates. The closer to the source, the fresher the product.” By drinking a coffee that was roasted when you ordered it, you can make smart predictions about how this coffee will perform because you know exactly when it was roasted.
For example, Miranda and her team at Greater Goods suggest waiting a few days before ripping into a new bag. “We recommend folks wait five-ish days post roast to allow the coffee to degas... [and] we've found most of our coffees hit the sweet spot around two weeks post roast,” Miranda explains. “We're not interested in pawning off old coffee beans to customers. We sincerely want the coffee to taste as good to them as it did the first time we tasted it and decided to buy it.”
Freshness is an important equalizer
You’ve likely seen tasting notes, or flavor descriptors on a bag of coffee. If you go through the Trade website, most coffees have a few key words like “chocolate,” “cherry,” or other desirable and recognizable flavors.
As Miranda notes, roasters want customers to experience the beautiful flavors that made them want to buy and roast the coffee they’re selling to consumers. By paying attention to freshness, you’re more likely to taste what these companies intended a coffee to taste like since, as we mentioned, roasted coffee tends to lose flavor over time.
“We always want our customers to have the most ideal drinking experience possible. And a big part of the ideal experience includes the freshness of their coffee,” says Chelsea Kallman, National Sales Manager for Good Citizen Coffee Co in Nashville, Tennessee. Chelsea gives a window between four days to two weeks to enjoy coffee at its peak freshness — and that’s also the period of time you’re likely to taste the flavors described on the bag.
This is also where storage comes in. Because coffee releases volatile components and aromas as it ages, proper bagging and storage is key to preserving flavor — a self-dispensing tube in a grocery store won’t be able to prevent oxygen from hitting the beans, which speeds up the staling process (not to mention that if those tubes haven’t been cleaned, they likely have coffee oils from older beans, which is the main culprit for that musty, almost rancid flavor a coffee can pick up when it’s really old). “As coffee degasses, it loses flavor and its exposure to the air creates a stale flavor,” says Chelsea. “That's why proper packaging (one-way valve and air tight packaging after the bag is opened) is key.”
Using extra coffee creatively
If you notice that your coffee is beginning to lose its freshness, you can get creative with other ways to use your coffee before it expires. Try out some dessert recipes that feature coffee such as:
Coffee is delicious brewed, however, if you are a coffee lover it can also be fun to incorporate the flavors in other creative coffee recipes.
Understanding freshness informs how you brew coffee
Like all the other information we publish about coffee, freshness is an important variable to understand when you’re brewing and drinking coffee. At Trade, your specialty coffee is roasted fresh, so you know exactly when the beans that were delivered to you hit the coffee roaster — and that knowledge is incredibly powerful and can help you make vital decisions about how you choose to brew! Sign up for a coffee subscription and discover coffee you love delivered fresh to your door, as often as you need it.