Buying Fresh Coffee – How Fresh is Fresh?
Buying fresh coffee beans – what to look for
Take a bag of your favourite coffee and find the best before date. The chances are that it may be months or years away. Despite this, it is more than likely that your coffee is already stale. Don’t believe me? Well read on and let’s see if I can change the way you see and buy fresh coffee.
What is fresh coffee?
This is a little hard to define, as from a flavour perspective coffee is always on the move. From the moment it is roasted, the volatile and numerous aromas that contribute towards the complex and delicious flavour and smell of coffee are changing. Two things are indisputable though; as time progresses, desirable flavours are lost and undesirable flavours increase. It takes quite a while for the really unpleasant flavours to dominate but it is no exaggeration to say that the fresher you can enjoy your roasted coffee the better.
When is coffee fresh?
Depending on what kind of coffee it is the exact window of optimum enjoyment may vary. Light roasted speciality coffees that are aroma driven should be enjoyed as soon as possible after roasting, whereas darker roasted commercial blends are much more stable.
As a good rule of thumb, espresso coffees should be drunk within 3 months of roasting and filter or cafetiere blends drunk even sooner. This is based on bagged whole beans in stable room temperatures.
What happens when coffee goes stale? (the science bit)
Many of the desirable qualities in coffee such as fruity, sweet, floral or buttery notes are the most volatile. These aromas belong to a group of chemicals called aldehydes, which readily oxidise in the presence of air. Quantities of certain aldehydes can diminish by as much as 50% within 15 minutes of grinding. In the presence of oxygen many aldehydes evolve into unpleasant aromas with smoky, sulphurous or vegetable notes. Eventually lipids (oils) in the coffee break down and release a whole range of unpleasant flavours caused by the creation of substances called peroxides.
In short – coffee gets dull a long time before it goes stale. A best before date might stop you drinking truly horrible coffee, but it doesn’t help you drink coffee at it’s best.
Keeping Coffee Fresh
Hand oxygen all dramatically speed up the staling process so avoiding these three evils is key. Keeping coffee away from oxygen by storing in a valved bag is the first step to prolonging life. If the bean is packed fresh it will release gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen which will push the oxygen through the valve and create a protective atmosphere. Cool and dry storage with waterproof packaging will also help.
The popular commercial method of water quenching to cool beans after roasting is effective but dramatically increases the staling process, so is best avoided. As previously mentioned, once coffee is ground volatile aromatics are immediately dispersed, so grinding to order is a must for even the busiest café.
Really the best thing you can do is find a quality local roaster who can keep you supplied with just what you need for immediate enjoyment. Ignore best before dates and look for roasted on dates instead. Seeing coffee as a fresh product with a limited lifespan and treating it accordingly is the first step towards getting something more interesting in your cup.
Conclusion – buying fresh coffee
Buy coffee that is fresh rather than what sounds fancy. I for one am regularly guilty of splashing out big money on wonderful sounding micro-lot coffees in 3rd wave cafes that are a big bag of blah by the time I drink them, simply because they are a few months old and packed in “artisanal” waxed paper bags closed with a simple twisted tie. It’s an expensive habit that always leaves me disappointed. I recently bought some excellent Kenyan coffee from a small Sheffield roastery who buck this trend in a most impressive way. They promise to swap out any coffee older than 2 months from the retail outlets that stock them. This is the very definition of a producer putting their money where their mouth is and is a great example for others to follow.
PRODUCT PLACEMENT WARNING! Café Amore work closely with a small batch roaster to make sure that you get your coffee at it’s best. We put a roasted on date on all our bags and I certainly wouldn’t touch any coffee that didn’t do the same so look out for roasted on dates when buying fresh coffee.
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