Fresh is Best (or is it)?
The Life Of A Roasted Coffee Bean
Coffee goes on a long journey before we get our hands on it as roasters. If you’ve read our ‘From Origin To Cup’ series, you’ll know all about the years of care and attention it takes to get the most out of a coffee plant, but it doesn’t end there!
When it flies out of the mouth of the roaster, coffee still has a lot of life left in it. As coffee roasts, it lets off gas (mainly carbon dioxide), and this degassing process continues after coffee leaves the roaster. There are a few schools of thought regarding what should happen next…
Many people like to let their coffee rest before grinding and brewing (some will be quite strict about waiting at least a week to enjoy their coffee), others would be happy to brew their coffee on the day it was roasted… We want to demystify the whole thing. Ultimately, we all just want to get the best out of our coffee, so we’re going to share with you what we know, and do our best to help!
Firstly, it’s important to understand what is going on as your coffee lets off gas. Brewing coffee is all about consistency – there’s no use in brewing something that tastes delicious, only to go back the next day and find that your beans are misbehaving.
Secondly is the matter of flavour. The first thing to talk about here is what’s called retronasal activity, or, to put it plainly, the way that smell is linked to taste.
It’s easy enough to test this – pinching your nose when drinking/eating will drastically mute what you’re able to experience, because we rely on our sense of smell to create the full picture when it comes to drinking/eating. To go down a bit of a language rabbit-hole: ‘flavour’ is actually a word reserved for talking about what happens when smell and taste combine!
With that in mind, it’s good to know what a degassing coffee does to our perception of flavour. Super-fresh coffees give us less chance for retronasal activity, and so we get less of the flavour that the coffee has to offer. A tub of coffee straight out of the roaster barely smells of anything, but a tub that is a week old hits you right in the face as soon as you take the lid off!
We tend to talk about fresh coffees as being ‘lively’. Either they are too fresh to behave properly when we’re brewing them, or, they haven’t rested enough for us to enjoy the flavours they have to offer. Coffees that are still degassing have the ‘white noise’ equivalent of flavour – you can get a vague idea of what the coffee could taste like at its best, but there’s a level of static in the way that stops you fully getting there.
What about stale coffee?
Coffee can definitely be too fresh, but it can also be not fresh enough. On the opposite end of the spectrum to degassing is oxidation, where exposure to oxygen over time can impact the quality of an item (think; browned fruit, rust, or stale coffee). As coffee ages, it loses some of its volatile flavour and aroma compounds, which can lead to a coffee tasting flat and cardboardy. Keeping your coffee airtight is the best way to enjoy its flavours for as long as possible!
From our experience, we’d say that coffees are at their best between 5 days and one month after roasting – when they’ve had time to de-gas, and haven’t yet had chance to go stale. The labels on our bags suggest drinking the coffee up to three months post-roast, and we often find these older coffees just as delicious… In fact, we recently found an unopened bag of our coffee that had been roasted 7 months prior, and even though it had lost a bit of its zing, it was still pretty impressive!