If you’re new to the idea of a small-batch coffee roaster in your neighborhood, you might be thinking, “Why should I buy fresh, locally-roasted coffee? I’m still working on that big bag of name brand holiday blend I got for Christmas last year!” This is a great question that gets to the heart of coffee freshness. We’ve been having a blast studying up on bean freshness lately–because yes, we are huge coffee nerds–and there’s a good chance that we’re about to blow your mind.
Coffee beans are ALIVE!
...in a sense. Just like any other organic plant component, coffee beans are ever-changing, and unlike, say, an inorganic rock, coffee beans are changed by outside forces, like “oxygen” and “time.” (Yes, we know rocks change over time, but that’s a function of erosion, not a function of the clock.) Coffee beans are organic, and in that sense, they’re alive. It might not look like they’re alive if you’re staring down at the beans in that big bag of six-month-old holiday blend, but it’s true!
Sort of makes you think twice about putting them in the grinder, doesn’t it?
For many, many years in America, coffee was a big-bag business, and the point was not necessarily how lovely it could taste, but rather how cheaply you could get it. The purpose was to start your day with something warm and caffeine-y. Then a few companies got the idea to make the coffee experience a bit more special, getting inspiration from small French or Italian cafes that took more time with their coffees and focused on the making of espresso drinks. And boy, did those companies strike a chord with U.S. consumers! One could say they were almost too popular, so much so that the small cafe vibe we all know and love became little more than a product of branding. Starbucks designs its locations to feel cozy and comfortable, like your local cafe...but Starbucks isn’t exactly the mom-and-pop operation down the street.
Not that we can blame them! These large-scale coffee roasters had to become big-bag coffee buyers themselves, just to keep up with demand. Starbucks didn’t start out as STARBUCKS. It started as a neighborhood cafe near Pike Place Market. But start producing a product that people go crazy for, and a few decades later, well...here we are.
One of the problems with coffee companies going down this big-bag road was that it sometimes led to some questionable roasting and selling practices...and that led to what ended up being a very wonderful backlash that we now know as “third-wave coffee”: small shops roasting small batches of coffee beans from quality farmers, focusing on slow-brewed taste and freshness rather than fast-brewed profit and expansion.
All of this is to say that big brand coffee would rather you didn’t think too much about how coffee beans are alive and aging quickly, because when you roast at such a huge scale, it’s hard to ensure the beans are fresh by the time they reach the consumer. It’s just one of the problems with commodity coffee. So these big brands may do things like roast the heck out of your beans until their nuanced bean flavors are unrecognizable, and all you taste is the roast, because if you’re not tasting the actual bean, how will you know if the bean has lost its flavor? Or they might sell you months-old coffee without a “roasted on” date in the hopes that you won’t stop to think about whether or not the coffee is still alive.
But we think that coffee should be treated more like a fresh fruit than an old raisin. Coffee is alive, and as soon as it’s roasted, its life clock starts ticking down. One highly respected third-wave coffee pioneer, Counter Culture Coffee, puts it very clearly: “Best case scenario is that coffee is used within two-to-four weeks from roasting for peak flavor.” Time to start checking those roast dates in the pantry!
Now, it’s not that you can’t drink old coffee. If you’ve never purchased truly fresh coffee before, you probably won’t notice the staleness or sometimes moldy quality that beans develop over time. And honestly, maybe you enjoy the stale or moldy flavors. I know that sounds gross, but it’s totally legit! A lot of coffee drinkers really like the papery flavor of stale coffee, or the tang of mold that might come with poorly-stored beans. Those are just two more dots on the huge flavor chart that is coffee! But if you’ve never had coffee that tasted naturally like apricots, or lemons, or jasmine tea, or chocolate-covered cherries, then you’ve probably only been drinking coffee that’s darker in its roast, or past its expiration date, and you’re missing out on some seriously good third-wave coffee.
If you’re interested in teaching your palate to appreciate the nuances of coffee flavor, the first thing to do is start buying just enough coffee that you know you will drink within a week or so. And the best way to do that is to find a local coffee roastery, like Reconstruction Coffee Roasters! When you buy local, you can find out from the roaster themselves when the beans were roasted–along with the information about where the beans are from, how they were farmed, and what they should taste like–and you can be confident there has been no loss in quality due to the storage and transportation of roasted coffee beans from a factory warehouse to a big-chain coffee store.
Plus, you’ll be supporting local business owners, and that is so, so important.
Strangely enough, we’ve also learned from research done by the Specialty Coffee Association that there is also such a thing as coffee that is too fresh! In the first couple of days after green coffee beans are roasted, the beans do a lot of “de-gassing” where they are letting off CO2, and during that time, the aroma and flavor profile changes, a lot. After a little de-gassing, though, the coffee beans calm down, and the taste and aroma should remain relatively stable for a week or two. That’s why most roasters who take great pride in the coffee that they have developed for you will actually wait a day or two to sell you their just-roasted beans, the hope being that you’ll buy just enough to enjoy for the next week or so, then come back to the shop to buy the next week’s freshly-roasted batch!
Starts to make you feel excited to have a coffee roaster conveniently located in your neighborhood, doesn’t it?
There is a lot that is still being studied about the freshness of coffee. Some are experimenting with the perfect time to grind the beans based on your brew method (Immediately? An hour before?). Others are working hard to develop the best storage system for your coffee beans once you open that bag (HINT: It is definitely not putting the bag in the freezer). So, by no means are the suggestions here hard and fast rules. Coffee is still a subjective experience and hopefully will always be. That’s what makes it fun, right?
So you may be saying to yourself, “Well now I feel bad that I have all these old coffee beans that you’re telling me not to use. I don’t like to throw things away and be wasteful!” Well, we’ve got some suggestions for that, too! Erin likes to put old coffee beans into glass candle votives and holders as a decorative touch to a plain white candle. Denise likes to use old coffee grounds to repel those pesky rural Missouri ants, and Randy love getting bags of old coffee grounds to supercharge the soil in his garden! We don’t doubt that our resourceful Midwestern neighbors have their own life-hack uses for used or unused coffee grounds and beans. If you have a favorite way to recycle yours, we’d love to hear it! Leave your ideas in the comments below!