How Fresh Should We Want Our Coffee To Be?
If you’re just getting into coffee in a serious way then it’s important to understand the role freshness plays in coffee beans and how such a factor can be misleading, especially when shopping for coffee at the supermarkets or large stores. We all know the deeper you get into speciality coffee the more the price increases and we want to make sure you’re getting value for money when you first start experimenting with speciality coffee at home as there are countless variables and things to consider.
We’re all familiar with sell by dates, best before dates et cetera, and we all also know that food is best enjoyed when it’s fresh, to avoid produce that’s out of date, and that the same applies with coffee. For coffee, does it?
Fresh coffee is best, right? Well, not technically
The truth is that fresh coffee isn’t actually ideal for every brew method. When coffee is roasted, a lot of carbon dioxide is produced and depending on the brew method, this carbon dioxide can be problematic. For example, espresso coffees are brewed at a much higher pressure than any other brew methods and this high pressure extracts more carbon dioxide from the coffee than other methods. As such, if you’re making an espresso coffee, you shouldn't actually want your coffee to be extremely fresh. Instead, you should let your coffee sit for at least 7-10 days, maybe even up to 2 weeks to let some of that carbon dioxide escape, and such a time delay is what we call a 'coffee rest period'. With this in mind, you’ll notice most bags of speciality coffee have a valve on one of it's sides, for which it is this humble part to the bag that allows carbon dioxide out.
Freshness vs. supermarkets
Knowing if your coffee is fresh when you buy it does become difficult, especially when purchasing from supermarkets. Speciality Roasters love to use ‘roast dates’ as being the indicator of when the coffee was made, giving a very clear indication of ‘freshness’. However, supermarkets hate roast dates, they instead prefer 'use by' or 'best before' dates and these are both rather different; supermarkets would purchase bulk orders of roast runs, store these in a warehouse over time and then continue to sell until the stocks need replenishing, meaning the very last bag might be sold months and months after their first despite both being roasted at the same time. The fact of the matter is, if vacuum sealed and unopened, coffee can theoretically last for a long time, but do you really want to spend your money on a bag of coffee that’s been sat on a supermarket shelf for 6 months not knowing exactly when that coffee was actually roasted?
This particularly becomes more apparent when the exact same bag of speciality coffee bought directly from the roaster will have the roast date specified whereas the same bag on the supermarket shelf won’t at all. You might think why, if the two bags are from the same supplier, however, supermarkets' use of dates is demanded by the supermarkets themselves, not through the choice of that particular roaster. Here, we might as well just go as far as saying, in black and white, that we really don't recommend buying coffee from supermarkets ~ cue side thoughts and opinions about instant coffee, but we'll leave that topic for another time.
And how about filter coffee brewing methods?
If you typically enjoy filter coffee then there is a larger window of freshness than espresso coffees as freshness is less important for making consistently good cups of filter coffee. For filter brewing methods, we recommend having the 'coffee rest period' at around 4 days minimum, in which filter coffees will remain perfectly drinkable between 1 week and 6 weeks after this point with very little diminishing returns.
Wholebeans vs. pre-ground coffees
Putting timeframes aside for a moment, there are also differences towards freshness in whether you purchase your coffee as wholebeans or pre-ground. As clearly as we can ever write, wholebeans will always be better value for money. When coffee is pre-ground and sealed for retail, the moment you open that bag the clock starts and you have maybe a week or so to enjoy the coffee before you lose its quality, all in all meaning after this you’re no longer getting what you paid for. With wholebeans, each individual bean remains fresher for longer as you're only grinding the coffee when you’re ready to use it, and with the remaining beans remaining intact, in turn, this preserves all that lovely aroma for longer.
For lighter or medium roast wholebean coffees, these beans are going to remain fresh for between 4-8 weeks after roasting depending on how you store them - read our tips on how to store coffee at home -, whereas darker roasts typically go stale a little quicker and we’d encourage you to store dark roast beans for between 4-6 weeks maximum. Purchasing your coffee as wholebeans also provides the added benefit that if you enjoy different brew methods, you're able to grind your coffee either finer or more coarse depending on the brew method you're about to embark on, whereas you can’t do this with pre-defined sized ground coffee.
Summary - freshness matters, but requires judgement
Here in Part 1 of our Coffee Buying Guide, we've quickly overviewed that freshness has a big impact on your coffee depending on your chosen brew method, and we'd say it absolutely wise to avoid supermarkets as you can never be sure when the coffee was actually roasted. Instead, we'd always recommend buying your speciality coffee needs from trusted coffee shops, coffee roasters or from the GUSTATORY marketplace ~ of course, the added benefit of choosing GUSTATORY is that we offer the convenient ability to shop from 350+ independent brands all in a single location and checkout with a single GUSTATORY account, or as a guest. As such, you won't ever need separate online accounts with each of the independent coffee roasters to make your separate purchases ~ nope, it's no longer 2015. As well as this, rest assured, GUSTATORY does not hold any stock ourselves and all orders are made direct from our partners to you, enabling you to receive as fresh produce as possible.
Or, if you'd like to enjoy speciality coffees from an ever-evolving curation of UK's, USA's and Europe's most acclaimed coffee roasters, with up to six roasters featuring every month, a GUSTATORY coffee subscription is just for you. Either options, we hope you'll find GUSTATORY as beneficial as all our fans, customers and subscribers.
Part 2 of our Coffee Buying Guide takes a look understanding coffee bags, briefly overviewing roast strength, processing type, flavour profiles and roast profiles. We'll see you there.
GUSTATORY (adjective): curating excellence in taste.