What's the deal with coffee's freshness?
How long is coffee fresh for? Does a bag of “old” coffee taste bad? How long is coffee drinkable? What does a roast date actually tell you? How fresh is too fresh?
We can talk about coffee's “freshness” in two different ways. In one respect, coffee’s agricultural nature requires it to have a shelf life. Coffee is the seed of a fruit and just like any other alive thing, life only lasts so long. Part of a coffee roaster’s job is to manage their coffee offerings in a way that provides the freshest coffee as often as possible. At Night Swim, we anticipate Latin American coffees to taste their best up to 6-8 months after processing. For African coffees that expectation can stretch out to over a year of shelf life (this is due to the density and size of African coffees).
So when we have a conversation about “freshness” we’re really talking about two things: 1) the freshness of the green coffee, and 2) the freshness of the roasted coffee.
As green coffee ages it can lose complexities in its acidity, vibrancy, and sweetness. Age can show up in the cup as a papery, woody taste that overpowers the coffee's finish and overall enjoyability. As roasted coffee ages, it can exhibit a rather “hollow” flavor. It tastes like coffee, looks like coffee, but…seems to lack the sparkle that we normally expect. For instance, an Ethiopian coffee one year off roast might have some of the fruit and citric elements it once had, but might lack the florality and complex sweetness you might anticipate.
Coffee can also be a little too fresh. Coffee brewed immediately after it is roasted will often have a temporarily muddled, roasty, and muted character. Resting coffees for at least a couple days will serve you well as they’ll reveal more and more of their tasty characteristics over time. Therefore, the roast date printed on a bag of coffee is just a reference point; a point of origin. Drinking a bag of coffee as it ages is akin to joining us on an adventure. You’ll notice flavors develop, change, and morph in different ways as the coffee takes you on its delicious journey.
So then what are the rules for coffee freshness?
Well, frankly, we don’t like rules. Self-imposed rules can often prevent us from enjoying things outside of our expectations. So the litmus test for good tasting coffee is well…good tasting coffee - regardless of age. We’ve tasted roasted coffee eight months off roast that sparkled like it had been roasted a week ago. We’ve also tasted roasted coffee one month old that seemed like it was roasted a year ago. For us, we try to limit the age of the coffees we sell in our cafes to two months maximum. We typically don’t have coffees sitting around that long, but two month old coffee is still plenty delicious and enjoyable.
The moral of the story is - be patient with your coffee and enjoy it over time. A newly roasted coffee has a lot of life to live and there shouldn’t be a lot of rules telling you how or when you can enjoy your coffee.
If it tastes good, it’s good… that much we know for sure.