Great coffee is now available just about everywhere, and many of us have gotten quite used to being able to choose among the best beans and roasts in the world. For those of us who take coffee seriously and are willing to invest in high-end coffee beans, times could not be better.
The difficulty now, as so many people are buying great coffee varieties at no small expense, is how do we keep these fantastic coffee beans fresh once we get them home? Not many people go through a pound of coffee in day, and we all want to have it around and at optimum freshness.
Basically, you need to treat coffee beans in the same way you would treat fresh fruit. It can and will spoil if not stored properly. While you do want to spend time and a little money to store your coffee beans correctly, no one wants to become obsessive about this project. The goal is really just to make and enjoy great coffee for as long as possible. This guide will help you keep your expensive gourmet coffee fresh for as long as possible.
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Ideally, you should use your fresh coffee beans within about two weeks after it has been roasted. This is optimum and if you are buying from a local roaster you can generally be sure that the beans have been roasted within the last few days. We are aware of the reality that many of us are buying beans which have been sealed in air-tight packs probably for weeks, but keep in mind that these bags have been vacuum sealed to maintain freshness.
But the general rule is that coffee beans take on their best flavor roughly three days after they have been roasted, and they begin to loose flavor after about two weeks. So how do we store it in order to maximize our investment in great (and expensive) coffee?
The major threats to the flavor and freshness of your coffee are air, moisture, heat, and light. This goes for both whole bean and ground coffee. Essentially, the only heat, water, and air you ever want on or around your coffee beans are those necessary for brewing coffee. In many ways, this is quite intuitive.
Exposure to air, in the simplest terms, allows the aromatic oils—those features with give coffee its signature aroma—to begin to evaporate or react with ambient air. Keeping the beans sealed is the first order for preserving fresh roasted coffee beans.
Many coffee companies and roasters sell their beans in air-tight vacuum sealed bags. These are great, but do not count on them for re-sealing properly. Some roasters use a bag which has a vent to allow for off-gassing CO2 without causing the bag to rupture. These are usually re-sealable, but not always. We will get to specific types of containers, but check to make sure the bag has these two features before you rely on storing your fresh beans in the bag it came in.
Water and Moisture
Moisture is probably the biggest danger to fresh beans. Coffee beans are hygroscopic in nature, which means coffee beans will absorb and retain water from ambient moisture. This will lead to spoilage quickly. The delicate balance of oils will easily become diluted by ambient moisture, and the beans themselves will actually begin to rot if not protected from too much humidity.
Keep your fresh roasted coffee beans away from excess heat. You do not need to re-create a cigar humidor at home, but you do need to guard against extremes. Exposure to heat, by placing the coffee beans too close to a heat source or by simply leaving them in a hot room, will effectively “burn” off many of the oils and complex aromatics which give coffee its taste. Roasting is a careful process which involves rigorous heat and pressure control and a quick cooling technique in order to maximize the flavors latent in the coffee beans. Once this process is complete, more heat will ruin your fresh coffee beans.
Direct sunlight will cause coffee beans to go stale. Oxidation and reactions with the oils in the beans will cause the coffee to degrade. You are effectively guarding against slow thermal reactions with the coffee beans. It is crucial store beans in dark containers, or at least opaque containers to filter out sunlight.
There is an entire field of chemistry on the function of sunlight as it reacts with roasted coffee beans. You can spend days reading about it. But the thumbnail version is this: some of the important organic compounds which give coffee its distinct flavors and characteristics become unstable during the roasting process. The good part about this is that this is why these things can be extracted as we brew the coffee. The bad news is that these chemical compounds tend to break down with exposure to sunlight and the result is dull tasting coffee.
Should You Freeze or Refrigerate Your Coffee?
This is another one of those areas where the real answer is “depends on what you bought.” However, some rules of thumb are easy to formulate. DO NOT REFRIGERATE! Just don’t. Putting your fresh coffee beans in the refrigerator increases moisture in and around the beans. It does not preserve them at all. Basically, the refrigerator is a great place to spoil your beans and see how fast they will rot.
There is a time to freeze the beans. As stated above, fresh roasted coffee beans last about two weeks. If you bought a large quantity or a bulk amount, you may need to freeze it. The key in freezing coffee beans is that it is a one shot deal. Place the beans in a sealed container (tight sealed bag or other air-tight and freezer-safe container) and freeze. A nice tip says to suck the air out of the bag with a straw to prevent freezer burn. Once you take it out and thaw it, it will not stand re-freezing. The temperature fluctuations will cause the beans to absorb water and break down.
Never refrigerate. Freezing is a one-time option.
While the above guidelines are primarily for whole beans, they apply in large part to ground coffee. To be fair, some people just do not want to be bothered with grinding their coffee every morning. I keep a simple grind around for when I just do not have it in me to go through every step necessary to make perfect coffee. The thing to keep in mind is that ground coffee starts to deteriorate almost immediately.
Because ground coffee has vastly more surface area over whole beans, it starts to spoil much faster. Honestly, you are much better off if you can invest in a grinder. There are just so many types of grinders available now, and they are so easy to use, that it just makes sense. A decent manual coffee grinder can be purchased for under twenty bucks.
If you just cannot get to the grinding step of coffee preparation, store the grounds in an air-tight container and stick with the guidelines above. But keep in mind, ground coffee, even when stored correctly, will not match freshly ground beans in flavor and intensity.
The Bag It Came In
Many professional roasters now use re-sealable bags that come with an air vent. These work great and you really do not need anything more than this if you tend to buy from these companies. Just make sure that the bag does close and seal properly. Some companies use bags that appear to have the zip-lock built into it, but they are cheaply made and simply do not work.
Don’t store your beans in the bags that just fold over. This seems obvious, but the temptation to just leave your coffee in these bags is always there. Don’t do it because your coffee will spoil.
Glass containers with a sealed lid will work great. Use the type that has a rubber gasket to ensure that it is air-tight. Since light is an issue with keeping your coffee fresh, store these containers in a pantry, away from sunlight and clear of the stove. Remember that light and heat will sap your coffee of freshness.
Opaque containers are ideal. Again, you want to make sure these come with an air-tight seal. The opaque glass or plastic will keep out sunlight. Many of the old fashioned Mason jars are made to be opaque specifically to filter out sunlight since canning often requires this extra step.
There are some who just use clean Gatorade bottles to store their coffee beans. The lids are air-tight and the plastic is often opaque. I offer this for those who are brave enough to experiment with expensive coffee in order to be thrifty.
There are a number of manufacturers who make stainless steel sealable containers especially designed for storing coffee beans. These come equipped with a valve to vent carbon dioxide. These “vaults,” as they are often named, are really the top of the line for storing coffee. They keep beans dry, air-tight, and the insulated vault maintains a steady temperature.
You can spend as much money on the coffee vaults as you like. They seem to range from $15.00 up to about $30.00, but the money spent on storing high-end coffee beans is worth it. It is more heart-breaking to throw away outstanding coffee than to spend a few bucks on the front end to store things properly.
The handy design of the Airscape is a great addition to coffee storage units. This is a 32 ounce brushed steel container with a sealable lid made especially for storing fresh coffee beans and it works miracles for saving your top of the line coffee beans. This thing comes in at under $25.00 and is well worth the expense.
The old-fashioned tin can served us well when we had few other options for buying and storing coffee. We now have so many options, and the varieties of fine coffee roasts which are available for us now seem to demand a few extra steps for storing it properly.
Quality coffee is delicate and it is worth spending some time and money to store it safely so that we get the most out of our investment. And really, the steps we need to take to properly store coffee so that it remains fresh are fairly simple. We just need to guard against heat, moisture, air, and light. The information in this guide covers all of those dangers.
As I said above, treat your coffee like you would fresh fruits and vegetable. Coffee will spoil just as easily and it is just as easy to prevent spoilage. I know the fine roasts I brew at home are worth the extra steps, and once you have things in place, you never need to think about it again.