We have a cheeky answer to the question “how long does coffee last?” When it comes to experiencing the very best cup, it’s unfortunately not long. While green (unroasted) beans can last for months, the clock starts ticking on beans once the roaster finishes her work. Learn how to store coffee beans for peak flavor.
The lighter the roast, the longer the beans last. While we always try to ship within a few days of roasting, lighter roasts can survive–when properly stored–for up to two or even three weeks. That said, the trained palate will detect sharp declines in the clarity of taste towards the end of that period. As beans age and taste flattens, the coffee will also start to taste more and more bitter. Ironically, within the first week, many light roasts will taste sour, so don’t brew too soon either!
Dark roasted coffee is a different matter entirely. The darker the roast, the faster the decay. Longer roasting times introduce great new flavors, but also destroy the structural integrity of the bean. This means that dark roasts are more susceptible to aging quickly, especially if not properly stored. Drink a brew made with 4-week-old super dark beans, and you’re in for a bitter cup. As we have learned, personal preference trumps all, so some drinkers may actually enjoy the stronger, more bitter taste.
Packaging and storage influence shelf life dramatically. Bags that are flushed with nitrogen can greatly stall bean spoilage, but only if they remain sealed. Also, bags lined with airtight materials prevent contact with the environment, preserving life. In general, any storage method that limits exposure to air, heat, moisture, or light also helps extend the life of the beans.
Once ground, coffee lasts a much shorter time, although proper packaging and storage do help tremendously. Because the grounds have much more surface area exposed to the environment, it ages much quicker. If at all possible, buy your beans whole. And for the best taste, only grind as much as you need, immediately prior to brewing. In fact, when spending money on your home coffee setup, the best bang for the back comes from your grinder. See our complete guide to how to grind coffee beans.
Don’t store your coffee beans in the fridge or freezer. Lower temperatures can slow the oxidation that leads to bitter taste in the cup. But the risk of exposure to moisture in the freezer outweighs the benefits of colder storage. Some research also suggests that for newly-roasted coffee, cold temperatures may actually quicken the decay of the beans.
Worse than exposure to moisture, storage that’s not perfectly air tight can also lead to the beans soaking up other odors. Because of the porous nature of coffee beans, they dramatically soak up ambient smells.
When it comes to great coffee, the enemies consist of air, moisture, light, and heat. Packages should have resealable zippers, and feature an interior foil-like, air-tight lining. If your bag doesn’t have these, air tight tins and containers are the way to go. We like recommending POP Containers from OXO, or even traditional tins. Store the tin, container or bag in your pantry, away from heat sources like overs or stovetops.
The coffee industry produces two primary kinds of packages: those with roast dates, and those with expiration dates. Look for bags that state the roast date, and try to stay within 1-3 weeks at the most. (Remember, light roasts last longer.) When it comes to expiration dates, even the perfect packaging won’t matter if the expiration means 6 months from roasting. It’s shocking when people learn that even major “high-end” coffee chains serve coffee 36 weeks after roasting.
Depending on whether the beans are dark or light roast, seeing spots of oil on the surface can tell you a lot. Very dark roasted coffee will exit the roaster already oily on the outside, even when perfectly fresh. But medium and light roasts should not show any visible oil on their surface when they are fresh. As beans age, the oils within the body of the bean will migrate towards the surface, And once the oils reach the exterior, exposure to the environment increases, as does the speed of decay.
If you’re brewing with a Chemex, you can rely on a dead giveaway: the bloom. Make your first pour of hot water just enough to saturate the grounds. What you’ll see in fresh coffee is that the grounds will “fluff” up, and you’ll see active bubbling at the surface. This happens when hot water interacts with coffee still in the process of off-gassing. You should also see some slight rainbow effects (oil) on the surface of the bubbles. If you don’t see any rise, fluffing, or bubbling of the grounds, the beans are past prime.
When you buy artisan coffee, you want the best experience in the cup. And peak flavor means fresh beans. Store your beans in a cool, dry place, inside an airtight container or bag. To know freshness, trust your palate, or look for the bloom if you’re doing a pour over. In the end, most coffees reach and pass peak flavor within a week or two, so don’t bulk up on beans, and enjoy!