Specialty Coffee has been with us long enough for us to remember the rules of buying coffee for home.
“Look for the freshest roast, buy in beans, grind before making”.
Today I would like to talk about looking for the freshest roast.
Of course, as with any other rule in life, the idea is to learn the rule, follow the rule, and understand where it comes from. And only afterwards become independent enough to know WHEN you should apply the rule, and when and how you can BREAK it.
The rule of fresh roast is exactly the same. The whole idea of the roast being fresh – well, to start with, it distinguishes specialty coffee from more commercial coffee, if you allow me to put it this way. Run a test yourself, grab a bag of coffee in the supermarket – how much information about what’s inside will you find? You most definitely won’t find the information about when the coffee was roasted. Only “best before date”.
On the other side, the whole cycle of specialty coffee is built around freshness. Freshness of the beans, the harvest being this year and not past crop (this is the topic for the next time, because very few of those who work with coffee know that coffee harvest starts in September. If coffee is harvested in October of 2023, it will be Harvest 2024. and there are many other details).
and, well, yes, the freshness of the roast.
Looks like in specialty we are always running against the clock, trying to get the freshest green beans first, and then, when the coffee is roasted – well, the idea is to sell it faster, because when you roast it, you basically start the timer. Timer of “not too fresh”.
It comes to a degree when people are refusing to buy coffee that is perfectly fine, but was roasted a week ago. “7 days is too much, probably coffee has already passed its peak”.
But does fresher coffee mean better coffee?
I will repeat here – of course, we need to follow the rule first, so if you were never looking at the roast date when buying coffee, it is the place to start. But if you are wondering if a coffee that was roasted 2-3 weeks ago is already too old, and isn’t worth the money paid, or is still fine – and you are ready to break the rule, keep reading.
So does fresher coffee mean better coffee?
Well, not necessarily.
Probably in the beginning of the popularity of specialty coffee, yes, it made all the sense.
But there are other factors at play now. Other factors that ideally allow you to buy coffee from certain roasters that will last fresh enough for a couple of months.
So probably you are wondering what has changed?
Four major things changed in the industry.
Three of them are connected with how coffee is treated before being roasted, one – with roasting it.
If you think about it, it is amazing how what happens to coffee BEFORE roasting influences the shelf life of the same coffee. We used to think that “the clock starts to tick” when we roast the coffee, and we have to rush to drink it, because with every single day it just becomes worse and worse – but what if the “useful time” of coffee after roast slowed down?
First reason why coffee will now last longer after roasting is fermentation.
The producers are doing an amazing job implementing controlled fermentations – not only for the flavor purposes, although fermentation can make coffee taste more complex, but also with the perks like longer shelf life. And I am not talking only about the coffees that taste funky (using more risky fermentation) – I am talking about the industry in general starting to control the fermentation process (that happens in every coffee processing) better.
And alongside with the fermentation what producers started to control better is the drying phase of coffee processing. Finally, the drying protocol started to make part of the coffee processing, and what matters is not only the final moisture content we get in the parchment beans before milling and exporting, but also – how we got to these numbers. Was it an aggressive mechanical drying that affected the cell structure of the coffee beans, or gentle one? What were the temperatures used?
The wonderful thing is that more even and controlled fermentation actually leads to coffee drying more evenly – and eventually being easier to roast.
Third factor is the storage of the beans. We improved at storing the beans before roasting them. Grain pro or similar type of packaging is used in almost all the coffee imported, some exporters are even using vacuum bags (that has its own pros and cons). The way beans are stored before being roasted (it is a live matter, after all) influences how the roast will go and the shelf life of the coffee.
In other words, well processed coffee with controlled fermentation and drying will taste fresh for longer. Longer than the fresh crop, that was not properly fermented and dried.
Fourth factor is – well, the industry improved at roasting coffee. We have a better understanding of what is going on inside the bean and inside the machine while roasting, and how correctly roasted coffee can stay fresh for weeks, sometimes reaching its potential by 3rd or 4th week. Yes, you saw it right – some coffees are actually becoming better one month after being roasted.
The way of discovering which ones is by trial and error, and talking to people who are constantly exploring different roasters. But nowadays it is not uncommon to find that the roasting style is to make coffee last and open up slowly – and not show everything 2 days after roasting and then die day by day.
I hope I managed to make you at least reconsider looking at the roast date under a different angle, and experiment a bit more.