Re-thinking the Importance of Freshness in Coffee

Re-thinking the Importance of Freshness in Coffee


In this newsletter, I want to dig into the concept of freshness. It is often communicated that fresh is best! However, it's much more complex than that and really we are alluding to the idea of optimal timing and storage. This one is a long read, but the topic is actually much bigger than what we explore here!

Fresh is best...or is it?

The idea of freshly roasted coffee producing the best quality makes a lot of sense at face value. We’ve all tasted stale coffee – rancid, flat, bland, bitter. Compare this to a fresh roast (as long as it's good coffee, well-roasted) and we find a vibrant, clean and flavourful coffee.

The problem is, it's not quite that simple.

Roasters will routinely denounce the freshly roasted taste and realise that coffee will become cleaner and open up in a week's time, or even longer. So really they don’t think fresh is best. They actually mean old and stale is bad and somewhere close-ish to roasting is ideal. Some roasters are actually now recommending a really long rest period of months. In our capsule coffee, we rest for a week before grinding and encapsulating.

What are we identifying as ideal freshness?

Well, a freshly roasted coffee has a bundle of aromatic volatiles, which we don't want to lose. We also want some of the co2 to be released, but not all of it. We don’t want the coffee to be degraded by oxygen either. Exhausting! Ha.

Arguably, roast freshness actually comes in second place, trailing behind green coffee freshness. This relates to the time elapsed after a coffee was harvested. The ideal timeframe here, like roasting, tends to not be immediate, opening up post harvest. You then have a window where the coffee is tasting great and also a point where it tastes aged and less good. A coffee’s flavour score can completely drop off when the green coffee ages.

I’ll never forget a demonstration of the same coffee with one bag roasted 8 months previously. The bag wasn’t nitro flushed, just a simple hand packed foil bag. The other was freshly roasted.

It is because the green coffee was much better several months before, so the coffee was roasted and the flavour profile was developed from green coffee at its peak.

The freshly roasted bag may be fresh but it can only create flavour based on what the older green coffee is able to give. Part of the way we offer coffee at Colonna is based around this, with a quickly rotating range to keep green relatively fresh. Saying this, storage of green coffee has got better and this timeframe has extended.

An ideal situation would be to go back in time, as the old bag was surely better several months earlier when it wasn’t oxidised and hadn’t lost aromatics, but do you need to go back?

There’s a variety of established technologies that have been used to capture and hold a certain state over time. In nearly all of these cases, they weren’t seen as speciality.

Capsule Coffee

The first one is capsules. Part of what got me so excited about capsules was the ability to trap a dose of coffee in a chamber and expel the oxygen. We are still amazed at how some of our coffees taste after being encapsulated two years ago. Like the old bag of coffee I mentioned, capsules will often win a taste test if the coffee was packed at peak flavour.

Freezing Coffee

The second is freezing. Freezing has gone from being a no-no to being the most progressive and avant-garde way to store and serve roasted coffee. You need to freeze it the right way, ideally in small vacuum-sealed pouches. Grinding coffee frozen also improves quality by reducing heat generated.

Freezing green coffee itself has proven to be a great way of keeping that part of the chain fresh and has been pioneered by George Howell from Boston in the United States. Famously a Kenyan lot that was frozen from a harvest 3 years prior, was defrosted and roasted alongside a fresh harvest. The old harvest from that same mill won. This is because, like wine, factors out of our control often determine the perfect harvest.

Nitrogen Flushed Packaging

Third – nitrogen flushed packaging. A bag flushed with nitrogen, achieving under 2% oxygen, creates an environment that holds the cup quality for many many months. Positive pressure canning goes even further. ILLY have been doing this for a very long time.

I guess that’s what’s interesting in all of these cases – the technologies are pioneered and adopted by large-scale food manufacturers and commercial coffee. I think it's then easy to develop an association approach to quality, thinking things like, "the coffee I got from that technology isn't good, so the technology must make bad coffee".

However, the best technology is often utilised for less spectacular coffee. There’s also the authenticity and crafted fallacy whereby when it feels more crafted/analogue that means it's better.

Don't get me wrong, there is something really nice about picking up a coffee roasted this week and stale coffee still isn't good at all! Our commitment is to finding the best technology and approaches to maximise the quality peak and time-frame.

If you get our beans now and they arrive quickly, maybe let them sit for a week before brewing.

If you love one of our capsules, store a few and create a little cellar of your favourites, the technology means you can do this.

With the nitrogen packing line we installed last year, we are excited to explore moving away from the 'fresh' roasting schedule and roast ideal batch sizes and control quality, dispatching coffee quicker to customers in a package that is better for flavour.

Overall, I hope I’ve communicated that the concept of freshness in coffee might require a second look. The real game we're playing as roasters, brewers, and lovers of coffee, is to discover and define the rules of what makes coffee great.