Tick, tick, tick….. boom.

The internet is quite talkative at the moment.  The coffee sliver of the internet anyway.  Lots of talk about seasonality, which is a good thing.

This does beg the question – how long is coffee good for?  Green coffee I mean – we’re still arguing about roasted coffee’s shelf life and a great deal more time and money has been spent on that topic in the last 100 years.

If anything, and we are getting into the realm of personal opinion here, green coffee is trickier because green coffees don’t age the same way.  Each lot is an individual little time bomb.  As much as we can look after it as well as we can in storage/in roasteries – we are still working with an individual fuse whose approximate length was determined before the coffee left the producing country.

I hate it when people talk in general terms about the entire production of one country.  However, in my experience, coffees from Kenya have held up a great deal longer than many Central American coffees.  Regardless of packaging method, and stored in the same environment for the same amount of time.  I know there is a lot of stuff out there on storing coffee (check Roast Magazine for some good articles), but let’s say this isn’t the main issue.

You could argue that they have such pronounced un-coffee like coffee flavours that, while they fade, they continue to be easy to spot.  This may be the case, but it is also the absence of baggy flavour which I find interesting.

We should probably find a better word than baggy.  Mostly because we can no longer blame jute as coffees that are vacpacked can end up tasting as “baggy” as coffees stored in jute.  They may take a little longer to get there, but they get there.  Cupping some very old pre-ship samples (that have likely never even seen jute in their lives) was a pretty definite moment for me.

What I want to know, and this is probably a bit of a list, is the following:

- Exactly what creates the jutey/baggy flavour?  Is it the breakdown of something, oxidation, some other reaction?  I went through Flament’s “Coffee Flavour Chemistry” and came up empty.  I will keep looking!  I am sure R.J.Clarke knows!

- Is it linked to processing?  Geoff Watts once told me a little theory he had, which I won’t repeat because a). I was a touch inebriated when he told me so I might get it wrong and b). It is his theory to tell, not mine and c). He may well have changed his mind.  It was, however very much linked to the results of processing before being stored in parchment.  Please Geoff, if you ever read this, correct me if I am wrong.  I know I am being a bit general there.

- Are we, as an industry, prepared to vary our window of seasonality depending on the coffee’s capacity for youthfulness?  Is this even more confusing to the customer, upon whom we probably thrust a dizzying array of information?

- If we can identify the length of fuse on a lot of coffee, should we store it differently?  Is there one perfect storage environment for all coffees, or should we customise a bit more?

Finally – how much of this stress would be saved if we could just move coffee from origin to roaster a bit quicker?  That, however, is another discussion altogether.

23 Comments

  1. Personally, I’m not overtly concerned about the time line of seasonality for coffees. I’m a strong believer that we (meaning the operators of retail coffee houses) should be tasting, cupping and vetting out the coffees before ordering to ensure the finest quality product available from any roaster. To my mind, that is our responsibility.

    But I wonder if the general differences in aging between your aforementioned African and Central American coffees might not only be derived from their processing methods but also their hold and transit conditions. Much of the “fresh” produce sold in the United States is airlifted from places like South America and Africa to maintain their window of freshness opportunity. With coffee spending much of its time in the cargo holds of sea-going vessels, this has to have a potentially tremendous impact not only on the immediate quality of the green coffee but also its ability to withstand the aging timeline.

    As far as exploring what makes coffee taste “baggy” – perhaps you have access to a chromatograph that you can feed jute bagged and non-jute bagged coffees into and view the resulting chemical compositions over time to see what chemical changes are occuring?

    Varying our window of seasonality should not be too difficult. Most operators run with a “standard” blend for their coffees and I doubt their customers would notice seasonal tweaks because there is no emphasis on quality. However, I’ve found that customers respond well to offering seasonal coffees – whether it’s a key component of your marketing efforts or if it’s merely the way you do things. For the past three and a half years, our espresso bar offered a different coffee every two days (or so) as our “house” coffee. As the coffees changed and our customers experienced the worlds coffees, their appreciation of the coffee grew and expanded without them really realizing that their tastes were changing.

    Finally, I’m a proponent for freezing if you want to create a longer-term storage solution. Arguments about the water content destroying the integrity of the bean just don’t compute. Coffee does not have the water load of tomatoes or haricort verts and does not suffer structural damage due to freezing. After a collective fifteen years of testing and practical application, I have found that freezing does little harm to coffee.

  2. I was talking to a roaster located near Munich lately (Supremo). The guys over there have build a humidor (warehouse) to store their green coffee in. I had the chance to visit what they did and was quite impressed. The room housing the air condition and other machinery was packed with stuff. They are considering temperature, humidity, air exchange rates and many other aspects. They are putting quite some effort into this topic for some years now. As far as I could figure out by myself, the green coffees are aging much slower under the controlled condition they are providing.

  3. It is likely the subject of another post but you do bring up in the importance of in house knowledge.

    What interests me – and this is more relevant to restaurants than coffee shops – is that many establishments lack a detailed inhouse program for coffee education. They aren’t dragging their wine suppliers in to run tastings often, nor are meat suppliers involved in how their product is prepared. Coffee is different in this respects. Not many shops are looking for baggy notes, because rarely do roasters/suppliers (on whom they depend) go to great lengths to train and educate on potential defects in their product.

    I really don’t have much of an interest in freezing. I’d rather coffees were fleeting. It does make some times of the year tough, but the fact that it doesn’t last only intensifies its beauty.

    The last couple of years have completely destroyed any belief I had in the customers desire for consistent flavour, so I am happier than ever to see variation and rotation of coffees on offer. I am sure your customers grew increasingly open to trying new coffees as they tried more and more. As long as it is good….

  4. I think there is still a lot of work to be done on storing coffee, and controlling it better. However, no matter how good the conditions the coffees will still not (in my experience) age evenly.
    If we can understand why that is then perhaps we can store them individually/even more effectively.

  5. Storing to protect the flavors of the coffee at their seasonal peak is something that we really need to get better at.
    But storing coffee to extend it’s lifetime past it’s peak is, to me, both dishonest and a dead end.

    The reality of coffee is that it is an agricultural product that is seasonal.
    Instead of seeing this as something to defeat – we should celebrate it.
    There are great things about coffee being seasonal – we get change and constant “new-ness.” We get the hope and expectation of soon-to-arrive coffee experiences.
    We avoid boredom.
    And we celebrate the people who produce the coffee; we celebrate the season and terroir that created the flavor.

    The transitory nature of coffee should not be something we fight against but instead something we glory in.

    Yeah – it means that roasting becomes something you cannot just automate.
    And yeah – it means that “house” blends might go away.
    And yes indeed – it means you’re going to have to sample roast and cup a lot more coffees.
    And oh hell yeah – it means you’re going to have to QC cup your coffee throughout its lifespan and perhaps even discard it once it’s past-prime.

    But are you telling me that ANY of the above are bad in and of themselves?

  6. Roasting isn’t a subject I know loads about. Actually how much effect does the age of the green bean have on the taste profile of the final brew? My favoured coffee house (where I work now incidentally) had a blend that has a notable change in flavour from aboumalay to November. Between those months it becomes a lot sweeter with a heavy mouthfeel and outside those months much more acidic with more florals. I put this down to seasonality but I wonder if it’s more akin to green bean storage?

    Interesting article again James.

    Lee

  7. It would depend on what is going into the blend. If the roaster uses the same coffee all year then you’ll see the effects of aging going on, though floral notes don’t really appear as a result of aging.

    More likely is that the components in the blend are changing, and with it there is naturally some shift in the flavour.

  8. Jim,
    Thank you for the kind words about Roast Magazine. I was the author of the packaging article that was published this past year in Roast Magazine. In my research for the article and in my experience as a roaster I have found that the aging of coffee is greatly linked to the moisture content in the beans. The only way to slow the loss of moisture store the beans in a way that oxygen can not come in contact with them. Since almost all types of plastic can be permeated by oxygen it leaves us in a difficult position. It was certainly be ridiculous for us to store all of our green coffee in glass (a material that oxygen cannot permeate). With that said, I have found the us of GrainPro bags to be the most successful barrier against oxygen, thus preserving the moisture content in the beans. Funny enough, I sent Square Mile a GrainPro bag sometime ago. Ask around somebody might have if. Anyways, there is so much to say about this subject and I am glad that you have brought it up. My article in Roast speaks a lot on the subject of moisture and oxygen. Thanks again for the great post.

  9. Very expensive coffees. FRESH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and then fresher.

  10. Hi James,
    I’m a micro roaster attempting to juggle small quantities of seasonal coffee. Your article is more motivation for printing a ‘Harvest date’ on the packaging, my only hesitation is how consumers might perceive the gap in time between harvest month and sale at market? Particularly with harvests that have a prolonged processing, Or shipping for those of us who live at the ass end of the world (Tasmania).

    The massive benefit to ‘harvest dating’ though would be a similar accountability that roast dating has created in the industry. And perhaps another marketing edge over Supermarket coffee!

    Cheers

  11. Many of the efforts of the shrub have been to protect green against the factors that prematurely age a coffee during storage and shipment, we don’t necessarily believe that you can make a coffee last forever. All that being said, I still feel like “seasonality” is a misused and misleading buzz word when it comes to coffee as it completely glosses over the stages of processing that are integral to bringing out everything that makes any coffee wonderful. Coffee isn’t tomatoes. It isn’t harvested and then used for espresso the next day or even the next month, but yes green coffee does age and deteriorate. Why on earth would we simplify the complexities of what makes a coffee great to one word?

  12. Hi James!

    You said:

    Is it linked to processing? Geoff Watts once told me a little theory he had, which I won’t repeat because a). I was a touch inebriated when he told me so I might get it wrong and b). It is his theory to tell, not mine and c). He may well have changed his mind. It was, however very much linked to the results of processing before being stored in parchment. Please Geoff, if you ever read this, correct me if I am wrong. I know I am being a bit general there.

    My feeling is that the rate at which a given coffee bean ages/decays/degrades is most probably a function of (in no particular order):
    1. The total moisture content within the seed. I’ve noticed that coffees which push up towards 12% average humidity seem to have a tendency to age more quickly than those which are closer to 10%.
    There is some anecdotal evidence to support this. I’ve heard talk before from 3rd-generation farmers who claim they sometimes ‘over-dry’ (to 9.5% instead of 11.5%) if the customer is willing to pay for the weight difference, and they believe this to be better for the coffee (speaking of which, there is an important economic issue here–coffee is priced by weight, in nearly every stage…the more moisture the heavier the coffee…you see what I mean).
    In general I’ve found Ethiopian coffees to hold up very well over time…washed Ethiopians that is ;)…as compared to other coffees I’ve imported at the same time. They tend to come in around 9.5-10%, whereas many of the other coffees we receive come in at closer to 11.5%. So I’ve begun to believe based on these types of experiences that coffees are probably more stable between 9-10 than between 10-12%. The anecdotal evidence seems to support that. Another thing to consider when thinking about this is that most moisture readers are taking an Average humidity. In reality it is likely true that there is a range of humidity within any lot of coffee, and that not every bean is exactly the same in moisture content. Some might be 11, some might be 13, and you’ve got a reading of 12…so the higher you come towards the upper limit the more risk there is that some of the coffee is too moist.
    2. Water Activity. Not all of the water inside the seed is equivalent. Some is ‘bound’ molecularly within the coffee, and some is ‘free’–meaning that it can migrate around through bean. Water activity meters measure the ratio of bound water to free water, and give greater insight into what the water is actually doing inside the bean. It makes sense that bound water (which cannot move—it is attached to other molecules) is less of a threat to cause damage within the coffee than the water that is active. I suspect that this measurement will become more important in Specialty coffee in the future as it becomes better understood (James, you can put that on your 2o12 prediction list…)
    3. Density of the bean. It does also make sense that beans with denser cellular structures would hold up better than those that are less dense. When we talk about coffee aging I think that we are talking about volatile organic materials that are degrading over time and disappearing into the atmosphere. After some passage of time there will be nearly nothing left but cellulose, which tastes starchy and bland. Again, based on anecdotal experience I’ve found beans that are especially dense do seem to hold their character a bit longer. But this correlation is significantly weaker than the one regarding moisture content.
    4. The change in moisture/temperature that the coffee endures between the time it is dried on the tables or patios at origin and the time of arrival at the roastery. This definitely relates to water activity. When coffees go from places with high humidity (say, Caranavi Bolivia) to places with low humidity (how about La Paz?) and then back to an area with extremely high humidity (Arequipe, Chile) the beans are shedding and then re-absorbing moisture. Sometimes this can happen over and over again before the coffee actually reaches its final destination. And of course the speed of that process is affected by temperature, where high temperatures actually exacerbate the problem. If you imagine this taking place you can see how it might wreak some havoc within the coffee seeds and probably weaken the cellular structure, making it more prone to further oxygen-related quality loss down the road. So you can probably figure that coffees that undergo fewer changes in environment during storage/transit will probably hold up better that those that are exposed to extreme changes. (That’s a good reason, by the way, to dry mill coffee at altitude rather than down in the cities. For example, having coffee going from a farm in Marcala, Honduras to San Pedro Sula and its high-humidity, scorching hot climate for milling is not preferable…whereas milling coffee in Addis Ababa seems pretty OK, because the city is at altitude and it never gets too hot, too cold, or too wet.
    5. Drying. I think that coffee which is dried too quickly (say, in 4 days under direct sunlight) will tend to show signs of aging sooner than coffee which is dried slowly (8 days under partial cover). Coffee that gets too hot (this happens oftentimes in wood-fired mechanical driers that don’t have good enough temperature control. It also happens sometimes in places where the direct sunlight during the middle of the day heats up the coffee too much, especially when it isn’t being turned regularly) will probably age faster than coffee that was dried uniformly and at a steady pace.

    When you start thinking about all of these 5 things you realize that they are interrelated, and focusing on only one of them will probably not yield the correlations we want to see. Good research would track all of these factors to best determine what is going on….

  13. Soakin up the goods here, Geoff.

    There was a professional experiment that revealed that when a certain coffee was dried at too high a temperature, the cellular structure (I’m guessing certain lipids, proteins and carbohydrates more than cellulose-like fibers) began to fall apart. If anyone’s interested, I will go searching for the paper. I often wonder if a similar degradation would happen if the moisture gets below, say, 8.5%. Doesn’t oil crack when it becomes “dry”?

  14. Chris,
    But, you do believe that coffee is seasonal, no? I see seasonality, processing, trade methods, flavor, environmental awareness, etc, all as independent when it comes to marketing. Eiss Muss Sein (It Must Be), because they are what they are. Thankfully the Intelligentsias, Terroirs and Sweet Maria’s of the world do share tons of info; personally, I think the more the better.

    Being a bit more experienced than the average consumer, I won’t put myself in the way of torture by buying a coffee without having an idea of when it was harvested. And then there’s the thing about treating others as you wish to be treated.

  15. don’t take that last sentence personally… I just meant that if I want to know when a coffee is harvested, then perhaps I should offer the same to other people.

  16. You know what Peter? I at one time wanted to open a roastery/produce market so that I could roast and sell coffee in the context of fresh fruit. Even then I would not have used the term “seasonal” in reference to coffee. I believe that you can still draw the correlations without it. I do believe that coffee fruit is seasonal, and I believe that once it has been harvested, fermented, washed, dried, rested, and hulled that it has a transient “freshness”. Even if we use the word “seasonal” without glossing over processing, we are still disregarding the importance of properly caring for green coffee once it is in our possession. The window of freshness in a coffee that has been handled properly from the word go is just not minute enough for that term to apply. I too personally believe that it is important to know when a coffee is harvested, I’m in no way saying that this doesn’t have an impact on a coffee. It’s just that the word, a buzz word, is wrong, and frustratingly so. I have yet to hear anyone who throws the word around clearly define what these seasons are (I’m not just talking about when a coffee is harvested or the beginning of a fully processed coffee’s seasonality, I mean how long is a particular coffee in season). When asked, most people say “well, it depends”. Which brings me back to why use one simple word for a complex process? Green coffee is different from wine and liquor (vintage and aging), which is awesome. Green coffee is different from fresh fruit and vegetables (seasonality), which is awesome. We’re dealing with something pretty unique in how it is harvested, processed, handled, and prepared. Can’t you dig it?

  17. I think I dig it, partly because I believe Terroir’s method calls for an asterisk to be placed at the end of “seasonality*”.

    But,
    If Intelligentsia tackles seasonality by grouping coffees into In Season and not In Season, which is decided by whether a coffee TASTES fresh or not so fresh… I see that as fairly well-grounded. It makes me feel secure when selecting coffees.

    I notice that many consumers are still very confused about raw coffee age. They still blame hallmark agey flavors on other things such as brewing. I imagine a simple stamp will eventually help clear things up a bit.

    Some talented people and some sensitized people often taste ageyness in great coffees before they even leave the country of origin. That’s putting it mildly.

  18. Geoff, that was super informative, I hope to have a beer (or maybe some coffee) with you one of these days! Maybe at SCAA?

    So on the retail level…

    If coffee is harvested between May and October, when would a roaster in the US expect on avg. to receive their coffee from origin? and how long (I understand this is subjective, so I’m just asking for an opinion) should that roaster offer that particular coffee?

    I also have the same question for coffee that is harvested between November and April.

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