We’ve done a pretty good job of communicating the importance of freshness with coffee. No one reading this would disagree with the idea that, generally, the fresher the better.
The idea that we hold to be true is this: “Fresh roasted coffee is always better than stale coffee.”
This is true, except when it isn’t.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to discuss this by using coffee to mean a single lot of coffee a roaster might have. It could be a single farm, it could be from a cooperative. Essentially this is a product they will carry for a period of time. Also, I’m only going to talk about whole bean coffee here. Ground coffee is pretty much dead after 24 hours no matter which way you look at it.
What isn’t really discussed in the freshness stakes is the freshness of green coffee. Green coffees deteriorate at various rates. Sometimes they taste good for getting close to a year, sometimes they last less than a month. 2
Here’s an experience that I don’t like because the implications are complicated. I’ve cupped a bag of coffee that was four months off-roast, against the same coffee roasted a week ago. Despite the fact that we consider the staling of roasted coffee to be quicker than green coffee, the staler coffee was sweeter and more interesting than the fresh roasted version where the greens had begun to fade. I know I’m not alone in this experience, but we tend to brush them under the rug. Bags of whole bean coffee, at the very least sealed in a valved bag, can taste almost depressing good after a year IF the green coffee was very fresh when it was roasted.
If we are genuinely prizing consumer experience in the cup, above everything else, then I’d argue that with certain coffees that tend to fade quickly, the best practice would be to roast the entire lot on arrival, to package it as well as possible, and sell from that finished roasted stock. Sounds horrifying, right? Sounds like everything we’ve been working against.
The solution we currently have isn’t bad. Most coffee roasting companies in speciality treat coffee as a seasonal product. Coffees from Central America will not be on offer lists all year around. The goal is to sell out of a coffee as quickly as possible, to briefly delight in its novelty and scarcity, and then move on to something else. This is problematic for at least a couple of reasons:
- Some times of the year are significantly less fun than others. There are moments of full bounty and choice, and moments where there aren’t a lot of countries producing fresh coffee. This isn’t a huge problem, but it is frustrating for both roaster and consumer.
- Growth must be accurately predicted. If you’re buying a lot you want to sell through quickly, and by quickly we can say within two to three months of arrival, then unexpected growth is as much of a problem as an unexpected lack of growth. If your primary concern is green coffee freshness then you’ll look for lots that are on the smaller end of viable.
So, am I suggesting that every roaster starts roasting the entirety of their inventory on arrival? No. That would be ridiculous. Am I suggesting that we try to undo the work we’ve done highlighting roasted freshness as being incredibly important? No. That would also be ridiculous and counter productive.
What I am interested in talking about:
- Have you had the same experiences with “stale” roasted coffee, where the green coffee was vibrant at the time of roasting? I don’t believe I’m alone, but I also don’t think enough people have talked about this to the point that we are able to acknowledge or discuss the trend.
- Have you had contrary experiences? This post is mostly the result of personal experience, empirical evidence, and it may well be subject to confirmation bias. In fact, it probably is.
- Thinking about part of the world like Honduras, I’m not alone in being a little nervous around buying certain coffees because they can rapidly fade. If the message could be communicated that these coffees are delicious even months off roast, due to the raw freshness and vibrance, then this would make them more appealing.
- Whether anyone else is curious about trying it out, about being transparent. Maybe offering twin packs of the same coffee – one roasted fresh, one roasted on arrival. Each month you could see how it changes and discover whether the experiment holds true. Though I don’t know if anyone else is up for commercialising this, or spending the money on such a risky experiment…
As I said at the beginning: a difficult idea. One that I’m not quite done with yet.