When you drink ground coffee, the last thing you really worry about is how long it lasts. It tends to have a very long shelf-life because it has been produced that way. You buy a jar and either keep the coffee in the jar or fill a canister in your kitchen and just take it as and when you need it, without any worry really.
However, when you start grinding your own coffee beans, how long coffee beans last becomes a more important consideration to make. Perhaps you’ve noticed that coffee bean packets and containers you buy from the shops or online have a roast date label.
While this is not an expiration date, it does give an indication of when the coffee stops being fresh. Let us give you an example. You know that milk has gone off because of how it smells, looks and tastes. It is very easy to tell. With coffee, it is not quite as easy. If you smelled coffee beans that were roasted roughly six months ago, there may not be any tell-tale scent or aroma that gives away that it’s bad.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can tell. After all, one thing that all coffee experts agree about is that it changes.
To properly answer the question posed in the title, it really is when the coffee stops tasting good. What does good coffee mean?
The freshness of coffee is determined by the roast date. The general rule of thumb is that the closer you are to the day the beans were roasted, the better and fresher the coffee will be. This is because, as well as preparing the coffee to be brewed, roasting also slowly starts the process of the coffee becoming stale, thanks to the natural process of oxidisation. Therefore, time really doesn’t have anything to do with it. Well, it does to an extent, because the amount of time oxygen has to really work on those delicious coffee beans, the more they will become stale.
It’s the subject of stale, that again coffee experts can’t seem to agree on. What is stale is very different in different people’s minds. The roaster’s guidelines, if you haven’t roasted the beans yourself, is one of the best indicators. It is normally between two to four weeks after roasting that coffee beans are no longer at their best.
Other factors that can come into play with how long that freshness lasts for is the processes used by the roaster, like their packaging for instance. There are lots of different kinds of bags and packets used in the industry, including the popular triple-ply foil bags that protect the contents from the fresh air and oxygen, while a special valve on it allows unwanted carbon dioxide to escape.
Another technique used by companies like Lavazza is nitrogen flushing. This preserves the coffee beans by flushing out oxygen to stop it from, temporarily, going stale. It only works temporarily, of course, because as soon as the bag is opened and you expose it to any amount of the fresh air, oxygen will start reacting with the beans and start the process of making them stale.
How Can You Tell If Coffee Beans Are Fresh?
Now that we understand a little more about coffee beans freshness, you may want to know how to tell if coffee beans are still fresh or not. You are right to try and use your nose to sniff inside the bag to determine the freshness of the beans.
While your tongue is only capable of really tasting five different flavours – umami, bitter, salty, sweet and sour, your tongue can tell the difference between hundreds of thousands of different compounds and it can feed the information to your brain to process it.
However, taste and smell are closely linked. That is why when you are unable to smell that distinctive coffee aroma, you figure the flavour is gone and the coffee is stale.
Which is fair enough, as the flavour is ultimately very important. However, the freshest beans don’t always mean the best-flavoured beans.
How Long Do Coffee Beans Keep Their Smell?
As we’ve just discussed how important your nose and sense of smell is for determining how fresh or not coffee is, you may wonder how long do coffee beans actually keep their smell? Again, this really comes down to the time they were roasted and how you store them.
As coffee breaks down over time and oxidisation takes effect, so too does that lovely and enchanting coffeehouse aroma you enjoy your home is filled with whenever you buy beans.
If they have been stored in a fully airtight container, you may find that your coffee beans retain a lot of their smell for as much as three months, rather than three weeks if you didn’t bother to keep them stored properly.
Therefore, to summarise the answer to the question posed in the title and outset of this post, there is no exact or average time length that you can expect coffee to last for. The only set in stone guarantee you have with coffee is that thanks to it being so volatile, it will change when given the right circumstances and environment.
The best way to ensure your coffee beans last as long as possible and you continue to enjoy fresh-tasting and richly flavoured cups of coffee the further you get away from that roasting date and the day you bought them, is to store them properly.
You will know coffee is no longer fresh and it may be time to buy some more beans if it doesn’t taste the same. Therefore, ignore any best before dates or guidelines you’ve read online, and trust your senses. When your nose, brain and sense of taste are all working together, there is no better way of testing the quality of your coffee.
When it’s stale, though, start afresh, because you deserve to start your day and accompany the many events with a beautiful tasting coffee.