There are many factors that play into coffee freshness. But one of the most important elements of having great tasting coffee both at home and at the café is how you store it. We’ll break down different ways you can store your coffee, as well as vessels to preserve it in, and what you can do when your coffee has passed its peak freshness.
Days off Roast
Coffee is freshest just after it has been roasted, similar to pastries that have just been baked. It’s when it produces the most aromas and releases the most carbon dioxide (CO2). As this CO2 leaves, coffee beans continue to absorb oxygen, slowly losing the freshness that is crucial to the best tasting (and smelling) coffee.
At most high quality coffee shops, baristas make and serve coffee with beans that were roasted sometimes just days earlier. Rebekah Yli-Luoma, co-founder at Heart Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon, maintains a strict policy for freshness. “We typically serve coffee that has been aged out at least 3-5 days and up to a few weeks from roast date,” she says. “The coffee tends to settle nicely and is easier to work with if it has rested.”
Whole Bean vs Ground
Coffee beans release CO2 not only after roasting, but also after being ground; in fact, the release of CO2 and other gasses is accelerated when coffee is ground, causing coffee to become stale much quicker. In the interest of serving coffee at its peak flavor, coffee shops do not store pre-ground beans. “We don’t suggest storing pre-ground coffee,” Yli-Luoma says simply when asked how Heart’s customers are advised to store coffee.
But buying whole bean coffee for consumption at home allows you to store it longer, extending a coffee’s flavor and aroma. Caleb Stultz is a home brewing aficionado and manager of the Instagram account Guru Caleb. Caleb is used to getting a lot of coffee from other roasters and runs into the issue of how and where to store it all fairly regularly. “I’m fortunate to have access to a grinder for my coffee, so when I buy a bag of coffee, I choose to buy whole beans,” he confirms.
While quality grinders are readily available for home consumers, they can be pricey if you are looking to buy one that replicates the effectiveness of your favorite café’s equipment. You can mitigate this, however, by having a professional grind it for you.
“For those who don’t have access to a grinder at home - buy a bag of whole beans at a local shop and ask one of the baristas if they’d be willing to grind it for you,” suggests Caleb. “I have found my local baristas to be happy to help with this. Plus, you get to use their top-quality, multiple-thousands-of-dollars grinder for free!” Doing so also allows you to better gauge your coffee’s freshness, as a roast and grind date is usually not listed on store-bought, pre-ground coffee.
Another element that causes coffee to lose its freshness is heat. Coffee will oxidize more quickly if stored in a sun-drenched location or in a warm and humid climate. Depending on what you’re storing your coffee in, the coffee may also absorb the odors, moisture, and scents of its surroundings.
Coffee shops thus store most of their supply in back rooms, on shelves that are kept away from any light and heat. Some even go so far as to store their extra supply in the freezer, a space that is extra dry, cold, and moisture-free.
At home, keeping your coffee bags away from windows and from other potential sources of heat such as stoves will extend your beans’ flavor and aroma.
Cafés typically utilize different packaging depending on the specific use or user of the coffee that is being stored.
Coffee beans packaged for household consumption typically come in small bags with a resealable zipper or an attached twist-wire to close the top. These bags also often include a small button-shaped valve, which allows the carbon dioxide to escape while preventing oxygen from entering.
Coffee roasted for wholesale customers is most often packaged in five-pound bags which usually do not contain these valves (to reduce costs). Cafés implement a FIFO (first in, first out) system instead, or store coffee beans separately into air-tight containers, with masking tape that indicates when the coffee was roasted to monitor its freshness. “We dose out from 5-lb bulk bags, each batch that needs to be brewed,” Yli-Luoma confirms. “The coffee is stored in a sealed container.”
Storing Coffee at Home
Good news: you don’t have to toss out your coffee after three weeks! However, there are some added steps you should take to make sure you’re able to store and enjoy your coffee for a longer period of time.
Coffee professionals may have dozens of shelves and container space for large bins of beans, but this is hardly the case for home coffee consumers. The coffee storage container you use has one of the biggest impacts on how long your coffee will last, which can be anywhere between three weeks to three months. This is because that storage vessel affects how CO2 will release from your coffee beans, and therefore how quickly it will absorb oxygen and go stale.
Lots of food storage products exist; some of which are even specific to coffee. “One product I really like for storing coffee beans is the Fellow Products Atmos vacuum canister,” Caleb says. “Once you dump in your beans and put on the lid, you can twist it back and forth and each successive twist sucks out a bit more air from the container.”
But Caleb adds, “I wonder about the flavor impact of the beans being exposed to the CO₂ they are emitting as they off-gas in a sealed container.” So if you don’t have access to these containers, keeping the coffee in the bag it came in is usually safe—if it is equipped properly with a valve to allow for de-gassing.
How Long Can I Store Coffee at Home?
Unlike a coffee shop, you have a lot more flexibility with how long you decide to store coffee for at home. While coffee shops keep their beans for less than a month at a time, with the proper storage, you can stretch that to a few months. “Beans in bags that are unopened…can be stored for a few months in a cool/dry place,” says Rebekah at Heart.
“It’s sort of hard to track, but I tend to have a bag of beans around for about a month,” adds Caleb. “If it’s in a vacuum-sealed container, that window expands dramatically to about three months! And something else I like to do is freezing coffee beans,” he says. Caleb has stored coffees for six months up to a year this way.
Rebekah adds, “Once opened, if the coffee is months old—it should be consumed fairly quickly. If it’s fresh coffee, you can brew it for a couple weeks without tasting staleness.”
This timeline decreases a lot if you aren’t storing the coffee properly, though there are still good uses for coffee that may be past its prime.
What to Do with Stale Coffee
Do you feel bad throwing out a bag of beans just because it doesn’t taste fresh? There are plenty of other things you can do with older, shall we say, “more mature”, coffee beans. One method I personally like to use with older coffees is brewing them with an AeroPress. Due to its high-extraction capabilities, I’ve noticed that I’m able to get some of the brighter notes from coffees, whose acidity can be lost after oxidation. Fellow Products also recommends using older coffee for cold brew, as the overnight process is much more forgiving with salvaging old beans.
You can also get creative with it. “I prefer to consider [old coffee]’s flavor as dynamic and changing with age,” Caleb explains. “If I do want to use it for something other than a beverage, I try to brew it as best I can then use it as an ingredient in things like coffee cakes, syrups for ice cream, candies, and even as a dry rub for beef, chicken, salmon, etc.”