Recently, we came across an article where a coffee professional made some enthusiastic claims about the negative impact of age on coffee. Normally, this is something we would just pass over without thinking twice (of course we all know that coffee is an agricultural product that will degrade over time!). But, as we read this remark, it occurred to us that we really need to think about specialty coffee’s traditional wisdom surrounding ’elderly’ coffee.
Here at Roast Ratings, we taste hundreds of coffees every year, with the hope of rewarding all the work that went into each one as much as the coffee will allow us! In this pursuit, one of the biggest things we struggle with is actually coffee being too fresh and unsettled. In fact, over the last 5 years, the coffees that perform the best are almost always at least 15+ days off roast.
While this “problem” is definitely one of privilege – “Oh, no! My coffee is too fresh!” – we have learned that we need to come to grips with the impact that our industry biases have on education and the influence customer behavior. But first, it’s good to ask – “Why?”
Throughout the life of specialty coffee, we have used freshness as a major differentiator of specialty coffee. In general, people understand how age impacts food, so it was a natural correlation to make – buying old coffee is like buying old milk. Everyone in their right mind would rather buy fresh milk than one about to expire. Some people would even be willing to pay a little more for farm fresh.
As with anything, people have taken this marketing message to the extreme. In browsing a recent reddit forum where the original poster asks about how long specialty coffee lasts, there were one or two more nuanced answers, but most people proclaimed the “fact” that coffee really only lasts a few weeks. In fact, one person said that he makes sure to purchase new beans every 5 days so that his coffee is always fresh. This person would probably be shocked to know that they have probably never tasted the coffee at its peak!
During the most recent season of shipping nightmares, we had a roaster send in two coffees that were intended for our November Gift Coffee rating. The roaster sent the coffee like normal, but as the delivery day came and went (along with the USPS message of, “Your package will arrive later than expected”), we assumed the coffee would simply never arrive. So, it was a huge surprise to us for the box to miraculously show up on our desk close to 2 months later!
Never wanting to waste any coffee, we included them in our next rating and- to our general amazement – they were some of the very best coffees we tasted in the entire rating (hat tip to Bean & Bean’s Guatemala Santa Felisa Geshas!). The same phenomenon has been true of many of the coffees we have taken home and enjoyed in the weeks after rating! Often the ones that tasted less developed have come into their sweetness and body quite nicely? Does this mean that lighter roasted coffees are naturally more preserving? Are they more like wine than we thought – the best of them getting better with age? We don’t yet have answers to these, but our experience begs the questions!
While there is plenty of nuance to explore in terms of the impact that roast, processing method, grinding and storage have on coffee age, it has really made us take a moment to step back and rethink the way we talk about age in relation to a coffee’s quality. That maybe age is a really really good thing!
But, if one thing is certain when it comes to coffee, there is rarely ever only one “rule of thumb” in the way we approach anything, from seed to cup!
– Bryan and Holly