Most of our students at Boot Camp Coffee join the course because they started or want to start a coffee business providing freshly roasted coffee beans for their customers. As far as I know, we do not have coffee roasters who do not consider freshness as one of their qualitative advantages over mass-produced coffee, but what does freshness mean and why is fresh coffee that important?
Freshness of Green Coffee
Let’s start with a topic which many roasters ignore. I still meet coffee professionals who would say that green beans can last up to 4 years. They might last up to 4 years, but they for sure do not taste good. Green coffee is a biological product and as such it goes through the chemical and physical changes of aging.
How long does green coffee last? It depends on your determination of quality and on your business model. In the specialty coffee world we use “recent crop”, which means a crop from the most recent year, but if you roast budget coffee your age tolerance might be broader. I do not want to play the coffee fascist here, and I think budget coffee does have a place in the industry, as long as you and your customers are aware of it.
The freshness of the green beans depend on many factors including cell structure (hard bean vs. soft bean), variety, processing, and storage. Old green coffee starts to look withered, its aromatic and flavor properties flatten, it loses acidity and acquires a papery aftertaste. In the specialty world we call these coffees “past crop.”
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Freshness of Roasted Whole Bean Coffee
How does the roasted whole-bean coffee stay fresh? I have heard anything from 2 weeks to 2 months and some people claim that with the right packaging techniques, 6 months and beyond. This topic is very controversial, because this information is mostly provided by us — coffee roasters — and let’s be honest, we often try to follow our own agenda. The truth is that right after you release coffee beans into your cooling tray, the aging process starts. It is considered old when all the desired flavor elements flatten and the coffee starts to taste oxidized. In my personal opinion, this can happen in 3-4 weeks when it comes to light- and medium-light roasted coffee. In dark-roasted coffee this happens much faster, due to the exposed oil on the surface (cofeol), which is highly reactive and gets oxidized/rancid very fast.
Freshness of Ground Coffee
Once you grind your coffee, the freshness escapes extremely fast. In the specialty world setting, there is the 10-minute rule in the cupping protocol between grinding the coffee beans and pouring the hot water over samples. Some of you might dispute the 10 minute rule, and perhaps it is 30 minutes for you, but we all agree that ground coffee loses aromatics in a matter of minutes rather than days.
What does this mean to your business? It comes down to a question — would you sell pre-ground coffee to your customers? I am aware that absolute majority would, but I would want to pitch a crazy idea here. In my coffee roasting company, Green Plantation, we refuse to grind the coffee for our customers. We work with unique specialty grade lots with interesting aromatic properties. Our goal is to relay this experience to our customers. We are 100% certain that this would not be possible with ground coffee. Are we nuts? I hope that we have the respect of our customers to take a step like this and our loss of business is minimal. What do you think?
Business Models For Roasters Desiring Freshness
Not all coffee businesses prioritize freshness, and that’s OK, as long as they are open about it. One of the most strict business models for fresh roasting is the “roast to order company”. Roast to order companies do not create a stock of products, but they roast after the customer orders the coffee, guaranteeing freshness. A disadvantage of roast to order companies is that there are times when the customers need coffee right away and the roasting company can’t deliver. In my personal experience, roast to order companies create longer and stronger relations with their wholesale customers because of their transparent commitment to quality, but they also set procurement procedures that can be more difficult to change once the wholesale customer accepts them.
TIP! Testing freshness of roasted coffee
— You can test the freshness of the coffee when you wet the grounds with hot water — or blooming. Coffee contains a lot of CO2 right after roasting. CO2 will evaporate in time. In professional world we call this degassing. If coffee is fresh it will degas rapidly and the blooming will be very dramatic. If the coffee already degased aka is older the bloom will be less dramatic.