Once upon a time I made coffee with my bare wits, a grinder, and an espresso machine.
Some of you might call this the dark ages, but some of you might remember this time with nostalgia. During this time long ago (2006 wasn’t that long ago right?!) I was competing in a regional barista championship in the Midwest. This was also one of my first experiences making espresso with extremely fresh coffee.
You see in my preparations for the competition I had been using one of the main line espresso blends from the roasting company I worked for, as single origin espresso was not really a thing at the time. The week of competition we received a fresh crop of coffee that had just arrived, which was decidedly pretty delicious, and the day before the competition I was given a bag of this coffee and encouraged to use it for my espresso instead of the blend. Sadly, in those days the connection to the coffee itself was not as emphasized as it is now. Regardless, I took the “Sugarfoot” espresso blend and made coffee.
The results were amazingly unpredictable, with massive quantities of bubbly crema that collapsed within seconds and shot times between 15 and 30 seconds. I’m going to just skip talking about the flavor of freshness for the moment… Perhaps it was not my best day with espresso (given hindsight I can guarantee I was at least part of the problem). From that experience I learned just how important the “aging” of coffee can be.
That coffee I used was about 3-4 days out of the roaster.
I bet many of you have had some type of experience with fresh espresso like this. While it is pretty common to have a standard 5-7 day aging of espresso beans before pulling shots, people are all over the board on how soon to make coffee after roasting for both espresso and filter. Conventional wisdom will say to use espresso 5-10 days and filter coffee 3-7 days after roast. I think the biggest issue with this understanding is that it is too vague and generalized, yet set in stone. Anyone who has been working in coffee for over a year or two has probably had the realization that every coffee behaves differently. Aging is no exception. I have had espresso that peaked from 10-14 days and filter that tasted way better from 5-10 days out.
Welcome back to the present. There have been various trends to promote coffee freshness out there, not the least of which being what I call the “kraft movement”. It seems to be more and more common for roasters to put coffee in an unsealed kraft bag and expect the world to drink it all before it goes stale. This is a beautiful idea in theory, but doesn’t always work in the real world.
The problem is not always that the coffee is simply fresh or stale, but that it has been exposed to oxygen and moisture in the air constantly since it was roasted. The result has a lot of variance, but I usually experience something along the lines of it tasting stale, flat, AND a bit sharp. Personally, I prefer something that has been sealed in a valve bag for at least 3 days before I try brewing it. That technology was created for the express purpose of prolonging the quality of the coffee and typically does its job well.
This is not to say that selling coffee super fresh, or packing in kraft bags is a terrible thing. Some companies do a good job in these methods, and kraft bags can definitely be cost effective packaging for smaller companies. When you are regularly shipping that bag across the country to wholesale clients a little preservation and protection against the elements makes sense though.
The point here is that it is important to understand how your coffee ages either in a sealed environment or unsealed bag. In the specialty sector of coffee there are a lot of versions of the definition of “freshness”. Yes, fresh tends to be better and stale coffee sucks. However I have found more and more baristas who insist that a coffee hitting one week past roast (sealed in a valve bag) has somehow gone “bad”. In the case of espresso I probably wouldn’t even want to pull a shot until this point, so why is 7 days the death of a filter coffee?
Since starting my current business (RoastRatings.com) I have tasted a number of coffees from 2 weeks to 3 months old, and plenty have at least tasted “good” if not “damn tasty”. Granted at those longer ages many coffees start to lose vibrancy and intensity, but they are far from “bad”! They can still be balanced, and even sweet.
Somehow it is common to expect coffee grinds to yield an eruption of gasses as soon as water hits them which, for me, I expect a mouthful of carbonic, metallic funk (not fun and crazy as I would imagine a heavy metal funk band to sound either). If the bloom doesn’t blow a hole in your v60 is it automatically unacceptable?
The simple answer is “no”.
As with everything in this crazy industry, a number of factors play into this game of coffee freshness. The roasting technique, green bean density, and environmental factors can all affect how your coffee ages.
Unfortunately there is not one simple solution for maximizing your coffee’s flavor through freshness and aging. You have to work for it. You have to pay attention. Coffee that is too fresh sucks, but so does coffee that is stale. Having minimum and maximum ranges for our coffee aging is a good thing, but having those range as immovable barriers will limit your ability to make great, tasty coffee. You should try some of those coffee that are outside of the standard age range, it might just surprise you. Be flexible, understand each coffee, and keep an open mind. This is advice I believe in.