Updated: April 16, 2018
See that photo just above? The one with the bubbles coming out through the grounds? Well, if your coffee doesn’t do that when you make a brew, chances are your coffee is not fresh. And stale coffee ruins your brew and sadly, seems to be the normal way to make coffee.
What exactly is meant by stale coffee?
Firstly it’s worth pointing out that coffee is not like milk or meat or fruit. It doesn’t go off, so to speak. It doesn’t have the nutritional profile for bacteria to be interested in infecting it and ruining it for human consumption. So… how long do coffee beans last? If we’re talking about them being drinkable, you could leave a bag of coffee out in the sun for a decade and when you came back you’d just wonder why you spent 10 years of your life on some pointless experiment.
Coffee can lose its freshness however. Grind your coffee beans and they’ll lose freshness within hours and be in a sorry state by the end of the day. Whole coffee beans fare a little better – something something surface area – but still lose freshness over time and will become stale.
You can think of it like a fresh loaf of bread. The pastrami and swiss sandwich you make on the day the bread was baked will taste divine. Wait five days and that same bread will be stale and lacking the freshness it had.
So what I’d like to explore in this article is when is the best time to brew and drink you coffee. More specifically, I’d like to establish exactly how long after the roast before your coffee beans lose flavor.
How many days until coffee is stale?
Let me point out that this means number of days after the coffee beans have been roasted. Good coffee roasters will have a roast date somewhere on the bag. No roast date? It’s almost certainly stale, mass-produced stuff.
Coffee beans made for Brewed Coffee
The best taste will come between 2-10 days after the beans have been roasted. Coffee will stay fresh and keep much of their flavor until about 30 days after the roast. Past that and the beans would be considered stale in most cases.
Coffee beans made for Espresso
Espresso requires a little longer for degassing so the best taste should come around 5-14 days after the roast and you’ll be able to pull decent espresso 5-30 days after roasting.
Try to make coffee too soon after the roast and you’ll regret it. Roasting coffee is essentially burning or cooking the coffee beans which traps lots of CO2 in the bean which will destroy the taste of your brew. You need a few days to let them degas before they are ready to drink.
Of course this is all assuming you keep your coffee beans in a cool, dark place and ideally in a sealed container – I’ve outlined the best options in my article here. A Mason jar also works reasonably well and the vacuum sealed bag that most coffee beans come in these days is passable. I’ve even read about how freezing coffee beans works without a hitch although that’s not something I’ve tried myself.
Why does coffee need to be fresh?
The simple answer? Taste. Freshly roasted and ground coffee is the apoapsis of the delicious coffee orbit.
Consider a freshly baked loaf of bread you pick from a baker’s. You take it home and cut a slice. It’s still slightly warm, it feel soft and fluffy, you take in that fresh-from-the-oven bread smell. Mmmmm…
Now contrast that with a week old half-eaten store-bought loaf that’s been sitting in your kitchen for a week.
You might think that the difference between fresh and stale coffee is not quite as dramatic as that. You’d be surprised. Fresh coffee tastes 10x better and brings out the kind of raspberry or hazelnut notes that the majority of coffee drinkers aren’t even aware of! Making the change to buying freshly roasted beans is probably the number one thing most people can do to improve their coffee making at home.
If you’re already grinding your own coffee fresh – you are, aren’t you? – then don’t mess the whole thing up by buying stale old grocery store beans!
Buy local, buy good
If you invest in good quality beans then you have to know the roast date. This is your proof that the coffee is fresh and was made by someone who knows what they are doing. You can get decent coffee beans from a grocery store or a major coffee chain but you will (almost certainly) not be told the roast date. Those beans could’ve been sitting in a shipping container in Indonesia for 6 months and be unfit to feed a goat.
I recommend finding an independent and preferably local place you can pick beans up at. Seriously, it’s 2018, everywhere has great coffee! I even wrote an article on how to find some top quality roasters in your neighborhood. It’s worth going just for the smell alone!
There’s a world of difference when you buy local. Walk into the roaster’s round the block and you’ll often find ‘Roast Date’ on the side of the bag – and if not, just ask! You can even find out when they will be doing the next roast so you can come in and pick some up at the perfect time! One of the best roasters in my area doesn’t even have a retail location, your order online and they just send it you through the post when it’s ready!
If you’re not used to doing this you should really give it a try. I’ve always said that the number one mistake most people make is not buying freshly roasted coffee beans. Pick some up and use a decent grind and you’re on the way to noticing flavors you could never have dreamed of. (I.e. licorice, blueberry, lemon etc – imagine your coffee tasting like that…)
When does coffee get good?
Your coffee will reach peak quality somewhere between 20 minutes to 3 days for brewed coffee and between 3-5 days for espresso. It’s usually not a good idea to brew coffee with beans that have just been roasted for reasons I’m about to go into. Your roaster should give them a period of resting to allow them to settle before selling them.
The roasting process heats the coffee beans up to a very high temperature. We’re talking around 400F for a heavy dark roast. You’re essentially cooking them. This creates a lot of latent carbon dioxide (CO2) in the beans that will wreck the taste of your brew. It slowly escapes after the roast is done – about 40% of the CO2 will have left just in the first day after the roast.
The bloom, where you put a small amount of hot water in your ground coffee and let it sit for a minute before brewing, is to help rid the coffee of the CO2 further. The earlier you brew your coffee after the roast the larger a bloom you are likely to see. Make a brew the day after the roast and you’ll see your Pour Over explode with fizzy bubbles of coffee! In fact, this is the best way of knowing for certain that your coffee is fresh. No bloom? It’s stale…
When does it start getting stale?
Coffee beans do not stay in perfect condition forever. They lose freshness after a while due to oxidation, the same process that causes rust. Oxygen molecules in the air interact with the compounds in the coffee beans and cause it to slowly lose flavor.
Most people will begin to notice a definite ‘stale’ feel around the 30 day mark and for those with a more experienced palate, even 10-15 days can be too long. This varies massively depending on the coffee bean and the roast it went through.
What is amazing is the amount of coffee sold that is stale. Go to any grocery store and check the aisle where the coffee is, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single roast date. Mass-produced coffee simply doesn’t have the turn around time to be able to be roasted, processed, shipped and sold before it goes stale. In fact, even most large commercial coffee chains are selling stale coffee, too.
This is one in the long list of reasons why you should be looking at a local, independent roaster to get your beans from.
Why are you giving rough times?
My rule of thumb is to drink brewed coffee 2-30 days post-roast and ideally before 10 days and to drink espresso 5-30 days post-roast and ideally before 15 days. I mention that it’s sometimes acceptable to drink a coffee mere minutes after the roasting process.
So what the hell are you talking about, Pat?
I can’t give more specific figures because it varies by coffee. Some coffees are ready within the hour and some will taste foul unless you give them at least 3 days. There’s no hard or set rule for this.
Again, this is why it’s great to find some local roaster’s that you like. They will take the work out of it for you. You can even grab a brew and and have a chat at a lot of places and if there’s one thing people who roast their coffee for a living love, it’s to talk about coffee.
How can I keep it fresh for longer?
The question of delaying your coffee going stale is more one of not messing up. You can’t prolong the shelf life of your coffee beans, but you sure can ruin them pretty quickly.
The first step is to grind your beans fresh. The oxidation process works on surface area. Crush up your beans and the air will make them stale many orders of magnitude faster. You should take care to not leave your ground coffee even 10-20 minutes until you brew for the same reason. Note: I do actually recommend buying pre-ground for beginners in some cases but that’s a whole other discussion.
You also need to keep your coffee beans dry, cool and out of sunlight. Most roasters these days will provide a vacuum locked bag to keep in the freshness and a mason jar works equally well. I don’t recommend putting them in a refrigerator or freezer unless you know what you’re doing.
So what should I buy?
Well firstly let me check you are doing everything you can to find a local independent coffee roaster. Most will offer delivery, too. If you can’t manage that then there are lots of excellent options online that will deliver in a couple of days. I strongly, strongly recommend you buy freshly roasted coffee beans. It’s a total gamechanger if you’re not doing it already.
Your particular taste in coffee bean is up to you. Whether you prefer a dark or a light roast, whether you like the fruity coffees of Africa or the nutty brews of Latin America or whether you’re a single origin or blended coffee kinda guy or gal.
What you need to look for over all that is roast date. Somewhere on the bag should have a date which tells you when the beans were roasted. A superstar roaster might even write next to it when the coffee will peak, too.
If the coffee is being sold by someone who knows what they are doing there isn’t a risk of you drinking it too quickly – it won’t be put on sale until it’s ready. Just aim to drink before the best before or within 15 days of the roast date.
Does this mean that you need to drink coffee within a week or two of buying it to ensure you get the best brew possible? Yes. Yes, it does.