What's all this noise about Coffee being a Fresh Food ?
Date Posted:5 January 2017
It only seemed like yesterday.........Saturday mornings I would run around the corner to our local Deli to buy a small pack of coffee.
You know what I'm talking about, those bean hoppers mounted on the wall behind the counter, the assistant would dispense beans into waxed paper bags, grind it on an old antique grinder and then fold over the top of the pack with tin-ties.
We didn't really know much back then about the lifecycle of roasted coffee beans as retailing for coffee was generally confined to supermarkets and convenience stores. It was in the early days before the internet and the term Specialty Coffee was but a twinkle in the eyes of clever coffee roasters.
It was all very exciting - intense and alluring aromatics from the recently ground coffees and the volatiles escaping from the coffee bean hoppers.
Plain and simple, what we are talking about here is a complete sensorial overload. I was careful to make the Deli my first destination on the regular Saturday morning rounds so that waiting in line at the Bakery or Butcher I could hold the pack of fresh ground coffee near my nose and take a whiff of all that goodness. People must of thought I was a weirdo....sniffing a pack of coffee!
I could not wait to get home to my beloved Moka (Stovetop) and brew coffee. That first cup from a newly ground pack with my Saturday cake was the highlight of my entire week, picking me up from the recovery of too many Friday night drinks...... Those memories of my coffee rituals, whilst a generation ago, would stay with me a lifetime.
Coffee shifts from a basic commodity to officially become a "thing"" (hobby/pastime/interest/passion)
Australia and New Zealand have come a long way in the last decade. Specialty Coffee was born and since grown into the standard by which all coffees are measured.
Today's coffee lovers have acute knowledge and awareness of all things coffee - in fact many are enthusiasts as coffee has become a serious hobby or pursuit whether it's home roasting, appreciation of fine coffees or the extensive and at time fanatica interests in coffee equipment.
These days, most serious coffee drinkers understand the key principles relating to freshness and buy their coffees with a savvy sense of discerning style. Is it fresh ?......when was it roasted ?......how was it roasted ?.....what origins are in the blend ?.
With Coffee, there is always a "better way"
A love of coffee brought me into the industry more than a decade ago. I could not stop thinking about coffee all day and night. It was consuming me.
When we started, we were part of the original pioneers in those early days providing super fresh roasted premium coffees by mail order. Back then, there were only a small handful of providers offering coffee over the internet and unfortunately some of those providers were only interested in offloading defective or distressed inventory - stuff that was not delicious or stuff that was too stale to sell to wholesale clients (cafes).
It was a hard uphill battle to convince customers of our virtues for quality and freshness.
We kept pushing to offer something a bit different to everyone else - a better quality product than what was available in traditional retail stores.
A fresher product that was priced as superior value. Despite spending more on our quality raw ingredients, we also had to sell at a lower price to create the attraction to our brand.as we operated from the disadvantage of being disconnected by distance or remote from our customers.
Our strategy was to bypass (or to use a popular term, disrupt) the many hands that violate the principles of freshness - traditional distribution and long period of storage.
We knew those roasted coffee beans in the Supermarket, Deli's and Retail stores were already stale and the quality was not comparable to our product.
We knew the big hoppers used to store coffee beans, whilst visually impressive and designed to tempt you into buying, contributed to rapid acceleration (oxydization) of the roasted coffee, virtually destroying the quality very quickly. A few days in those hoppers and the roasted coffee was literally "dead", all the essential volatiles having been oxydized. Ironically, those bean hoppers began to be phased out as the conscious consumer became informed on freshness.
We knew the bags they used for customers in the retail stores would not provide an effective barrier for freshness and preserve quality like our 3-layer, metalized foil, heat sealed bag.
We knew all retailers kept their beans lying around until sold, just like the supermarkets with warehouse racks stacked to the ceiling in warm weather, shelves with rows and rows of coffee packs most with no roast dates whatsoever and just cryptic Use By dates.
Nobody retailing coffee was interested or motivated to treat the roasted coffee product like a fresh food.
We knew that retailers did not care or appreciate that roasted coffee had a peak window of just 30 days from roasting - they wanted 12 or 24 month Best Before dates.
Shock - coffee continues to go stale inside of unopened packs !
It still surprises me that many buyers of retail coffee do not realize that coffee continues to stale inside of unopened packs. I often talk with new customers about freshness when they mention their strategy of buying in bulk to save on shipping costs.
It's fair to say that more than 90% of the coffee drinking public still believe that coffee is fresh until the bag is opened - regardless of how old the bag is.
Of course, if you were not told why coffee goes stale inside of unopened bags, then why would you think coffee was any different to other food products.
When most people become of the realities of coffee staling, they are quite literally shocked.
With so much fake news being published on the internet these day, you can be assured of the science and proof we declare.....it's also the same views held and shared by quality focused Specialty Coffee companies around the world.
Unfortunately, it's not possible to halt the staling of roasted coffee and the only people pushing that story are the large, commodity coffee companies with vested interests in selling stale products that have been sitting in warehouses and retail shelves for too long. They don't want the coffee buying public to learn the truth.
The closest solution to slowing down the natural oxydization of coffee are those really expensive metal tins used by Illy - but there is of course a catch......they have pre-staled and de-gassed the coffee under controlled conditions before packaging, so it's not starting with a super-fresh position like that of a local supplier that packs their coffee immediately after roasting.
There are some marketing tricks that many companies promote such as nitrogen flush, but that's just a smoke and mirrors tactic to get you believing they have a point of difference.
Reality is that many don't use nitrogen flush features due to high costs and factors involved in ensuring the degas period of the roasted coffee is ideal. Many companies don't have the luxury of time to wait for that to reach ideal conditions for packaging with nitrogen flush. The exception being suppliers of the portion control systems such as capsules and pods that are packaged under controlled atmospheric conditions with nitrogen flush - they are of course dealing with a more severe challenge of ground coffee particles and long shelf storage so they are compelled to nitrogen flush.
Predominantly, 1-way valves are used in just about all coffee packaging of fresh roasted coffee because the fresh coffee exhausts huge volumes of carbon dioxide - this process is incredibly intense for the first 72hrs from roasting and continues in a declining volume for many weeks after roasting.
The companies that don't use valves in their packaging actually pre-stale the coffee before it's packed to eliminate most of the exhausted CO2. So, in effect, they are selling you a stale product.
We also know that some suppliers to supermarkets and retail stores let their coffee stale for many days before packaging to minimize the potential for swelling of the bag that can occur with fresh roasted coffee beans. In other words, they don't want expanded, blown up coffee packs sitting on a retail shelf as it looks abnormal.
Unlike many other food ingredients that remain relatively fresh and similar to when they were packed, fresh roasted coffee beans are remarkably difference and hence it's why we and others that respect quality coffee regard roasted coffee beans as a "fresh food" - just like bread, milk, meat, fruit and vegetables.
Coffee is different to many other foods - it has volatiles and essential active compounds
Roasted coffee contains a hundreds of volatile compounds that are still reacting after the roasting process.
Some of these are essential for a desirable coffee experience, like aroma. As these volatiles are limited or finite in their resource, it stands to reason why getting the roasted coffee at it's freshest means that you can enjoy the best possible experience from the coffee, at the time that suits you best.
Grinding the coffee causes rapid degradation of these essential volatiles in fresh roasted coffee beans.
The exposure to oxygen robs the volatiles and whilst the packs of coffee may still be sealed, the majority of what we have come to admire (the "goodness") has been lost during the grinding process.
It's for this reason that many people apply a simple freshness rule or law being 15 minutes exposure for ground coffee is the end point for ground coffee. A few minutes here and there is not going to mean you are still safe which is why grinding the fresh roasted coffee beans just prior to use will always yield a superior coffee experience.
There really is no solution for pre-ground coffee......like fighting with both hands tied behind your back. Whilst some people are offended by this comment because they don't want to pay $$ to buy a grinder, the reality is that if you want a lovely coffee you must grind at the moment just before you brew.
Here are our tips for buying the best quality coffees
Does it have a roast date ? Best Before or Use By dates are not an indicator of freshness.
- Ideal consumption period for fresh roasted coffees is between 9 and 30 days from roasting - this will depend upon ambient temps, the higher the temp (including transit) the shorter the peak period.
- Is the coffee packaged into a heat sealed foil or metalized bag. Most plastics and papers leach out the essential volatile active compounds that make coffee amazing.
- Was the coffee sitting in a bean hopper ? Most hoppers do not have any freshness barrier features.
- Is the coffee oily ? Oil on the outside of the bean is not a good reaction. The oil reacts with oxygen to turn rancid - just like the lipids in fat/oil if left exposed to air. Most decaf coffees end up oily after a few days, so this is normal. For non-Decaf, oil is a sign of a dark roast and/or stale coffee.
- Is the coffee imported ? Well, you should know what I'm about to say here......drop it like a hot potato. Imported coffees sold in a retail environment were not air-freighted, so it's been exposed to extreme temps and months at sea.
- Ground coffee - I've answered that issue earlier in this article. Grind on demand for the best coffee experience. Pre-ground coffee is dead.
- 100% Arabica - really means nothing these days. If it's a specialty grade coffee, it will be 100% arabica anyway. The companies that feel the need to publish that they are 100% Arabica are the worst offenders of lying and deception because their past and history is rooted in usage of robusta. Robusta is not the enemy, it's the companies that prevail with low grade, cheap, disgusting robusta that are the problem.