Good coffee tastes clear, bold and complex with layers of flavour. Right after opening your bag of freshly bought coffee, its scent fills the air – it smells amazing (and in my humble opinion, beats any air freshener hands down)! Then that smooth, first sip, where you taste the depth of the coffee’s flavour.
So why on earth does it suddenly taste bland the next day? It’s no longer packed with the taste notes you were promised. Rather, it’s now thin and flat. What happened?
Your coffee has gone stale.
Why does this happen? More importantly, what can I do to keep coffee tasting flavourful? What is the best way to store coffee beans so they retain freshness? I’ll be walking you through all of this. I’ll also be giving you my top tips I’ve picked up over my years in the cafe industry, which you can apply to your coffee at home easily.
Start On The Right Foot: Your Type of Coffee
Coffee going stale is an incredibly common natural occurrence. Just like how a helium balloon gradually deflates, imagine your coffee’s flavours deflating out of it. There is no way to prevent this from happening entirely, but what we can do is slow it down, so it stays fresh for longer. And the first, but very important factor that comes into play is the type of coffee you choose to buy:
Whole Beans vs Pre-Ground Beans
If you want good coffee, get whole beans. There’s no argument here: whole beans will win in flavour and freshness hands down, every single time. But why, though?
Oxidation is your answer, and also your worst enemy. You know how when you leave cut slices of apples out in the open for too long, they turn brown? That’s oxygen at work, slowly breaking down the chemicals and oxidizing the freshness away. The same thing happens with coffee. Once you open the bag of beans, oxygen starts attacking it.
Read our full smackdown article here: Whole Beans vs Pre-Ground Coffee.
BUT, whole beans have a smaller total exposed surface area. Pre-ground coffee has an enormous total exposed surface area, because it’s been ground into tiny pieces. Hence, oxygen can oxidize pre-ground coffee a lot faster than whole beans. And thus the reason why pre-ground coffee goes stale so much quicker.
Whole beans can last for up to 3 weeks and still taste fresh; whereas pre-ground coffee goes stale in as little as 1 day, two if you’re lucky.
Buy Coffee in Small Batches
Only buy the amount of coffee beans you need. Just the amount you drink for the week. Coffee is one of those things you should try not to stock up on, no matter how tempting the promotion.
You may think you’re getting a good deal if you’ve scored a bulk discount on 10 bags of coffee. But really, you’re not. What’s going to happen is your coffee is gonna sit in the cupboard, untouched by you, but undergoing oxidation and losing flavour.
- Barista’s Pro Tip: Speaking of deals, some supermarkets may sell coffee that has gone past the best before date at a ridiculously cheap clearance price. Don’t touch it! Stay away!
Don’t go overboard. If you only need a small, 250 g (half a pound) retail bag of coffee, don’t get that 2 kg bag just because there was a sale on it.
Signs to Look Out For When Choosing Coffee
Even with whole beans, you have to be careful. They’re not all created equal. Refrain from grabbing the first bag of coffee beans you see and hightailing it out of there. Keep an eye out for several things:
Sign #1 – Dates
On the retail packaging, look for the roast date and the best before date. If these beans are truly fresh, the best before date will be about 3-4 weeks after the roast date. As mentioned earlier, 3 weeks is the average lifespan of fresh coffee.
IF the best before date is months away, the coffee was likely packaged stale. You will pretty much never get to taste the promised flavours as described on the packaging. This is far more common with pre-ground coffee.
IF there is no roast date on the bag, my advice is to stay far, far away from it. Be especially cautious with typical supermarket brands.
- Barista’s Pro Tip: Depending on the brew method you use, the time elapsed between the roast date and the day you brew your coffee can help optimize the flavours. For filter/pourover/french press or any soft brew method, the fresher the better; but for espresso, it’s best to let it age a bit. Use it about 5-7 days after the roast date. This is when it will taste the best for espresso!
Sign #2 – Material
How your coffee beans are packaged is important too. You’ve got two groups: 1) cheap paper/thin plastic bags; OR 2) lined bags with valves.
Lined bags with these one-way valves are good: they allow the coffee to degas, and stop oxygen from entering the bag. Fresh coffee will always undergo a process called degassing, in which carbon dioxide that has built up during roasting is released. A valve is a good indicator that the coffee is fresh.
If there is a valve, keep the beans in the original packaging if you haven’t opened it yet. If it’s already been opened, it’s best to store it separately. Refer to the next section.
If the bag is one of those cheap paper ones, just transfer them straight away to an airtight container. Refer to the next section.
After Opening: Top Tips to Properly Store Beans
“Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the four nations attacked. Only an opaque airtight container, master of all four elements, could stop them.”
If you got that reference, you won’t ever forget how to store your coffee again, I promise you that! You’re welcome.
In all seriousness though, moisture, light, heat and oxygen are what you need to avoid at all costs. If your beans get in contact with any one of these, it will go stale even quicker. So, how do we avoid all this?
1. Use a dry, opaque, airtight container
For example, Tupperware containers work wonders. It has to be airtight so oxygen doesn’t get in, and the beans don’t oxidize. Make sure the container is absolutely dry, as unwanted moisture will give bacteria a place to party and spoil your beans. If possible, make use of an opaque container, to keep out light. This isn’t the most important if you take further precautionary steps as outlined below, so don’t fret if you haven’t got an opaque container.
- Barista’s Pro Tip: If the original packaging has a seal built into the bag, so that you can reseal it, use it! That’s an incredible feature to take advantage of, as it provides an airtight seal, an opaque covering and a dry environment.
2. Keep in a cool, dark and dry place
Be aware of where you put the container of beans. Keeping it in a dry cupboard or on a shelf is best. You want it far away from windows, because UV light from the sun can spoil the flavourful surface oils on the coffee. Plus, beans are sensitive to heat, so do not leave it near the stove. Avoid humid places near the kitchen sink – you hardly want water droplets to get in or condense on the surface of the beans.
3. Keep away from residual smells
Coffee beans absorb the aromas in the air around it. If that’s a fragrant lemon smell, great! If it happens to be the leftover garlic odor from last night’s dinner prep, too bad. Hope you enjoy garlic-infused coffee. So make sure your container is thoroughly cleaned and allowed to air out, before loading it with coffee. This is also why it’s wise to keep said container in a relatively neutral-smelling location, and not amongst your strongest spices and curry powder.
This is a nifty little hack to know, by the way. If you have spare beans lying around, pop them in a little cup or bag and use them as a makeshift air freshener or odour remover!
If you follow the above tips, you should be all set to keep your coffee for a few weeks, or until the best before date on the original packaging. For pre-ground coffee, follow the same tips laid out above, but keep it for no more than a day or two.
Should I Leave Coffee Beans in the Grinder Hopper?
The hopper is the part of a grinder where you pour your beans in. It holds a large portion of beans in it before you grind them. Some people like to open their bag of beans, tip it in, put the lid on, and leave it there. Then, they can come back and grind it whenever they like, without having to worry about transferring it to containers back and forth. Should you do this?
Frankly, I don’t recommend it. Within the same day, it’s fine, but don’t leave it in the hopper overnight for several days. This is because most hoppers are transparent and are not airtight. Some have huge gaps to make it easier to open. I always suggest transferring your beans to a separate container as per my guidelines above. Pour the amount of beans you need for that day’s coffee into the grinder, and store the rest.
If you know with absolute certainty that you will use it all up in the next day, then it’s alright to leave it in the hopper if you don’t want the hassle of moving beans around. But leave it for no more than a day.
For fresher coffee, remember to clean the inside of your burr grinder regularly! Oil from old coffee beans can build up, which will affect the taste of the new batch of beans you grind. Contrary to popular believe, it’s not a difficult job at all. We have a comprehensive step-by-step guide on how to clean your coffee grinder, so check that out. No excuses!
- Barista’s Pro Tip: Sacrifice beans! Before starting your brew, grab a small handful of beans, grind it and throw it away. This is called “purging” the grinder – you’re using a couple of beans to scrape off any old, residual oil that’s built up, so when you grind the beans for your actual coffee, you get the freshest possible result. More on this in that guide on cleaning your coffee grinder linked above.
The Big Debate: To Freeze or Not To Freeze
For me, it is a firm no.
Sure, it may make it last a tad bit longer, but the beans will go stale far quicker. Condensation will form on the beans, and a fridge is a place where you’ve got way too many residual smells from the food in there. The beans will absorb the smells, and the final taste will be far from fresh. Keeping it in a cool, dark area is more than sufficient.
There has been much debate about whether putting coffee beans in the freezer will help it preserve freshness. Coffee is something one should enjoy fresh, so my short answer is no – do not freeze your beans. But, if an unexpected trip or life circumstance crops up, and you’ve got no choice, then sure. Freezing it to extend its lifespan will pass.
Pre-weigh your beans, then package the beans in portions; in small airtight containers. Avoid popping the whole bag in the freezer or you will get one giant block of solid frozen beans. The container must be airtight, or your beans will suffer from freezer burn.
- Barista’s Pro Tip: Freezing beans is something you may opt to do as a last resort for home. NOT in a professional cafe setting. If you’re a fellow barista reading this and you decide to use frozen coffee beans for your customers’ coffees – I will hunt you down.
My Epic Summary of Tips:
From start to finish, here is a quick recap of all the tips we’ve learnt on how to buy and store your coffee to keep them as fresh as possible.
- Buy whole beans
- Buy your coffee in small batches
- Keep away from water, heat, light and air
- Use a dry, opaque container
- Keep in a cool, dark area
- Keep away from residual odors
- Freeze only as a last resort
Try these tips out, and I guarantee you’ll be able to taste quite a significant improvement in each cup. Knowing how to properly buy and store coffee beans is a simple yet overlooked step. Many of them do seem easy and straightforward, but when it comes to coffee, it’s really an entire chain of little things you do that snowballs into an amazing final experience.
Do you have any secret tips up your sleeve? Share it with us below. Here’s to fresher, tastier coffee.