For many of us, it’s impossible to imagine starting the day without that first cup of fresh-roasted, freshly-brewed coffee. We may have our favorite brand or type of bean, but keeping our roasted coffee beans fresh is far more important than deciding which bean type to buy. If the beans aren’t absolutely fresh, the coffee will taste inferior, even if it’s a Jamaican Blue Mountain blend costing $50 a pound.
The exact age of the coffee we brew every morning is something we tend to take for granted, because most people don’t consider exactly how coffee should be prepared and stored for optimum flavor. Likewise, others may be aware of the importance of storing coffee properly, but may not bother because they think it’s too time-consuming or involves some sort of expensive special equipment.
In fact, coffee may be stored easily and inexpensively at home, and knowing exactly how to do it will add considerably to the coffee’s shelf life and flavor. The secret of good storage, however, begins long before you bring the coffee home from the grocery store, and has to do with what kind of coffee you buy to begin with.
• Buy whole bean only. Unless your supermarket is completely out of whole bean coffee and you’ve got no other way of procuring your daily cup, buy only whole bean coffee. Some people may think that this is an elitist attitude bordering on food snobbery, but it’s not at all; it’s actually based on simple chemistry. Experts tell us that much of the full flavor of the coffee bean is actually contained in the oil. That’s why you smell such a heavenly aroma when you’re grinding coffee; the oils are being freshly released. Unfortunately, within 30 minutes of grinding a coffee bean, a significant amount of those oils will have evaporated, which means that a significant amount of flavor will have been lost as well. That’s why it doesn’t really help if you buy the beans whole and grind them at the grocery store, because by the time you get home, the oils will have mostly evaporated.
• Purchase small amounts at a time. Most whole bean coffees come in bags containing 12 or 16 ounces. Don’t buy more than that unless you’re hosting a party for a huge crowd of binge coffee drinkers, because the coffee won’t stay fresh long enough. According to the National Coffee Association, coffee starts to lose freshness quickly after it’s been roasted and packaged, so just buy enough for a week or two at a time.
• Grind only what you’ll be using. Don’t get energetic and decide to grind up the whole bag of coffee when you bring it home, because this totally defeats the purpose of buying whole beans in the first place. Your coffee will stay much fresher if you grind one pot at a time.
• Keep your coffee airtight. Air is an enemy to roasted coffee beans; it can quickly make them stale, and a stale coffee bean has a rank flavor. The three other enemies of coffee are heat, moisture and light. Put your coffee in an airtight container as soon as you get it home. Some manufacturers make ceramic and glass coffee canisters with airtight seals, and these are recommended by the experts. If you’ve bought more than 12 ounces, you might consider storing your coffee in two airtight canisters; if you don’t open the second one until you’ve completely used up the first one, the coffee will stay fresher longer.
• Don’t refrigerate your coffee. The idea that refrigerating or freezing coffee preserves freshness is an old wives’ tale, because in actual fact chilling it will create moisture, which in turn will cause the beans to deteriorate. Keep the coffee canister in a dark cool place. Make sure it’s not near the oven, because heat from the oven can get to the coffee. Likewise, don’t keep the canister near a window where direct sunlight can get to it.