Green Coffee Freshness: How Old is Too Old?

As of late, I have began to question the notion that green coffee is a commodity that seems to have a longer shelf life than Plutonium by some accounts. This comes from the sole experience that can make the determination of the actual life of green coffee based solely on quality: blind cupping.

Subsequently, I began to see that the idea of 2-5 year claims of coffee freshness in the green form are made to the great advantage of those who move around containers of the stuff, and to large commercial roasters who will blend a stinky past-crop coffee into their trademark blend because they could buy so many thousand tons of it for 50¢ under the "C" market price (that is, CHEAP!).

But such notions of freshness do not benefit the small quality-oriented roaster of estate and single-origin coffees, nor the consumers that are at our mercy as we act as "arbitrators of taste" on their behalf.

In general, nobody who has a financial stake in a shipment of coffee wants to see it age. Coffee sold as "Specialty-Grade" has large premiums attached to it that are based on the cup quality as agreed upon by a buyer and seller. If the pre-ship sample does not match the arrival coffee, the container can be rejected at a HUGE loss to the exporter.

And in fact green coffee is a DRIED SEED, extremely dense (try biting a green bean with 11% moisture content grown at 5500 feet -you will break a tooth) chemically stable, not porous, and incredibly impervious when you compare it to its roasted form. Yes, its like other dried seeds or beans a person might store in their pantry. Then again, we ask a lot more from this bean that we do from a dried Pinto Bean or Brown Rice!

The tastes associated with age are hard notes, namely bagginess: a burlap-like taste. It belongs to a family of defects where the fats in the coffee absorb odors over time, and the degradation of the lipids in particular. The bean structure degrades too, stored probably in too hot or too cold temperatures, losing its moisture content as time goes by. Moisture may also be liberated from the coffee only to condense in a container, which can form an environment where bacteria and mold can possess the coffee.

The standards for age are not going to be uniform from continent to continent, region to region, and cup to cup. Two coffees can possess the same amount of off taste in the cup, and one will be passable while another will be intolerably defective. A bright acidy coffee will fade, and become insipidly mild ...if it takes on baggy notes, these will be very obvious and very contradictory to the cup character of the coffee. A Sumatran that features low-acidity, body and depth, with some degree of earthiness or mustiness will disguise the baggy tastes quite well. It will be VERY apparent in the appearance of the coffee, but the cup will be more passable.

In fact, this is the basis for Aged coffees; they are after all SERIOUSLY degraded, defective cups. But the quality is excused because the consumer is seeking the smoky, aggressive character intended to be both mellowed and pungent at the same time. (And in fact, Aged coffee is NOT old coffee: it is aged with care by rotating the bags or otherwise rotating the coffee to even out the moisture distribution and prevent any bad things like mold from developing. It is done in the county of origin, usually at some altitude to avoid extreme temperature or humidity fluctuations. It is expensive since the costs to age it are great, the reward delayed, there is labor involved, and the risk of possibly turning out a rotten cup of coffee after 2-3 years! I have seen people pass of old coffee as aged coffee ---this is nothing short of fraud! Example: "Aged Swiss Water Decaf Sumatra Gayo Mountain"!!!)

Another complication: How was the coffee stored as it was getting old? The worst case is that it sat in a humid hot warehouse in New Orleans, bagged in jute. This is common for commercial-grade coffees that are sold and resold by speculative buyers. But coffee can also be stored in Parchment (the outer-silverskin layer, also called Pergamino) at the farm or mill (hopefully at a temperate location at altitude) and fair quite well for 6-9 months. But only the best coffees will get such treatment!

Lastly, lets talk about age in terms of months... It is commonly stated in the trade that green coffee is Past Crop once the New Crop from that origin has arrived in the U.S. ... and Past Crop coffees are often discounted for quicker sale. But that means a roaster buying a Past Crop coffee from a broker might have it a year in his own storage before roasting it all. That makes the coffee very old for ANY origin, and the cup will suffer.

In fact, Current Crop coffees can show serious loss in quality in the cup, and baggy defective notes. Early shipments of Centrals that are green-tasting in the cup when they arrive, often machine-dried to get them to market quickly, will degrade in 5 months in my experience (1998/99 Costa Rican Tarrazu Papagayo cupped in July, 3 months after I sold out of it. ---Yes, the cup was nice on arrival but I think this was one of my buying mistakes!)

So, as a general rule I sell out of every coffee we stock within 5-6 months of it having arrived in the US. I avoid certain early-picking of Centrals. I cup the coffees every month to see if there is any sign of age coming on... and NEVER buy a coffee that might show a sign of degraded cup character. My standard is that the coffee should get to the customer and be consumed within the year ...I have a 5-6 month window, and the customer gets 5-6 months. In fact, we move through our stocks of coffee much quicker than this. The Sumatra Mandheling is re-cupped and repurchased from newly arrived lots 4-5 times per year!

I promise that I am attending to the age and cup-quality of my coffee at all times. I urge you to query any coffee supplier about when the coffee they have arrived in the US (NOT when it arrived at their shop). Crop year should be available for all coffees, in my opinion. And ideally we would all know about the date it was milled, how long it was rested in Pergamino too, and if it was shipped promptly from port. But this is a bit too much to ask, even in the internet age, of our venerable old trade at this time ...

Yes, I get complaints from customers that "the Kenya selection is poor" or "where's that Guatemalan" or "why only 2 Costa Ricans". The answer can be deduced from reading this: I will NEVER stock an origin just because I need it on the list: I will only stock it based on cup quality. I urge other small specialty coffee business to treat coffee as a crop, to be willing to tell customers "No Kenya" or "No Costa Rican" rather than purchase a coffee you know is peaked. It will only make the arrival of that truly great Costa Rican that much more significant. In the meantime, they can try other bright coffees that ARE at their prime.

And we need to stop listening to the Big Boys ...Have you ever had a coffee with incredible piquant, zesty bright notes that was roasted 6 months ago in a 4-Bag Jabez Burns, water quenched, ground, and packaged in Pillow-Packs when it was convenient in the production schedule? Let me know if you did, brother...

Lastly, these are my opinions... let me know if you disagree. Tom 3/24/00

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