Did you know that if the coffee you buy does not mention from which country the bean was sourced, it is likely it could be upwards of a year old? Also, without a “roasted on” date, the coffee could be way past its prime drinking period of 2-3 weeks after roasting.
Coffee that is old must be dark roasted, or in many cases burned to cover up the tainted flavor associated with old beans. What you get when the bean is burned, is not the taste of the coffee, but the taste of the inside of the Roaster. It is then not a surprise to many in the Specialty Coffee industry that some people say they like the smell of coffee, but do not like the taste. The truth is, if all you’ve ever tried came to you via the grocery store, via Costco in a “gy-normo” bag, or via Starbucks, you’ve likely been drinking old burnt coffee, so you might say, you haven’t really given coffee a try.
The bean (or seed of the coffee cherry) is extremely age and taint sensitive. It can be ruined by sitting in a shipping container for too long, if it gets too humid or wet, or by being stored in a warehouse with other food stuffs. It will absorb any scent it is stored alongside. Great care must be taken to get the bean, as fresh and preserved as possible to the Roaster. Once the Roaster has the bean, they check it for taste and freshness by roasting, cupping (industry speak for taste testing), and scoring it. If it meets their standards of quality, they order it and roast it up for you and I to enjoy.
However, once it is in our hands, there are ways in which we can ruin it. Some of us think that we’ll be able to preserve our coffee by sticking it in the freezer or refrigerator. This is wrong on so many levels. Freezing grabs the moisture from the bean, which hijacks the flavor, and storing it with other food stuffs will also taint the flavor.
First and foremost, coffee is NOT meant to be stored, it is meant to be drank. Seasonality can change with introduction of new crops, but if you really care about taste, you’ll want to know if the coffee you are buying is in season. Coffee isn’t a corked fine wine. Think of it as a screw-top wine, meant to be drank immediately. It will NOT become better with age.
For optimum flavor, you should always buy your coffee when it is in season as whole beans within 24 hours of roasting, store it in a light resistant, air-tight container, grinding just before brewing to preserve taste. As much as 80% of the coffee’s aroma or taste is lost in grinding, so that is why fresh ground coffee is strongly encouraged by your local Roasters.
As mentioned earlier, it is best to drink the whole bean coffee you buy within 2-3 weeks max of the “roasted on” date. This is aimed at those of you who buy a “gy-normo” bag from Costco that lasts you several months or longer. You might as well take caffeine pills every morning because if you think that coffee tastes good, well honey, we need to take you to get a real cup of fresh, properly prepared coffee. Once you taste it at its optimum, you’ll wonder how you ever stomached the other stuff. Some of you may actually find you can drink it without drowning it in heavy cream and sugar—I know—who’d a thunk?
Other ways coffee may get ruined, despite the best efforts of Farmers and Roasters: Grinding, water quality, water temperature, and timing.
As many of us learned in Science back in the day, friction produces heat, so if friction is applied too long to the coffee beans being ground, they are actually being heated and may burn as a result prior to brewing. Burr grinding systems are designed specifically to minimize heating during grinding. They will cost you $85 or more, but with proper cleaning and care will last you a long time and most importantly will not burn that bag of expensive specialty beans you just brought home.
If your tap water is heavily chlorinated or has any other taint, it WILL affect the taste of your coffee. Just keeping a little purified water around shouldn’t be a challenge, and HELLO, we live in earthquake country. It could save your life.
In addition, it is worth buying a $4 or less temperature gauge to be sure the water is at the optimum temperature for the brew method you choose. If the water is too hot, it will burn the grounds and have a negative affect on taste.
Finally, timing. Use the stove clock, the microwave or clock on your cell phone to keep track of brew time. If French Press coffee sits for too long after being pressed, for instance, it can cause the coffee to become bitter. It is recommended to pour the freshly pressed coffee into a carafe just after pressing to minimize contact with the sediment.
All of this may seem complicated, but after the first few diligent attempts, you’ll find it becomes second nature. Besides, when you taste the fruits of your labor, there will be no going back.
Another great way to get the most of the coffee you take home from your local Roaster is to ask them best extraction practices for the brew method you are planning on using.
For instance, Daniel of Dark Horse Coffee Roasters suggests using 20% more coffee when brewing his Guatemala with a French Press. This made a huge difference in taste. So don’t be shy. Roasters and their staff love to talk coffee. Take advantage. Many will take the time to show you. After all, their livelihood depends on you getting the most out of the beans you take home.
If there is a subject, like coffee seasonality, you’d like to see discussed here, just drop me a line at email@example.com. Also, if you’d like to join the conversation about local coffee, share coffee events, pictures or ideas join the “Coffee San Diego” community on Google+.