On Bean Freshness and Storage

January 11, 2012

Put me firmly in the category of "Freshness Enthusiast" when it comes to coffee. I grind just before brewing, I don't use travel mugs anymore, I keep a few days' worth of fresh beans on hand to use, so I have a fairly frequent turnover. While I can certainly appreciate how a particular bean may become more subtle and refined with a few more days' age, that window from 2-7 days post roast is like heaven in a cup for me. Coffee is so expressive in this time, I've come to love all the nuances bursting from the brew. Considering how little coffee I actually keep out, storage isn't a problem. I handle the usual Enemies of Freshness by sealing my beans up in Mason jars, kept out of the light, in a kitchen cabinet, where it's also fairly cool. A simple solution to what can be a pervasive problem.




I've been blessed recently with a glut of coffee at my disposal, not only from my own home roasting, but also from my Handsome Coffee Roasters "subscription," and my habit of keeping two beans on hand - for my morning espresso and brewed coffee through the day. I think, currently, I've got about five pounds all told, and I'd certainly be a fool to think I could consume all of that before it got stale. Personally, I subscribe to Babbie's Rule of Fifteens, which you'll freqeuntly find touted as a rule-of-thumb on coffee enthusiast forums. The Rule goes like this:

Green coffee lasts about 15 months before it goes stale.

Roasted coffee lasts about 15 days before it goes stale.

Ground coffee lasts about 15 minutes before it goes stale.

Now, there are exceptions and considerations, like the fact that taste is all subjective and staling is a continuous process, so the 15s aren't quite rules so much as they are guidelines, or targets. Only buy the roasted coffee you can consume in two weeks, grind right before brewing - these are good corollary rules to consider as a coffee consumer, if you're interested in keeping things fresh. Now, back to my problem, I clearly have too much coffee on hand for one lone drinker (though I sure could try my best to deplete my stock!). Aned yet, I'm not at all worried! You see, friends, I am also a fan of...frozen beans!

Still with me? Need a moment to recover from the shock? Fair enough.

Freezing beans is a hot topic in the coffee world. Lots and lots of professionals, enthusiasts, fake gurus (I'm looking at you, Major Cohen), and average folks will weigh in on the discussion as it comes up. There are naysayers and fanboys, apathetics and bystanders, just like so many other subjects in our society. But the fact of the matter is that in the end, personal taste and a willingness to at least try it out are what convinces you one way or the other. I have personally found that freezing beans within a few days of roasting helps to preserve them, and drastically reduces staling while frigid. I won't pretend to know the whole ins and outs of the science, but I'd wager that oxidtion (one factor of staling) is much like many other chemical processes, in that temperature affects the rate of reaction. That, actually, may be the most obvious point, but it's all I can really offer as an explanation. Now, arguments against freezing often have to do with condensation, ice, and oils. Condensation is bad for beans, certainly; moisture degrades flavors, can cause mold and mustiness, and is generally to be avoided before brewing. I have found, though, that good storage and thawing techniques preclude condensation in the beans. I use two methods: the first is the use of Mason jars. I pack the suckers to the brim - again, very fresh coffee, rarely older than four days post-roast - screw on the lids, label with tape, and freeze. The second method that I've recently adopted is vaccum sealing in bags. I use the typical vac bags you'd buy for a sealer, weigh out a few days' worth of beans, bag 'em, seal 'em, freeze 'em. Either methods works great, but here's the caveat: you can only freeze once. When you're ready to use your beans, you pull out the whole bag or jar, let it thaw for a few hours (read: overnight), and that's that. They're room temperature again, they stay that way. If you open the container, you're introducing warm air into it, which can lead to condensation and, if re-frozen, cause ice crystals to form in the beans, or simply collect in the container. If freezer burn makes your steaks taste like cardboard, why would your coffee fare better? So, pack them right, thaw them right, and you should be okay. In my experience, even after two months' worth of freezer time, a batch of Counter Culture Afficionado espresso pulled and tasted the same as it did five days off roast. 

Now, as I said, the decision to freeze is pretty much just personal. You can try it once, and say "You know, there's something to this, I think I'll keep at it." Or you can totally dismiss it as a hassle, doomed to fail, etc. I'm not out to convince anyone really, I just think people should keep an open mind about it. There's a lot of OMG NEVER FREEZE COFFEE out there, and it bothers me, as I've found many of these folks haven't even tried it, they're just parroting what they read on some blog. I understand people have strong opinons about coffee, so I've come to expect flax for this sort of posting, as I've seen on sites like CoffeeGeek, or on Twitter. This is purely my opinion, fostered by discussions online, and built around my own actual experience.

Anyone else freezing beans? Not freezing? I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts. 



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