30 Days of Blog - Day 22 - Coffee packaging and freshness

Welcome to day 22 of 30. While catching up on sleep from international travel I have been watching a little news around the world, and want to start out today with a note about Puerto Rico. I (and maybe you too) have friends in PR who have been hit incredibly hard by Hurricane Maria last week. 

This is similar in calls for action in previous weeks, but there is a difference. Since PR is not a state in the US, but rather a territory, it is not quite as well supported as places like Houston were. On top of that, Puerto Rico is an island cut off from the resources of the rest of the mainland. There has been very little talk about this disaster compared to our previous efforts, so please do anything you can to help our friends over there. Donations, traveling to help, or providing a displaced barista temporary work could mean a huge difference for them. Food & Wine has a decent list of ways to donate here (sorry for the ads).

With that said, today I want to tackle the topic of coffee packaging and freshness. This has some potentially polarizing subject matter, but I really want to talk about it. The primary disparity in coffee packaging comes in two forms; unsealed bags and heat sealed bags.

A while back unsealed Kraft bags came into trend, perpetuated by companies like Stumptown and Blue Bottle. The idea was to say that you should buy coffee fresh and often, and if you do so you don't have to worry about the coffee getting stale. Of course many people don't drink coffee this consistently, but I bet it improved sales of beans and made an impression of freshness. It also made coffee packaging reasonably affordable for many smaller companies. 

The other side of the coin is the well established heat sealing / valve system that we use commonly in coffee packaging. The specific material can range between paper to composite synthetics designed to create strong barriers to oxygen, moisture, light, etc. The idea is simply that by sealing fresh coffee in a bag, it will displace the oxygen with inert gasses from the beans (and maybe the oxygen gets forced out of the valve?). Bigger companies will add a nitrogen flush to the bag in an attempt to remove all oxygen from the bag before sealing. 

These details probably aren't news to many of you, so I don't want to bore you with those specifics. What I do want to talk about is what I have observed over the years. 

First of all, let's talk about fresh coffee. It is common perception that fresher is better. The truth is a little less clear however. In the sense of freshness we have an unfortunate product in coffee, because so many elements affect the flavor of the beans depending on how they are packaged and stored after roasting. As you may well know, coffee begins to "off gas" a few hours after the roasting process has finished. During the peak off gassing time, when the gasses are most active and present, the coffee takes on a harsh and sharp taste (some may say metallic). In my opinion this is the worst time to taste and/or drink the coffee, as the flavor of even great coffees is quite unpleasant. 

We have our cupping protocol to taste a coffee around 24 hours after roasting a sample in order to allow the coffee to settle, though depending on the roasting technique it can still be quite intense. Many people consider 24 hours post roast to be the ideal time to start brewing a coffee, but I feel it is too soon most of the time. From my observations this may be the best time to actually package the coffee.

So the initial state of coffee after roasting has a big gas release, and potentially some chemical reactions still happening internally in the bean. The oxidization of the bean exterior in the first 24 hours is essentially minimal, but afterward it can start to be noticeable. If you package the coffee and heat seal it, the coffee continues to off gas and the coffee can stay fresh for weeks. If you package the coffee without sealing it, even though it may only be a few days old it can start to taste stale. 

I have noticed coffee packaged without heat sealing has various levels of flat staleness. If it is a high grown, lightly roasted specialty coffee it will tend to taste both flat and sour. This is one of my least favorite coffee experiences. If the coffee is lower grown and/or darker roasted it will tend to be simply flat and unremarkable. This staleness seems to come into the cup in a very short time, 3 or more days in most cases. I find this to be both unrealistic in terms of consumption, as well as silly considering the fact that we have better options of preservation. 

Now this is not to say that unsealed bags can't have good coffee in them. The tendency is certainly not in favor of presenting the best coffee though. Keeping unsealed bags requires constant checking and rotation to ensure the coffee is in its very tiny window of ideal flavor. There is one major argument for unsealed paper bags, and that is being eco friendly and sustainable environmentally. I completely agree with this point of view, though it will limit the scalability of your operation if quality is truly a part of your business plan. And if you have a sealable bag that you don't seal, you have officially blown my mind as to why. Remember that zip seals are not terribly airtight.

So what about sealed bags? Does sealing make coffee better automatically? Not necessarily. If your coffee is well sourced and well roasted, sealing WILL keep it fresher longer. You must remember that you are delaying some of the gas release when sealing the bag though. This has come up most often in barista competitions when the goal is to make the espresso exactly when it is at its peak.

That peak in flavor is different for espresso than it is for filter brewing. 

For filter brewing I have found that a coffee which was rested @24 hours prior to packaging and then heat sealed will reach its peak around 3-5 days post roast. For espresso, since the pressure of brewing and concentration of solids is higher, the gas will be highly apparent early on. So for espresso the ideal window usually hits between 6-14 days depending on the bean density and roast degree. Lighter roasted, higher density coffees tend to need less degas time, but taste good longer after opening. Darker roasted coffees tend to need a little more degas time but stale faster after opening.  Lighter density coffees tend to need average degas time but also stale very quickly after opening. 

Now, what happens when you package the coffee immediately after roast? The bag blows the hell up, that's for sure. When you do this the coffee is preserved quite well, but the degassing is partial. This leads to a very gassy brew in the first 8-24 hours after opening the bag. This is why it is common practice for top level barista competitors to open their bags the night (or even days) before a competition. The balance is delicate though, because if a bag is open too early the flavor will drop quickly, especially if the coffee was transported on an airplane. 

For filter brewed coffee, it may actually be better to have the bag more freshly opened because the intensity of flavor is vital for ideal flavor in that method. Especially competitions.

The last thing I want to talk about is how long a coffee can stay fresh in a heat sealed bag. While we very commonly tell people that freshness only lasts for 2 weeks or so, the reality is slightly different once again. Sure, peak flavor may only last for a couple weeks, but I have tasted numerous coffees which were sealed that were fantastic after a month.

Sometimes even longer. 

Here is why this matters: When we talk to customers about freshness, we need to be clear on what that means. I tell consumers that you should always try to get fresher coffee, because that is where the ideal flavor is. This is especially important for those high dollar coffees (like geisha) that need to show an amazing experience for the money spent. BUT, the thing is that if the buyer does not open and drink the coffee quickly after purchase it will still be good, just not as good. Flavor will degrade over time.

It isn't like some magic gnome comes through at exactly 2 weeks past roasting to turn the coffee into dirt flavored rocks. 

High quality operations keep track of their roast dates and rotate out coffee for fresher product for the benefit of their customers. That older coffee can still be used for batch brews, or highlighted as a daily special. The flavor is still great when done this way, and might actually sell some extra bags of beans (the fresh ones) while you are at it.

So there you have my take on coffee packaging and freshness. Hope it is an interesting read.

Come back tomorrow for more random thoughts from my brain!

Pete

Posted on September 27, 2017 and filed under Blog.