Factors to Look Out For When Buying Freshly Roasted Coffee

I’ve wanted to broach on this subject for a long time now, ever since some friends and I have experienced disappointments from roasters in Singapore. What typically happens is that we’re assured by the MBTC (Men Behind The Counter) that the beans we’ve bought are freshly roasted the week before or so, and then we get home only to find out the beans are stale beyond consumption. Before I go any further, I would like to thank the following for their time, effort and photos:

Matt Riddle and Shari Bagwell from Intelligentsia Coffee, USA;

Tim Wendelboe and Tim Varney from Tim Wendelboe, Norway.

The following few points are some factors to look out for when buying freshly roasted coffee.

1)     Whole beans
When whole roasted coffee beans are ground and broken down into tiny fines, it results in a significant increase in surface area from which a rapid deterioration of the coffee occurs. And if you are buying freshly roasted coffee, you would want to buy whole beans instead of ground coffee.

2)     Roast Date
I am quite particular about the freshness of my coffee and I tend to discard beans which are older than 14 days. In Singapore, most roasted coffee packaging I’ve come across do not have roast dates. Instead, they list expiry dates which should be ONE YEAR from the roast date. Next time you pick up a bag of locally roasted coffee, just subtract a year from the date of expiry to determine how fresh the coffee is. I asked both Intelligentsia Coffee and Tim Wendelboe on the window of consumption on an opened bag before discarding the coffee and their replies were:

Matt Riddle, Intelligentsia: “2 – 3 weeks would be the top end of optimal storage time.”

Tim Wendelboe: “3 – 4 weeks, when coffee is packed in a one way valve bag flushed with nitrogen or CO2 then vacuum sealed. In an open paper bag maximum 4-5 days. We operate with 3 weeks on our bags that are vac sealed and flushed with nitrogen.”

3)     Proper Treatment and Packaging
Coffee is highly volatile and prone to staling upon roasting. The roasted coffee beans begin to degas carbon dioxide and deteriorate the moment they are being roasted. Proper packaging and treatment of the coffee as they leave the roastery are very important to prolong the freshness of the beans. The following are some features roasteries use on their packaging of coffee:

a)     Opaque one way valve Bags

b)     Resealable or Zip-loc

c)     Nitrogen flushed before sealing bags
Tim Varney mentioned that “When the bag is flushed, then sealed, the bag is sucked tight – but is designed to be able to stand up. Also, there is a one way valve on the rear of the bag to release the CO2 over time.”

d)     Immediate packaging of the beans upon cooling after the roast

The following are prime examples of coffee bags from the 2 aforementioned roasters.

FYI, the roast date for Tim Wendelboe Espresso is found on the lower right corner of the label.

Last but not least, I asked both roasters the following:

“I’ve come across a few roasters in Singapore who fib on the actual roast day. A good way to tell is the smell and the oil on the beans. Am I correct? What are other ways to tell you’ve been had?”

Matt Riddle stated “Really, just by looking at coffee it’s hard to tell when it was roasted. So much would depend on the level of roast, age of the (green) coffee and other factors. The best way to tell if the coffee is fresh is to grind some,  and pour a little water over it. if it blooms, it’s fresh. If not, it’s probably getting up on the window if not past it. You can most certainly smell old coffee…it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you smell it.”

Tim Wendelboe’s answer was “It depends on the roast and the cooling technique. If you cool the coffee with water quenching the shelf life is max 5 days and the beans will get oily the day after roast if they are dark roasted. Lighter roasted beans have longer shelf life and air cooled coffee has longer shelf life. However a good indication whether the coffee is stale or not is by looking, smelling and tasting. Oils is a good indicator of stale coffee as oils oxidize and turn bitter when in contact with oxygen.”

Incidentally, both coffees in the photos are legendary and you can order them online below:

Intelligentsia Black Cat Espresso

Tim Wendelboe Espresso

7 thoughts on “Factors to Look Out For When Buying Freshly Roasted Coffee”

  1. When Colin and i texted abt packaging previously and followed by steve comment on DIY sealing of home-made nespresso shots, i naturally thought abt nitrogen flushing. Searched the web a bit but was not able to find a reasonably cheap nitrogen supply for home use. Anybody got any ideas?

  2. Oh yeah… forgot to mention i was thinking about sealing mini-packages of whole beans (as per your daily shot weight) in a nitrogen filled envelope

    1. That’s about 18 grams per double. U making your own kspresso factory? :)

      Are you thinking of roasting 500g batches and packing into 20+ single serving doses?

  3. I know it’s something you probably can’t control in Singapore, but keeping coffee away from humidity and excessive heat prolongs the life of coffee. I find keeping coffee is polystyrene boxes, cupboards good places to keep the ambient temperature down.

    Don’t suppose you’ve tried some coffee from any Australian roasters have you Colin?

    1. My green coffee is kept in a cardboard box away from light. I keep my home roasted coffee in zip-locked one way valve bags in the drawer. Store bought roasted coffee stay in their respective bags, unless it’s a better roast than home roast, which rarely happens which then goes into a spare zip locked one way valve bags. No, Samuel, I’ve not tried Australian roasts before. Are there any good places you’ll recommend?

  4. Hi Colin, thanks for the posting; I enjoyed reading, as ever.

    Ok, for those of us in Singapore who are making our way along the espresso/coffee journey but have not yet reached the elevated levels of home roasting, are there any viable options for getting these blends (ie the Black Cat or others) into our kitchen? I presume buying online from the US would be impractical (lead-time, quantity, costs). That leaves buying the green beans in some quantity and having them roasted locally somewhere. Is that sort of service available here?

    For reference, I make my espresso with the Highlander Supreme blend or Spinelli’s espresso blend. They’re good and well but the urge to experiment and try something new is ever present. I’m also just starting on single origins or other non-espresso roasts/blends for syphon brews.

    I will eventually move up to home roasting -that’s a certainty! – but in the meantime, and also to not introduce ANOTHER variable to the fray, any suggestions on what’s a guy to do?

  5. Hi Ben,

    A group of us trollers from CoffeeGeek who are based in Singapore got together and formed a coffee appreciation and home roasting group called CGSG (Coffee Greens Singapore). The recent post titled “Meetup at the Cairns” is just one of those sessions we try to have frequently, ever since we discovered good salsa. Apart from meetups, we frequently exchange ideas on roasting, and places to get good beans and corn chips. We also regularly purchase beans from overseas and share the shipping costs. If you (or any readers) like, I’ll pass you more details in an email.

    On a related note, KS has graciously agreed to host the next get-together. Yum! Salsa! Or am I banned?

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