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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