Some mornings I want a cup of coffee that tastes like blueberries and a hint of caramel, and some mornings I’m looking for a combination of tropical fruits and honey. And because I’m that guy, I buy the beans for my morning pour-over or cold-brew exclusively from third-wave coffee roasters, as freshly roasted as possible.
So imagine my disappointment the last time I spent the night at a new beau’s place and woke up to a mug of well-meaning, but off-tasting coffee. Think notes of frozen lasagna and freezer-burned dumplings. A sneaky peek into his freezer confirmed my suspicions—he kept his coffee beans in there, stored in their loosely crumpled, basically-unsealed original bag. I sipped and silently judged him for being guilty of poor coffee storage practices.
But the whole experience made me wonder: Should coffee ever go in the freezer? And what’s the best way to keep it fresh if you’re not going through a 12-ounce bag every week? I talked to a few coffee roasters and other industry professionals to get to the bottom of it.
Should coffee ever go in the freezer?
Storing coffee in the freezer isn’t necessarily bad, but there’s a right way to do it. According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), coffee is hygroscopic—it absorbs ambient moisture from the air. That means storing beans in the refrigerator is definitely a no-no, since so many fridge staples give off moisture (think produce, the condensation on a milk or juice jug that's been sitting out, etc). Some coffee bags, particularly the paper ones, make poor barriers against moisture and smells. “If your freezer smells like that rotisserie chicken you froze last week, then that smell will make its way through that barrier and into your coffee,” says Dakota Graff, director of coffee for the Arkansas-based roastery, Onyx Coffee Lab. So how can we prevent chicken-flavored coffee?
I spoke with Aaron MacDougall, founder of Broadsheet Coffee Roasters, about the best way to store coffee in the freezer. “Break a big bag out into two-week portions, vacuum seal each two week portion in a FoodSaver or similar, and freeze,” he tells me. When you’re ready to brew, MacDougall recommends pulling the bag from the freezer and letting it come to room temperature before opening and brewing—and do not refreeze it. “This rigamarole is to prevent condensation,” he explains.
If this sounds a bit over the top, that’s because it is—both MacDougall and Graff explain that this method can really be reserved for really special coffee. “I personally have a freezer collection of small vacuum-packed doses of my favorite coffees from years past that I’ll get out when I want to experience them again,” Graff says. MacDougall also says that this is a fine method if you’re buying in bulk to save money, but that you may want to weigh the effort against the savings.
How long will coffee beans last at room temperature?
While storing in the freezer can prolong the life of your coffee, the beans stay fresh for a good amount of time if stored at room temperature, and how long that is depends on the roast level. “We think that the ‘optimal freshness window’ for coffee is between two days and four weeks post-roast for filter brews, and one week to six weeks for espresso,” says MacDougall. You read that range correctly—there is such a thing as “too fresh” for coffee. After roasting, the coffee needs time to degas, otherwise you’ll end up with bad, overly bitter tasting coffee. The darker the roast, the longer it needs to degas. Fortunately, your roaster will only put whole beans out for sale after they’ve had a chance to rest after roasting, and most roasters print the “Roasted on” date on the bags.
What’s the best way to store coffee beans for lasting freshness?
So once you’ve got your coffee beans home, how should you store them? “The two primary enemies to coffee freshness are oxygen and light,” says Michael Phillips, of Blue Bottle Coffee. “Keeping coffee fresh means adhering to three principles: Decrease air movement, limit temperature fluctuations, and avoid exposure to sunlight,” he explains. As long as you plan on using your coffee within about a month, MacDougall tells me that pretty basic storage will do just fine.
You may not even have to look further than the coffee’s original container. “Good roasters often package their coffee in bags with built-in resealable zippers,” he says. Many of those resealable bags also feature special valves that help preserve freshness. “Our bags have one-way valves. These are great because they keep oxygen out and let the carbon dioxide that is escaping from the beans be released,” says Pratt.
If your coffee doesn’t come in these types of bags, or you prefer to have a dedicated container for your beans, you’ve got options. Pratt and Graff both recommend the Fellow Atmos containers, which come in three different sizes, two metal finishes, and a clear glass option. The tops of these containers feature a pump that sucks the oxygen out, and the two metal finish options protect the beans from light. These can extend the life and freshness of your coffee beans if it takes more than a couple weeks to make your way through each bag.
For those of you who go through beans regularly enough to buy fresh every two to four weeks, any airtight container will do. “Mason jars, repurposed bottles, or a sealable plastic bag can also be used,” says Phillips. “If you don’t have a container that’s light proof as well as airtight, you’ll want to store these containers in a place that's consistently dark, like a cupboard or a pantry.”
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but this means that the coffee grinder you’ve got with the built-in storage isn’t actually ideal for storing your beans. “Most grinders aren’t airtight so storing coffee in your grinder hopper will cause coffee to go stale more quickly. It can also cause oil to build up inside the grinder,” says Phillips. But wait, if it’s good enough for the coffee shops, why isn’t it good enough for my home kitchen? “A good coffee shop will empty all grinder hoppers every night, clean the hoppers, and store the coffee in sealed containers,” says MacDougall. The next morning, baristas refill the containers with properly stored coffee beans. MacDougall also recommends cleaning your coffee grinder at home regularly.
If you love your coffee with floral, fruity, or any other subtle flavors, do your best to keep the beans protected from light, oxygen, and big changes in temperature. But there is one other piece of advice that came up in every conversation I had with coffee professionals. Buy smaller quantities of beans more often—your cups will taste better that way, and you’ll get to visit your favorite local coffee roaster more often.
This story originally appeared on Epicurious US.