Green Coffee Freshness: How Old is Too Old?

Pondering Claims that Green Coffee is “Fresh” for Years … way back in Y2k!

(Note: this is a very old article questioning the claims that existed at the time in the coffee trade about green coffee freshness. Of course, since then the understanding has changed completely, and we now import 100% of our coffee with a high barrier liner material inside the jute bag to protect the coffee in transport and for storage. But I am encouraged to see this was something that was already being questioned back 20 years ago! -Thompson)

As of late, I have begun to question the notion that green coffee is a commodity that seems to have a longer shelf life than Plutonium by some accounts. This comes from the sole experience that can make the determination of the actual life of green coffee based solely on quality: blind cupping.

Subsequently, I began to see that the idea of 2-5 year claims of coffee freshness in the green form is made to the great advantage of those who move around containers of the stuff, and to large commercial roasters who will blend a stinky past-crop coffee into their trademark blend because they could buy so many thousand tons of it for 50¢ under the “C” market price (that is, CHEAP!).

But such notions of freshness do not benefit the small quality-oriented roaster of estate and single-origin coffees, nor the consumers that are at our mercy as we act as “arbitrators of taste” on their behalf.

In general, nobody who has a financial stake in a shipment of coffee wants to see it age. Coffee sold as “Specialty-Grade” has large premiums attached to it that are based on the cup quality as agreed upon by a buyer and seller. If the pre-ship sample does not match the arrival coffee, the container can be rejected at a HUGE loss to the exporter.

And in fact, green coffee is a DRIED SEED, extremely dense (try biting a green bean with 11% moisture content grown at 5500 feet -you will break a tooth) chemically stable, not porous, and incredibly impervious when you compare it to its roasted form. Yes, its like other dried seeds or beans a person might store in their pantry. Then again, we ask a lot more from this bean that we do from a dried Pinto Bean or Brown Rice!

The tastes associated with age are hard notes, namely bagginess: a burlap-like taste. It belongs to a family of defects where the fats in the coffee absorb odors over time and the degradation of the lipids in particular. The bean structure degrades too, stored probably in too hot or too cold temperatures, losing its moisture content as time goes by. Moisture may also be liberated from the coffee only to condense in a container, which can form an environment where bacteria and mold can possess the coffee.

The standards for age are not going to be uniform from continent to continent, region to region, and cup to cup. Two coffees can possess the same amount of off-taste in the cup, and one will be passable while another will be intolerably defective. A bright acidy coffee will fade, and become insipidly mild …if it takes on baggy notes, these will be very obvious and very contradictory to the cup character of the coffee. A Sumatran that features low-acidity, body, and depth, with some degree of earthiness or mustiness will disguise the baggy tastes quite well. It will be VERY apparent in the appearance of the coffee, but the cup will be more passable.

In fact, this is the basis for Aged coffees; they are after all SERIOUSLY degraded, defective cups. But the quality is excused because the consumer is seeking the smoky, aggressive character intended to be both mellowed and pungent at the same time. (And in fact, Aged coffee is NOT old coffee: it is aged with care by rotating the bags or otherwise rotating the coffee to even out the moisture distribution and prevent any bad things like mold from developing. It is done in the county of origin, usually at some altitude to avoid extreme temperature or humidity fluctuations. It is expensive since the costs to age it is great, the reward delayed, there is labor involved and the risk of possibly turning out a rotten cup of coffee after 2-3 years! I have seen people pass of old coffee as aged coffee —this is nothing short of fraud! Example: “Aged Swiss Water Decaf Sumatra Gayo Mountain”!!!)

Another complication: How was the coffee stored as it was getting old? The worst case is that it sat in a humid hot warehouse in New Orleans, bagged in jute. This is common for commercial-grade coffees that are sold and resold by speculative buyers. But coffee can also be stored in Parchment (the outer-silverskin layer, also called Pergamino) at the farm or mill (hopefully at a temperate location at altitude) and fair quite well for 6-9 months. But only the best coffees will get such treatment!

Lastly, let’s talk about age in terms of months… It is commonly stated in the trade that green coffee is Past Crop once the New Crop from that origin has arrived in the U.S. … and Past Crop coffees are often discounted for quicker sale. But that means a roaster buying a Past Crop coffee from a broker might have it a year in his own storage before roasting it all. That makes the coffee very old for ANY origin, and the cup will suffer.

In fact, Current Crop coffees can show a serious loss in quality in the cup and baggy defective notes. Early shipments of Centrals that are green-tasting in the cup when they arrive, often machine-dried to get them to market quickly, will degrade in 5 months in my experience (1998/99 Costa Rican Tarrazu Papagayo cupped in July, 3 months after I sold out of it. —Yes, the cup was nice on arrival but I think this was one of my buying mistakes!)

So, as a general rule I sell out of every coffee we stock within 5-6 months of it having arrived in the US. I avoid certain early-picking of Centrals. I cup the coffees every month to see if there is any sign of age coming on… and NEVER buy a coffee that might show a sign of degraded cup character. My standard is that the coffee should get to the customer and be consumed within the year …I have a 5-6 month window, and the customer gets 5-6 months. In fact, we move through our stocks of coffee much quicker than this. The Sumatra Mandheling is re-cupped and repurchased from newly arrived lots 4-5 times per year!

I promise that I am attending to the age and cup-quality of my coffee at all times. I urge you to query any coffee supplier about when the coffee they have arrived in the US (NOT when it arrived at their shop). Crop year should be available for all coffees, in my opinion. And ideally, we would all know about the date it was milled, how long it was rested in Pergamino too, and if it was shipped promptly from port. But this is a bit too much to ask, even in the internet age, of our venerable old trade at this time …

Yes, I get complaints from customers that “the Kenya selection is poor” or “where’s that Guatemalan” or “why only 2 Costa Ricans”. The answer can be deduced from reading this: I will NEVER stock an origin just because I need it on the list: I will only stock it based on cup quality. I urge other small specialty coffee business to treat coffee as a crop, to be willing to tell customers “No Kenya” or “No Costa Rican” rather than purchase a coffee you know is peaked. It will only make the arrival of that truly great Costa Rican that much more significant. In the meantime, they can try other bright coffees that ARE at their prime.

And we need to stop listening to the Big Boys …Have you ever had a coffee with incredible piquant, zesty bright notes that was roasted 6 months ago in a 4-Bag Jabez Burns, water quenched, ground, and packaged in Pillow-Packs when it was convenient in the production schedule? Let me know if you did, brother…

Lastly, these are my opinions… let me know if you disagree. Tom 3/24/00

Also, see these posts:

Green Coffee FAQ

Product Guide: Roasted & Green Coffee Storage

Green Coffee, Defined

10 Responses

  1. So I happened upon this article after googling “What is the shelf life of green coffee beans?” I’m still not sure but it was a really informative article. I just want to know if I buy a pound of green coffee beans, how long can it be in my cupboard before I roast it? (yes, I am very new to the vast world of home coffee roasting, grinding, & brewing but I have drunk the stuff for years)

  2. How do aromatics fare versus flavor/body and how does this vary by process (e.g., dry)? In my experience it seems like the fruity notes from Ethiopian dry process coffees fade quickly – and it seems for about half the year I have a hard time finding dry-process coffees that show strong rustic fruits – is this your experience?

    1. Hi Aaron. Every coffee is different so it’s hard to say but sometimes a loss in flavor might be a lot more noticeable if the flavor notes were very up front to start off with (like in dry processed coffees). Coffees with more subtle flavors can sometimes age more gracefully.

    1. Not necessarily. It depends on if we have received a new shipment of that coffee yet.

  3. I am a relatively new home roaster. I have noticed some beans develop a shiny patina or oily surface at deeper roasts, while others retain a dry appearance no matter how deep the roast. Does this have any bearing on the freshness of the green beans?

    1. Hi Jack – Thanks for the question! The level of roast really determines if you might see surface oils, not the age of coffee. Imagine the interior structure of the coffee bean as a kind of honeycomb of pockets… when coffee enters second crack (darker roast levels) the walls of those pockets ruptures, and then oils can be driven to the surface of the bean, largely by the outgassing of CO-2. This can take a few days in some cases though. In a light roast those walls of the “honeycomb” interior are more intact, and while oils have formed in roasting, they tend to stay put. Now there is a relationship with age. Old, past-crop coffee, often pale in color, will tend to enter second crack sooner, and at a lower temperature. If I normally measure first crack at 440 f, an old coffee might start second crack at 430f (first crack will do this too, start sooner, at lower temp, on old coffee). It also has a different sound sometimes, and the crack is very rapid. This is because with age the coffee is dry ( and structurally weaker perhaps too). Coffee bean structure is quite literally wood (cellulose and lignin) in its basic composition, so think of old well-seasoned dry wood. Fresh coffee with higher moisture level has a prolonged drying phase in roasting, old coffee ignites sooner, like dry wood. Anyway… long explanation here … -Tom

  4. Hi, I’ve had several pounds of your green coffee stored in my pantry, away from light and extreme temperatures, in the original plastic bags they came in, for about 22 months now. Have they spoiled? Or just lost some flavor?

    1. Yes, but not in the way other perishables would go bad. It will still taste good but not as tasty as fresher coffee. This could be a good opportunity to compare what older and fresh coffees side by side.

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