What to look for when buying roasted coffee beans
What to look for when buying roasted coffee beans
Making the choice of not buying pre-ground coffee is truly liberating. Even without looking too closely into it, it’s obvious for anyone that buying whole bean coffee is a much better option for many reasons. But today we’re going to focus on buying coffee that has been roasted recently- as demand for good coffee increases, more and more roasting companies are beginning to pop up, promising good, local roasting (instead of roasting overseas, then shipping).
Ideally, when you buy coffee online, you want to get freshly roasted coffee. Products that don’t specify when they are roasted or, even worse, where they are roasted, are far from attractive. But the question needs to be asked: how long is coffee good for after roasting?
Well, to answer that question we need to separate whole bean coffee and ground coffee:
Whole Bean Coffee
This is the ideal way to get your roasted coffee. If not ground right away and stored under the right conditions (dark, dry, sealed container) they can keep up to 6 months; more if kept in the freezer, being able to last up to one year. Freshly roasted coffee beans are said to peak in flavor about one to two weeks after roasting.
Pre-ground coffee is the only viable option for those who don’t own a grinder; however, it comes with a big risk. When coffee beans are ground, they are much more vulnerable to oxidation (which means, basically, going stale) since they aren’t protected by the bean’s hard outer layer. Ground coffee can last up to three months if stored properly, but the usual shelf life of ground coffee is one month - which is why most ground coffee bags come in small sizes, to preserve the ground coffee longer.
Coffee trivia: roasted coffee’s origin story
How exactly did we end up roasting coffee beans? After all, coffee beans are but the pit of the coffee fruit (or cherry), which also contains caffeine. Did people have that much free time to just start roasting the pits after they’d eaten the fruit?
This story goes back about 500 years. The story can’t be proved, but it seems to be the one that’s stuck:
A priest was on a pilgrimage, walking alone from Morocco, in northern Africa, all the way to Yemen, which is just off the coast from Eastern Africa. Passing through Ethiopia, he was meditating when a herd of goats happened to be feeding. A bunch of them fed on these berries he’d never seen before; before long, the goats were playing, jumping, energized. He tried the berries and felt the same effects. Being a religious man, he thought these could be useful for meditation and prayers, so he brought them with him.
Upon sharing them with other priests at his destination, they felt the effects, but thought that this was sure to be some unholy thing (remember when you had your first coffee?), so they decided to throw the remaining pits into the fire. And that was the plot twist: as the beans roasted, the smell of freshly roasted coffee completely filled the monastery, and they had no choice but to reconsider.
To this day, written evidence remains of Sufi monks using coffee as a performance enhancer during hours-long meditation sessions.
To roast coffee: art in its own right
We have come quite a long way from casting beans into the fire, and roasting is widely held as complex, sophisticated practice. While most of us associate baristas with the art of some sort, roasting beans requires in-depth knowledge of all aspects of coffee; how was it grown, what variety is it, what flavor you want to achieve… The roastmaster, as they are called, have to be aware of the past, present, and future.
The roast is a very well-studied process: like a movie, it can be broken down into three separate acts:
Act I: The drying stage
Here, the green beans must lose all their moisture before the real roasting can begin. They will lose their color and shrink rapidly. After five minutes, they will have acquired a noticeably brown color, and upon hitting the 10-minute mark, they will start cracking or popping: a sound much like that of popcorn, bean after bean cracking like a domino effect. Here, we go on to the next act:
Act II: Development stage
Here, the true flavor of coffee is unlocked. Several chemical reactions are going on during this stage, like the Maillard Reaction, which has sugars interacting with amino acids to create new aroma and flavor. The natural sugar found in the beans will also start to caramelize due to the heat, creating naturally sweet flavors. At the end of this act -around 16 minutes- a second crack will ensure, this one much quieter than the first one, though just as important.
Act III: Pyrolysis
Meaning “separating via fire”, this stage will further create new flavor thanks to the heat, which will heat a peak during this stage. Extreme heat will make the acidity go away, though it can also make flavor and aroma fade away.
The bean is now dark brown, starting to become darker and darker. This stage can be cut short depending on what roast you are trying to achieve: 20 minutes is more or less the standard for dark roasts.
Now, the beans are either packaged or ground and then, with some luck, swiftly delivered to your door for your enjoyment.