Once green coffee beans have been roasted, the gradual loss of freshness begins. Its delicate aroma will start to fade, while the replacement of carbon dioxide with oxygen will cause it to become stale and “flat”.
For specialty roasters, it’s important their coffee is at its best when it’s consumed. A bad tasting or bland coffee will put off repeat customers and could affect sales if word spreads. Not only that, it is also a waste of the time and effort given by all those involved in the coffee’s production.
However, with effective packaging, specialty roasters can minimise exposure to external factors and extend their coffee’s shelf life long after it’s left the roastery.
Read next: A guide to preserving the freshness of roasted coffee
Why is your coffee’s shelf life so important?
Although specialty roasters go to great lengths to carefully source and roast the best quality coffee, guaranteeing when it will be brewed can be difficult.
However, each coffee has a peak window after roasting in which it should be consumed if it’s to be enjoyed at its best. For some coffees this is a matter of days, while for others it could be several weeks. If a coffee is left for too long after its peak, it will start to lose its flavours and aromas, becoming bland and flat.
This is what’s known as shelf life, a broad term used to describe the length of time for which coffee is suitable for consumption. It is determined by a range of factors, including roast profile, processing method, and whether the coffee is ground or whole bean.
Shelf life is closely linked to freshness and the impact that degassing has on the quality of coffee. When coffee is roasted, it builds up carbon dioxide (CO2), which is gradually released (or degassed) in the days and weeks that follow. As this happens, aromatic compounds come to the surface and escape, while oxygen replaces the CO2 and causes the coffee to break down.
If coffee is allowed to lose its freshness, its flavour will typically degrade and it will often take on an unpleasant taste that masks its distinct characteristics. Customers expecting a bright, interesting coffee will inevitably be disappointed, leading to a loss of repeat sales and long-term damage to the brand.
For specialty roasters who sell coffee on-demand, for example through a website or a subscription service, shelf life isn’t usually an issue. But for those whose dominant revenue stream is via grocery stores where their coffee could sit on the shelf for an indeterminate period of time, they need to take every measure available to prolong it.
What affects the shelf life of roasted coffee?
Roasted coffee has four age-old enemies: oxygen, moisture, heat, and light. While it should be given some time to “breathe” after roasting, long-term exposure to any one of these external factors will quickly cause it to lose freshness and become stale.
Exposure to oxygen (or oxidation) occurs as a result of the degassing process, in which oxygen replaces CO2 that has escaped and causes the compounds in the coffee to change. Research shows that for every 1% increase in a coffee’s oxygen levels, there is a 10% increase in degradation rate.
If a coffee’s packaging is damaged or unable to keep out external factors, for example because the material is too thin, then the coffee’s shelf life will be significantly reduced. This is particularly true of dark roasted coffee, which tends to degas considerably faster than lighter roasts.
Whether a coffee is ground or whole bean also affects the shelf life. When coffee is ground, the surface area increases, causing a quicker release of CO2, and hence a quicker process of oxidation.
According to Java Presse, for ground coffee it takes just 30 minutes to reach the point where freshness noticeably declines. It’s for this reason that baristas tend to grind only small batches of coffee at any one time.
What to consider when choosing coffee packaging
Today, flexible multilayer pouches have significantly extended the shelf life of coffee. Sturdy, versatile, and high barrier, they prevent exposure to external factors and protect the coffee on the journey between roastery and consumer.
However, not all specialty roasters will require the exact same packaging. The design and components of your pouches will largely depend on the way in which you plan to sell your coffee.
For example, those who plan to sell through supermarkets and grocery stores will need to factor in the relatively long period of time the coffee will sit on the shelf. Unlike coffee sold directly from the roaster to the consumer, it can take weeks if not months for the coffee to be bought and brewed.
As a result, the packaging will require a degassing valve to ensure the released CO2 is able to escape. A degassing valve is a one-way vent that can be fitted to coffee packaging either before or after manufacture. Without them, the coffee would either go stale due to exposure to oxygen or result in split packaging.
You should also use the space on your packaging to communicate information to customers. Details such as techniques for extending the shelf life of the coffee at home can slow down the loss of freshness.
Roast date should also be displayed to inform customers how long they should wait before brewing. However, most supermarkets will avoid this inclusion as it can put off customers looking for “fresh” coffee. Instead, they will display a “best before date” usually set 6-12 months after the roast date.
Freshness has become one of the pillars of third wave specialty coffee. As a result, it’s the roaster’s responsibility to prolong the shelf life of their coffee and ensure it’s still fresh when consumed.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of multilayer sustainable coffee packaging for roasted coffee. Our packaging is flexible, sturdy, and high barrier, helping to protect and preserve your coffee, no matter how long it spends on the shelf.