Coffee's "best before" date
I'm hoping you can help me out. I do not profess to being a coffee connoisseur, however, I as I understand it, roasted coffee does not have an extended shelf life.
I am confused when I read that roasted coffee specialty coffee such as Kicking Horse and Starbucks has a "best before" date stamped on their bags. The thing is, they are for around July 2008 and it's only November 2007.
Now I am aware that good bags and the C02 valves allows roasted beans to be bagged right after roasting but I've always been under the impression that beans start to loose their freshness and aroma after the roast. Now I am aware that they have no been exposed to air if they aren't open, but a 9 month "shelf life" seems almost bizzare.
While most likely these beans will never reach the nine month mark I am confused about this date. Is it true that these beans will produce "good" coffee nine months from now if properly packaged or is this more of a marketing ploy to get consumers to think this is top-quality coffee since it lasts so long.
Artisanal roasters in the US will generally tell you coffee is best consumed from 3-10 days after roasting, sometimes out to 14 days.
The important thing to remember here is that the roasts being discussed by artisinal roasters are typically lighter roasts which are designed to highlight particular flavors and nuances of the ingredients while avoiding aggressive tastes imparted from the roast itself.
Many of Starbucks' most popular beans don't have this issue because they're roasted beyond nuance to the point where almost all you do taste is the roast. I imagine you could open many bags of Starbucks dark roasts in 2010 and they might not taste all that different than today.
FWIW, Illy states their proprietary packaging method allows ground coffee is stay fresh up to two years (actually stating claims that aging improve the flavor, allowing volatile aromas to mingle with natural oils). I know plenty of pros who study and take Dr. Illy at his word on a lot of subjects. But not on this one. Then again, I don't know anyone who's tried a two-year old can of Illy.
I think this is a case of cockeyed optimism, or more likely slick marketing. In my experience, the coffee in these bags does stay "good", if unopened, for at least six months or so. It does, however, begin to get worse than it was when roasted almost immediately, and it makes a slow slide to less tasty. It's a really long time, probably longer than 9 months, before it would be undrinkable or unpleasant, but the simple fact is, the longer you keep it, the less good (and by good I mean subtle, or interesting, or different) it will be.
A real catch 22 here. Chances are that any coffee that had a good till date, is not a very interesting coffee to begin with. You usually wont go too far wrong by sticking to coffee that has a roast date on the package. Try to buy coffee that is no more then a week from the roaster, you should be good to go.