company - education - coffee

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why is fresh coffee so confusing?

This is one problem this industry really needs to get in gear on. We have this muddled idea of fresh ending at fresh roasted. Even the most transparent and progressive roasters are a bit vague on how far coffees are from harvest and that presents a crossroads for our industry.

When I think of fresh, there are four parameters: harvest, roast, grind, brew.

Harvest fresh being within 3-4 months off milling from parchment state or progressively packed in 'non-jute' to preserve that fresh flavor profile. From 4-7 months off harvest, coffees will be fine but aromas will already begin to diminish. 6 months and on, you are pushing how well the coffee can hold up and the acidity will diminish or turn rancid. Forget the soft coffees from places like Brasil or Colombia, they will be long gone by then. Wood, paper, lacking aroma... Do I really need to explain this again?

Roast freshness is the boutique industry(the online cognoscenti and niche roaters) standard. This seems to be the only way most 'Specialty' roasters distinguish themselves from the major chains. While most aggregate to the 2 week mark, a handful put best by dates going as far as six months out. You can almost guarantee these roasters have a market at a Whole Foods type grocer where turnover is hard to control. No roast date though, no idea of freshness.

Grind is a shop to shop issue. While more and more shops are grinding fresh or on demand, a lot of shops are still using the auto feature and filling hoppers or pre grinding drip brew. Whether the blades are serviced or sharp is another issue. As a home user, unless you absolutely cannot afford a grinder, there is no excuse for pre grinding coffee. Think of it this way: The bean is the final package and once it's open, all the flavors can escape.

Brewing fresh is a classic pitch that goes way back. Everyone has experienced the poor flavor of a pot that sat too long.

How important are all of these factors really? Do the customers care?

In the common market place, probably not. When you are asked to justify paying a bit extra for a shot or you are requested to splurge a bit at a cafe, yes. Not every shop in every market place can make these points matter but if one boutique roaster jumps in the deep end on all these points, it's likely many others will follow. Think about what that would mean for the purists among us wishing to really treat certain coffees like high end teas or begin to glimpse the wine model of labeling and marketing. A few bits and pieces to chew on while you think about what goes in your cup.