What Does Fresh Coffee Really Mean

I was giving a presentation to a group of 75 students on my coffee business. This was in an Entrepreneurship MBA class at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. I was trying to make the case for my business idea, which wasn’t really even an idea at that point. I had been running the business for a few months already, testing it out to see if anyone would actually buy coffee online. The point of the presentation was for a select few, who had an idea, to pitch a business that they wanted to build, to garner support and recruit a team (fellow classmates) to see which ideas created excitement and which were duds. The professor warned us to not be too disappointed if we ended up with little interest in our idea, requiring us to join another team. During the presentation, I kept stressing the point of differentiation of my business model: delivering fresh coffee to homes and offices within 4 days of roasting. With some of the group, the idea of freshly roasted coffee resonated and they were on board! They got it. Obvious coffee junkies, always seeking a better cup of Joe, they understood that fresh coffee meant using fresh beans which have been roasted within just a few days and brewing it properly.


With others, though, I really wasn’t feeling it. It seemed as if they weren’t fully understanding the business model and why anyone would go through the hassle and pressure of quickly roasting like coffee orders together only after receiving actual sales, not roasting ahead of time based on anticipated demand.


So, I thought I’d check for understanding by asking the question: what does fresh coffee really mean?


I paused and waited through uncomfortable silence. With furrowed brows, the group explained that they weren’t understanding how the coffee they make at home every day wasn’t already fresh if they just made it. They just bought their coffee from the store a few days ago. How much fresher could it be? That’s when I realized that a huge gap exists between what many think fresh coffee is and what it really means.


In fairness, I think fresh coffee really does comprise all of these viewpoints. Coffee should be bought frequently, in small batches, and drank within a few minutes of brewing. There are, however, some points of clarification that should be made to further explain what fresh coffee really is and how to enjoy the coffee you brew that much more.


Perishable good


Fresh coffee starts with the beans you use. Period. The single best way to have truly fresh coffee is to buy high quality whole beans that have been roasted within 21 days. Right after coffee roasts, it “degasses” for approximately 3-4 days. This is the bean’s natural reaction to the roasting process. During this short period of time, if the beans are used, they will taste stale and like store-bought coffee. At around day 4, the degassing stops and the beans reach their peak somewhere between days 4 and 21. Starting at around 3 weeks, beans start to decline in freshness and by week 4, they start tasting stale again. Roasted coffee will taste best if used between days 4 and 21 after being roasted. Coffee is a perishable good, like bread and bananas. We’re so used to the stale taste of coffee, we’ve come to expect it to taste this way. Bread shouldn’t be hard and moldy. Bananas shouldn’t be brown and mushy. Coffee shouldn’t be stale.


Roast dates


The coffee we buy in stores usually doesn’t have a roast date on the packaging. What you may see are best by dates. A good rule of thumb is to subtract a year from the expiration date. That usually tells you when the coffee was roasted. If after doing the math the coffee was roasted greater than a month in the past, you’ll know the coffee is stale. The problem with supermarket coffee is the distribution channels the coffee has to go through get to the store. It has to be roasted and packaged, shipped to a store chain’s central distribution hub, then it has to be shipped to individual stores, but not until they need to restock their shelves. This lifecycle can take weeks if not months. That’s why the freshest coffee you’ll usually find in stores, doing the math by subtracting a year from the expiration date, is about 3 months old. Which seems reasonable, but knowing what we now know about freshness, 3 month old coffee is 2 months stale.


Pre-ground coffee


Never buy prepackaged ground coffee or grind your own in a grocery store or coffee house. Ground coffee goes stale within 30 minutes of grinding it. If you grind coffee in the store, using their complimentary grinder, it’s likely stale before you even get home (they don’t clean their coffee grinders so you’re mixing in years of old stale coffee). If you buy prepackaged ground coffee, it was stale before it even left the roaster (don’t forget everywhere the beans have to travel to traverse the store’s distribution channel).


What isn’t fresh coffee?


Some think that scooping their own beans or bagging coffee themselves equates to fresh coffee. Coffee shops sometimes store these beans in big clear containers by the register. This is the same concept as those clear, eye-level bins in the grocery store where you can bag your own coffee to purchase. Both tend to position the freshness of the beans by advertising them as “freshly scooped” or “freshly bagged”. When coffee is scooped or bagged doesn’t make it fresh or not fresh. The question shouldn’t be “when was my coffee scooped or bagged?” but rather “when was my coffee roasted and how much time has passed since roasting?” Coffee stored in these clear bins is likely months old (not to mention, if the bins aren’t airtight and are repeatedly opened for “freshly scooping,” harmful oxygen will make the beans stale in no time).


Some think that fresh coffee means brewing up a fresh pot. This is part of making great coffee, but if fresh coffee beans aren’t used, it doesn’t matter how fresh the brew is, it won’t taste fresh. This would be like baking a dessert using old ingredients. Sure, it would be freshly made, but it likely won’t taste very good!


Others think that fresh coffee means drinking a freshly made batch within a few minutes and not reheating their coffee. That is part of making fresh coffee. The problem with reheating coffee in the microwave (and I’m guilty of this too, having two small children sometimes calls for desperate measures) is that the chemistry of the coffee changes when it’s reheated. The same thing happens with coffeemakers that use a warming plate. These brewers are literally cooking the coffee that is kept on the warming plate for hours, quickly changing the physical chemistry makeup and rapidly altering taste. Drinking freshly brewed coffee is part of making great coffee. It should never be reheated and should be consumed within 30 minutes of brewing (at the most!) but even this isn’t what fresh coffee is all about.


All in


I think my presentation clicked with the class when I gave this analogy. Imagine your whole life you’re used to drinking stale soda from warm 2 liter bottles. You’ve been told the staleness makes it “strong” and provides a “kick” to wake you up in the morning. Then one day, someone cracks open an ice cold can of soda and pours it over ice into a glass and hands it to you. It’s the same soda, only it’s not stale and warm. It’s ice cold. Perfectly carbonated. Do you see the difference? Would you ever go back to 2 liters?


When I was done, and the class was drawing to a close as teams started to form and many presenters showed little to no support for their ideas, I surprisingly ended up with the most interest out of all of the ideas that were pitched. In fact, I had too much interest, so much so that our professor had to split up all of the students gathered around me who wanted to be on my team to even out the other business ideas.


Although the presentation went well, I couldn’t help but wonder as I drove home about the few people in the class that still remained skeptical. I wasn’t able to connect with them and they didn’t get what I was doing. I wondered if my talk would in any way change how they think about their daily cup of Joe.

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