by Ted Stachura
As with many subjects related to coffee you will find a variety of opinions regarding freshness within the coffee industry. Take for example the question of storage, for every roaster that recommends storing your coffee in the freezer or refrigerator there are many more that perish the thought. No matter the number of roasters that extol the virtues of hermetically sealed, nitrogen flushed, one way valve bags, there are few industry insiders that would argue it is better to purchase just of one week’s supply of freshly roasted coffee at a time, whole bean, of course, and grind just before brewing. The three, six, twelve or, yes, believe it or not, even eighteen month shelf life suggestions sometimes made by large roasting companies should be reserved for fallout shelters and hermits whose mountainous cave dwellings are not served by local mail delivery or Federal Express. (Although the latter would be better off purchasing green coffee, and roasting it over a camp fire.)
When the discussion switches from brewed coffee to espresso our collective agreement on freshness diverges further from this arguably common understanding. Anyone who has ever pulled a shot of espresso with coffee straight from the roaster, whether on a home or professional machine, knows that it produces less than satisfactory results. This begs the question, what is the ideal time to wait between roasting and brewing coffee as espresso? I posed this question to a group of professional baristas who just competed against one another in the 2010 United States Barista Championship. The baristas in question are: Southeast Regional Champion, representing Counter Culture Coffee, Lem Butler; Midwest Regional Champion Mike Marquard from Kaldi’s Coffee, and Pete Licata, the Western Regional Champion who currently plys his trade at the Honolulu Coffee Company.
Let’s look at the easy answer first. If we take the average, this group concludes that one should wait about a week, give or take a few days, before pulling shots. This conclusion is based on the experience of working with the same groups of coffees on a daily basis over the course of years, as well as the rigorous preparation regiments needed to compete seriously in regional and national barista competitions. Lem sums up the ideal range of time coffee is at its peak for espresso brewing as, “6-8 days sealed in its original packaging. Once the packaging is opened and the coffee is exposed to air, the storage time decreases drastically.” Pete adds, “…once a coffee hits its peak it has between 1 and 3 days before the flavors, body, and aroma start to fade.” So it appears that with coffee purchased for espresso, just as with coffee purchased to be brewed by other means, our lesson continues to be, buy fresh coffee frequently. Mike also finds “that anything much over 20 days off the roast really starts to flatten out – both visually and on the palate.”
Mike suggests that the average consumer wait “…at least 3 days from roast before brewing any coffee as espresso.” Although for barista competitions, he prefers to store his coffee in a sealed bag for, “9-11 days off the roast, and then one extra half-day open.” Pete states that, “The ideal resting time for espresso always seems to vary from coffee to coffee.” So, the more complicated answer, as Pete suggests, is to, “Pay attention to your coffee and you will find its best window.” To illustrate this point, when considering an assortment of espresso blends from Counter Culture Coffee, Lem finds that he prefers, “…Espresso Toscano rested at 8 days; espresso Rustico at 7 days; espresso Aficianado at 6 days and espresso La Forza at 6 to 7 days.” I told you this would get a little complicated.
What’s with all the variation, you may be asking. A clue can be found in Lem’s belief that it “depends on how long the coffee was roasted.” Pete notes that there are, “major variations in the amount of expelled gas based largely on the roasting technique.” Lem continues this thought by adding, “Longer roasts build more gas inside the coffee bean … Pressurized brewing and lots of gas will produce bubbles inside the crema of the espresso as it extracts. With so much CO2 trapped inside the coffee beans, it will take time for the gas to part leaving the beans to develop more of the sweetness and brightness.”
This context helps explain the variance in the ideal amount of time to wait before brewing coffee as espresso as compared to other brewing methods. Pete adds that “most roasters use a different roast profile for espresso versus standard coffee. Because of this the resting time may vary.”
To summarize, the best results when brewing espresso are based on experience and practice. You don’t need years of professional barista experience to figure out how long to wait before brewing espresso coffee. All you need to do is purchase high quality, fresh roasted coffee and try pulling shots every day over a period of time. After a while you will come to your own conclusions and preferences. And hopefully you will always be drinking espresso coffee at its peak of freshness.