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Store Your Coffee Properly to Keep It Fresh


Mmm, coffee. Ever since I was little and my mother and I would go to the local Coffee and Tea Mart for fresh pasta, coffee, and the New York Times, I wanted to drown in the aroma of fresh roasted coffee beans. Heaven's scent may not be far off from a fresh batch of roasted Guatemalan Antigua!
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I still go to our local gourmet shop to get my coffee, scone, and Wall Street Journal, and I relish the aroma of a fresh-roasted coffee bean from the moment I walk into our store to the moment I get the brown paper bag home. Only now I know more.
My mother used to get the fresh roasted coffee ground at the coffee shop because she didn't like to grind coffee at home (it was a hassle then, with the shabby blade grinders of old). So, the aromatic bag would stay perched on our kitchen counter until it was emptied and the time had come to buy another bag. And, true, our car and home would have trace scents of freshly ground coffee for several days after bringing home the bag. But, little did we know then that the smell of coffee was really the taste escaping!
Okay, it's not that simple. But, it is true that when coffee is ground, more surface area is exposed to air. The multitude of new surface areas begin exchanging gases with the ambient air, and after several days, no matter how the grounds are stored, the coffee is considered by most connoisseurs to be stale.
A few days! Yup. But that's just ground coffee. Even if you get coffee beans, you have to take care to store them correctly or else your beans will go stale rapidly. What to do? You should be able to store a pound of beans for several weeks without a significant amount of flavor being lost.
So, now the question is how to store those beans. Tradition has it that you store them in the freezer. This was thought to be a good idea because it retards the oxidation process. This is not a bad process, but it comes with a few caveats. First off, if you freeze the beans and don't pre-portion them, you've merely delayed the inevitable for the rest of the beans you don't use that day. You don't ever want to place beans back into the freezer; just as you wouldn't refreeze thawed meat or fish. Second, when frozen beans are pulled out, moisture in the air will immediately form condensation on them, so they will need up to a full hour to warm and dry, as you do not want to put any kind of moisture into your burr grinder. Keep in mind that while a kitchen freezer can preserve properly packaged coffee beans (read: airtight), it preserves them at their current level of freshness. A deep freeze (minus 40°F) will preserve the beans much longer, but they will require more warm-up time.
Some view refrigerating the beans as an alternative to freezing them; however, it's just a bad idea. Coffee behaves very similarly to baking soda in that it will absorb any odors it comes into contact with. If you've ever been to a fancy soap or scent store, you may have noticed they keep jars of coffee beans for you to sniff and cleanse your nasal palette. You don't want the smells of your food getting into your coffee, so play it safe and store your beans elsewhere.
An alternative to freezing the beans is storing them in airtight containers in a cool dry place, which will keep them from oxidizing as quickly. A method we like to recommend is placing half (or two-thirds, or three-quarters, etc.) of your fresh beans in the freezer in an airtight container, and placing the other half in an airtight container in a cool, dry place (ie, most kitchen counters). This is how you are going to store your coffee beans once you thaw any frozen batches, so you may as well get used to the practice with the coffee you don't freeze.
If you must store grounds, follow the same instructions as are listed above, only note that the freshness time for ground coffee is just a fraction of what it is for beans.
Little did I realize, as an eleven-year-old boy, that the wonderful aroma that followed our bag of coffee beans was really the grounds oxidizing and causing the beans to rapidly grow stale. What a treat it is today to be able to impart a nugget of wisdom onto my own mother! And I hope I've shared something new with a few readers, too.